Chinato - the Bitter Barolo             

The Italian liqueur, Chinato, or as it's more formally known, Barolo Chinato, originated - not surprisingly, given its name - in the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy. Chinato (key’ not toe) is still produced in the Langhe area of the Piedmont, the same area where Nebbiolo grapes are grown for the production of the celebrated Barolo wines, Italy’s “king of wines.”

Barolo Chinato can trace its roots back to the late 19th century when, as tradition has it, a pharmacist from Serralunga d’Alba by the name of Giuseppe Cappellano, originated this liqueur by blending numerous herbs and spices with aged Barolo wine sweetened with a touch of sugar. As a pharmacist, he was interested in developing a medicinal remedy for a variety of ailments such as the flu, colds, headaches, upset stomach as well as baby colic. It quickly became a commercial success and found favor with all segments of Piemontese society, young and old, rich and poor. While commonly praised as a digestivo, an after-dinner liqueur to sooth the stomach and aid digestion, it is also used as an aperitif as well as a dessert wine to accompany certain rich desserts, especially those with a chocolate flavor.

While very popular in Italy, Chinato, like other Italian bitters and spirits such as Amaro, has yet to catch on in the U.S. The reality is that this liqueur is not going to be to everybody’s liking. A vermouth-like fortified wine made with spices and herbs, including quinine, and bittersweet flavors and an austere finish is not going to appeal to everyone. However, those with an adventuresome spirit and cultivated palate will find a tumbler of Chinato to be something special, a distinctive and enticing pleasure not soon forgotten.

Barolo Chinato is a class of spirits called liqueurs, or cordials, which are made by macerating a mix of herbs, fruits, spices or botanicals in a base liquor, which could be anything from neutral grain alcohol to brandy or even whiskey. Typically, the mixture is sweetened by the addition of a little sugar.

In the case of Chinato, Barolo Chinato starts with a base of neutral grain spirits that is then judiciously flavored with numerous, herbs, spices and botanicals including quinine bark (which is china in Italian and, hence, the source of the drink’s name, Chinato). Other ingredients may include cinnamon, vanilla beans, star anise, gentian, rhubarb root, fennel, juniper, citrus peel and cardamom, among other herbs and spices. There is no set recipe for Chinato and the exact combination of ingredients utilized is a closely guarded secret of each producer.

The herbs and spices are left to macerate in the base alcohol in order to extract flavors for a period of time after which the elixir is added to fully matured Barolo DOCG wine. The mixture is then transferred to oak barrels where it is left to age for at least one year after which it is bottled and released for sale. Some producers will leave the wine mixture to age in oak barrels for longer periods to give added depth of flavor.  Only natural products – as opposed to artificial ingredients and flavorings – can be used in the production of Barolo Chinato. Because the process is meticulous, painstaking and lengthy, Chinato tends to be expensive.

However, it’s worth the effort. The result is a liqueur that combines the complexity and power of aged Barolo with the engaging aromas and depth of flavors attributable to the herbs and spices. Amber-colored with a ruby-red edge, it has a plethora of intense herbal and spice aromas. While the initial sip may have a slightly medicinal aspect, it smoothly segues into a succession of alluring fruit, herb and spice flavors and closes with an appealing bittersweet finish. However, since each Chinato producer has their own special recipe, there are as many versions as there are producers with each one different in some subtle way from all others.

Bottles of Barolo ChinatoLike Barolo wines, Barolo Chinato will age gracefully and become softer over time as its flavors evolve and tannins abate. Barolo Chinato is traditionally served in a small tumbler at room temperature at the end of a meal. It can also be used as a dessert wine to accompany almost any dessert made with chocolate.

Pairing wines with chocolate is very tricky and, I have to admit, I was initially skeptical about how well Chinato would pair with chocolate since the richness of chocolate can easily overwhelm many dessert drinks. So I swung into action and prepared a taste test, pairing a Barolo Chinato by Marchesi di Barolo with a chocolate-covered almond cake as well as with several types of chocolate. I was pleasantly surprised by the results.  The spicy, dark fruit flavors of the Chinato were perfectly suited to the nutty texture and slightly bitter chocolate flavors of the cake. The robust flavors of the Chinato also went surprisingly well with the rich, luxurious mouthfeel of dark 70 percent chocolate. I found that the darker the chocolate (the higher the cocoa content), the better the pairing.

Barolo Chinato can also be used as an aperitivo. A tumbler of Chinato served slightly chilled with the addition of a little ice and a splash of soda and an orange or citrus peel garnish can provide a good start to a meal.

While Barolo Chinato is not always easy to find, any well-stocked Italian wine store should carry one or more Chinato brands. Some popular brands of Barolo Chinato generally available in local wine shops include (in alphabetical order) the following:

Boroli, Barolo Chinato (about $62 for 750 ml bottle)
Imported by Chambers&Chambers Wine Merchants

Cocchi, Barolo Chinato (about $55 for 500 ml bottle)
Imported by Haus Alpenz LLC

Damilano, Barolo Chinato (about $62 for 500 ml bottle)
Imported by Vias Wines 

Marcarini, Barolo Chinato (about $44 for a 375 ml bottle)
Imported by Empson USA, Inc.

©Richard Marcis
March 18, 2012

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