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Louis Oudart, the French oenologist who invented Barolo. Or did he?

01 Dic

The “Oudart thesis”

There is a widespread belief that Barolo (by which term I mean the modern style, a red dry wine made from Nebbiolo grape in the surroundings of the town bearing the same name) has been invented by a French oenologist from Champagne, Louis Oudart. The story is reported by many reliable sites like Diwine Taste (here in English) or AIS Lombardia (the Lombard division of the Italian Sommelier Association) and even the recent “History of Wine in 100 Bottles” by Oz Clarke crowns Oudart as the inventor of this iconic wine (I still don’t understand how it is possible to write a book on wine history without any bibliography or references, but that’s another story).

This theory, taken as fact by many, was popularized by Manescalchi and Dalmasso’s “Storia della vite e del vino in Italia” (History of the vine and the wine in Italy), first published in 1937. I could not examine the original book or one of its later editions, but the story goes more or less like this.

Just before the half of the XIX century (around 1843) the famous Camillo Benso Count of Cavour, aiming to improve the quality of his wines, called Oudart to his estate in Grinzane. The count had a deep interest in agricolture and saw the technical improvement in this field as functional to support the kingdom’s finances. He was also Minister of Agriculture and Commerce for the Kingdom of Sardinia from 1850 to 1852.

Camillo Benso, count of Cavour

Camillo Benso, count of Cavour

Juliette Colbert of Maulévrier was one of his acquaintance: a noble woman born not far from Nantes, she was married to Carlo Ippolito Ernesto Tancredi Maria Falletti di Barolo (also known as Tancredi Falletti, marquis of Barolo). The two were a very good couple and though they never had any child they loved each other dearly. Juliette (Giulia Falletti di Barolo after marriage) also liked a good glass of wine, but the one produced in the Barolo area had too much residual sugar and was probably fizzy: Nebbiolo is a late ripening grape and the must fermentation probably stopped in winter to restart in spring, rarely coming to its end. Italy had still to achieve greatness in this field and its wines could not rival the french nectar that Juliette longed for.
She then consulted with his friend Camillo Benso asking for advice and the count introduced her to Louis Oudart, his french enologist. Louis Oudart examined the Falletti estates (in the area of Barolo) and corrected the wine making process by giving a number of advices, recommending to control the fermentation temperature in order to avoid residual sugar in the final wine. The Marquise was so satisfied by the result that she started promoting it passionately. Thanks to her the wine entered the court of Carlo Alberto of Savoy, king of Sardinia and prince of Piedmont, conquering the monarch and pushing him to acquire an estate in Verduno to start his own production.

When I first read this story I was very intrigued: as I wrote in the first post of this blog, many people wrongly perceive the history of italian wine as a long and uninterrupted line linking the Roman Empire with what we drink today. Too many Italians ignore the debit our wine has towards France. What would have been better to highlight this than crediting two French, Oudart and Juliette, for the invention of Barolo itself?
I started searching for sources and found a fantastic book from Anna Riccardi Candiani, “Louis Oudart e vini nobili del Piemonte” (Louis Oudart and the noble wines of Piedmont). My intention was too write a simple post re-telling the story and presenting some evidence, but the reality was a bit more complicated.

To tell the life of Louis Oudart the author has made deep researches, consulting archives and original documents from the civil registry of Reims, Bordeaux, Genova, the archives of the Royal Academy of Agricolture of Turin and others.
Louis Oudart was not just an enologist moved by academic interest, he was a wine merchant based in Genova leading the Maison Oudart et Bruché. In Burgundy we would call him a négociant, buying grapes or wine in the Ligurian and Piedmontese backcountry, bottling it and selling the final product. He had came to Italy with his cousin Jacques Philippe Bruché and had started his activity in Genova because of its healthy and flourishing french community. He was of course competent in his job and knew much about grape growing, but did not receive any special call by Cavour or Juliette Colbert.

