Tasting Barolo Chinato

Paul Blow

I was tasting wines yesterday with Giovanni Minetti, general manager of Fontanafredda, an esteemed wine estate in Italy’s Piedmont region. We were tasting through his Barberas and Barolos (2001 and 2004 were epic vintages—buy everything you can get your hands on), when I noticed that there was something small and unassuming hiding behind the forest of bottles he had brought. It was a bottle of Barolo Chinato.

Barolo Chinato is a Piedmont delicacy, a treat for lovers of both spirits and wine. Pronounced “barolo kee-NOT-oh,” the digestivo is a medicinal spirit like Fernet-Branca, Chartreuse, and Jägermeister, but with less alcohol. It’s made using one of the world’s greatest and most precious red wines, infused with a standard set of roots, herbs, and spices—though there are countless variations, because many Barolo producers make their own versions.

Minetti told me that “producers have [mostly] kept their Chinatos for sale and trade at home, not exporting them. That is changing, though, and there are a few of us that sell our bottles overseas.” He said that the concept of Barolo Chinato goes back to a single inventor, Giuseppe Cappellano, a 19th-century pharmacist and gourmand (a good combination if you’re prone to overeating). Cappellano was evidently a great lover of Barolo wines and believed that the drinking of fine aged wine could have therapeutic effects. So he went to work in his lab, using botanicals to augment his favorite drink.

Foremost, Minetti told me, Cappellano added quinine bark (hence the word chinato), as well as things like gentian, clove, cinnamon, and wormwood. The whole concoction was sweetened with a little cane sugar and allowed to age in barrel. The result is something with a slightly medicinal taste, but also an alluring spice, a comforting sweetness, and the beautiful, ethereal cherry notes that come from the Nebbiolo grape that makes Barolo. “It’s good to sip after a meal,” Minetti said, “and even better with chocolate.”

The Fontanafredda version is rich and full-flavored, though surprisingly light on the tongue. The quinine flavor (which you might know from tonic water) is present, but well-integrated and unpronounced. After the tasting, I went home and dusted off a bottle of Barolo Chinato that I had received as a gift a few years ago. I was surprised to see that the producer was Cappellano, the family of the original inventor.

I opened it up; the liquid inside was rich and viscous. Pale and rosy, it had the translucence of a very old wine, but the spiced aromatics flew out of the glass, as did that irresistible cherry. It went down smoothly, relaxing and warming. The stuff is expensive, about $70 per bottle, but I know that I’m going to drink it slowly and keep this precious spirit for a long time.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.