What happens when you combine one of the world’s most sought-after red wines with the dry bitterness of a gin and tonic? The answer: Barolo Chinato. Annie Hayes headed to Piedmont in northern Italy – the home of aperitif and sparkling wine producer Cocchi – to find out more…

Unless you’re a bartender, Italian, or really like wine, you might not be familiar with Barolo Chinato: a quinine-forward aromatised wine made from the nebbiolo grape. But if you’re keen on an after-dinner tipple, or (like me) have a penchant for bitter-sweet tinctures, you might well be missing a trick.

Barolo Chinato is made by combining a secret extract of spices and herbs – cinchona calisaya bark, rhubarb, star anise, nutmeg, orange peel, liquorice, camomile, cinnamon, fennel, rose petal and more – with a touch of sugar. The mix is fortified with alcohol, and then married for five years, resulting in a rich yet refreshing digestif that pairs perfectly with chocolate*. And at the very heart of it lies Barolo wine.

While Barolo Chinato was already something of a traditional tipple in 20th century Piedmont, Giulio Cocchi “was the first person to bottle it” Francesca Bava explains. “It’s been the most famous Cocchi product for many, many years, especially here in Piedmont. Every restaurant – and most houses – have a bottle of Barolo Chinato.”

Many of those bottles will come from the fermented juice of grapes grown in the vineyards of Cru Scarrone, located in the very heart of the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) Barolo region. The estate, owned by Bava’s family since the 1980s, is packed with rows upon rows of nebbiolo vines.

VineyardPicturesque, no?

By law, the entire Barolo wine production process must take place there, she explains. “Not just the farming and the vineyards, but also the winemaking. We have a small machine for wine pressing and we age all the wine in barrels on this estate.”

Grape crusherThe grape crusher is hungry

The estate produces between 3,000 and 5,000 bottles of Barolo each year, depending on the weather. Pruning the vine is key to its longevity. The grapes must hang relatively low, to benefit from the warmth of the soil at night; the leaves must be bountiful at the top of the plant, to protect the bunch from burning. Nevertheless, Mother Nature occasionally lets loose.

“Last year we had a very small production, because of the weather in spring,” says Bava. “We had a lot of ice, so the plant was damaged by the frost. Other years we’ve had heavy rains. The quality and quantity changes a lot. You need three kilos of grapes to make one bottle of wine.”

GrapesProtect the grapes!

When it comes to red wine, Barolo has long been regarded as one of Italy’s finest. According to the DOCG, Barolo must aged for at least 38 months, of which at least 18 months must be in wood. Until the 1980s producers in the region were “very, very traditional”, says Bava, “making the wine in the same way, without much innovation, preserving the quality”. Then, the new generation started a revolution.

“The younger generation of Barolo producers, the famous Barolo Boys, started to fight with their parents because they wanted to use different kinds of barrels,” explains Bava. “In the past you couldn’t really drink Barolo before 10 years, and they wanted to make a Barolo which was easier to drink at a younger age by using different kinds of barrels.”

Ageing vatsThe ageing vats of Cocchi

They started incorporating French barriques into their production; unheard of at the time. Now, “more or less all the producers” age wine in larger, traditional barrels and smaller barriques, “and mix the two to make a wine which is enjoyable in five years and 50 years as well.”

From fermentation to barrel toasting – and even the number of times you should break the thin veil of hardened grape skins that forms on the top – every winemaker has their own sworn-by strategies. Once the mandatory 38 months is up, the liquid is transferred to the Bava Winery in Cocconato.

Since three years is the minimum ageing requirement – not the absolute ageing requirement – often the oenologist will decide to let the wine linger if it’s to be bottled straight from the barrel. The family’s youngest Barolo is currently a 2010 vintage. And as for the oldest?

“We’ve had the farm since the 1980s, so they start from then,” says Bava. “They’re incredible, they change a lot in colour, they evolve incredibly, from one year to the other they really feel like a different wine.”

CasksSlumber away, tasty wines…

Perhaps the Bava family would consider fortifying a barrel or two? We’ve got a chocolate truffle with Cocchi’s name on it…

*If there’s one thing that Italian people are very skilled at, it’s pairing two very tasty things to make one supremely delicious thing. In Piedmont, those two things are Barolo Chinato and gianduja (a sweet hazelnut chocolate spread that dates back to the 1800s).