At page 47 Candiani presents her shocking revelation (my translation):

Since many years the vox populi identifies Oudart as the inventor of Barolo wine. He would have been supposedly called by Giulia Colbert in Falletti, french like him, to work in the cellars of Barolo. Even though I made extensive research in archives and libraries, I did not find any document crediting a link between the enologist and Barolo. I am sorry to disappoint the supporters of this rumor and I must declare that the story has no basis.

The book is short (126 pages), but very informative and entertaining. If you can read italian I heartily recommend it.
Candiani tells us that Louis Oudart corresponded for some time with the Royal House and negotiated for the grapes produced in the estate of Pollenzo (personal resort of king Carlo Alberto). His 1844 Pollenzo featured in an international fair of London in 1862 with excellent results, but the parts could not reach an agreement over the price of grapes and the collaboration didn’t go further.
The enologist seems much more involved in the production of  Nebbiolo from Neive, today in the Barbaresco area, where he worked as an advisor for the count Camillo Bongiovanni di Castelborgo. The dry 1858 Nebbiolo from the maison Oudart and Bruché was particularly appreciated at the 1861 national exposition of Firenze and at the London International Exhibition of 1862: it had been made from grapes made into must and fermented until completion. An innovative technique, though it is difficult to establish if Louis Oudart has been the first to introduce it.

The “Staglieno thesis”

So if Oudart is not the inventor of Barolo, who is the father of this wine? One of the main suspects is Paolo Francesco Staglieno, a retired general who worked as enologist in the Pollenzo estate (the same with which Oudart had negotiated unsuccessfully the price of the grapes) and Grinzane, where he was called by Camillo Benso of Cavour in 1836 (and stayed until 1840). (1)

Supporters of the “Oudart thesis” often cite Staglieno by claiming that, although he was active in the same period in the area, his style of Barolo was “abboccato” (medium sweet), as opposed to the alleged dry Barolo of Oudart. This is much strange (and probably wrong) because Staglieno in his “Istruzione intorno al miglior modo di fare e conservare i vini in Piemonte” (Instructions on the best way to make and preserve wines in Piedmont, 1837) clearly states at page 68 that the best wine is made by fermenting the must to completion, without leaving any residual sugar. If he put, as it is very likely, his theories into practice and provided that he used 100% Nebbiolo, he could legitimately be called the inventor or at least one of the earliest vintners of modern Barolo. (2)
I could not find any documentation attesting the use of Nebbiolo in Grinzane, but writing about the estate of Pollenzo Staglieno confirms that the majority of the grapes grown there were in fact Nebbiolo and adds that wines made from this variety must age at least for four years before becoming enjoyable to the palate. (3) Pollenzo is in Bra, outside the area of modern Barolo production, but Staglieno shows appreciation for the grape and he may have employed it in Grinzane.

Conclusion

I started my research with the intention of making a simple post on Oudart, Juliette Colbert and Barolo, but in the end I could not find an answer to the question “Who invented Barolo?”.
Was it Staglieno? Maybe, though we cannot exclude the presence of someone else, unrecorded by history, making a dry red wine from Nebbiolo in the Langhe before him. Probably it is like trying to find the inventor of the méthode champenois: was he an english merchant, a monk from Limoux or what else? Impossible to say.
What we can say is that the XIX century was a very exciting period, one which really shaped the wine we drink today. Knowledge on how to make good wine was being passed all over Europe (and beyond), reaching the rolling hills of central Piedmont where people slowly started to improve their product by lengthening fermentations, giving more care to winery hygiene and choosing more suitable grape varieties. The disaster (oidium, phylloxera, peronospora) was behind the corner, but the seeds were being planted and the fruit is inside our glasses every day.

(1) Here a fantastic source on Staglieno. His presence in Grinzane is attested in a letter by the count of Cavour from September 22nd, 1836.

(2) Notice that today Grinzane is legally inside the Barolo wine area.

(3) The aforementioned resource on Staglieno at page 130 reports the extract, sourcing it from the Archivio di Stato di Torino (AST, Casa di S.M., M. 2591/1. Verduno 16 december 1839).

 

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Pubblicato da su 1 dicembre 2015 in Italian Wine, Wine history

 

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