Herbalism, the treatment of illness using plants, is where the history of modern medicine begins. For many millennia, people developed a deep understanding of which plants provided relief from a variety of maladies. Creating tinctures, tonics, balms and salves using the leaves, bark, and roots of plants was integral to society’s well-being. The practice of herbalism continues today and is a thriving market.
No people were more involved with herbalism than the Italians and careful attention to the number of digestifs available at your local wine & spirits shop is a testimony to this fact. The sheer number of Amari and Liqueurs is staggering.
One that stands out from the pack is Barolo Chinato, a potion that steeps the bark of the cinchona tree to create a magical and pleasing elixir, believed to have many beneficial medicinal properties. The cinchona tree is native to South America and extractions from the bark were first used by the Quechua people of Peru and Bolivia to treat a variety of illness, including malaria and arthritis. The primary compound present in these extracts is quinine, found as the sharply bitter flavor in tonic water. Quinine has been a recognized treatment for malaria going back to 1820, although the compound was taken off the primary treatment list by WHO in 2006.
The importance of quinine as a medicinal treatment in Italy was pioneered in the 1650’s by Pietro Castelli, the distinguished Roman physician, and botanist. Pietro wrote over fifty pamphlets extolling the virtues of quinine, including recipes for a variety of bark extracts. In characteristically frugal Italian fashion, enterprising winemakers in Piedmont seized on an opportunity to use Barolo wine that was too old to be sold at market as viable table wine. Taking guidance from Dr. Castelli, Barolo producers leveraged non-viable table wine to steep cinchona bark and other flavor ingredients to produce a digestif/elixir that harnessed the curative properties of quinine in a flavorful drink. And Barolo Chinato was born!
While there are several Barolo Chinato wines on the market, the original pioneer was Giulio Cocchi, patriarch of the producer that bears his name. Casa Giulio Cocchi was founded in 1891 in Asti and has truly been a trailblazer for this almost cult-beverage. Giulio was the first producer to establish “authorized retailers” where saleable product could be tasted by a curious public. Recognizing that the flavors of many of his products were new and quite distinctive, as well as having medicinal benefits, Giulio set about creating a global distribution network that spawned outposts as far west as Caracas Venezuela. Thus, the most well-known Barolo Chinato and the wine by which all others are measured is Barolo Chinato Cocchi.
It should be noted that, like many Amari and Liqueurs on the market today, their flavors are not for everyone. This is especially true for Barolo Chinato. While the wine itself is sweetened to make it more palatable, the overriding flavor characteristic is quinine. Because quinine is so evident, there are folks who definitely scratch their heads upon taking a sip, wondering why anyone would make such a wine…
It is a truism of wine and food pairing that the wine should always be sweeter than the food served. For this reason, Barolo Chinato finds a perfect partner in bittersweet chocolates and cocoas. The pairing is so noteworthy that in 2007 Cacaococchi was founded to promote the research and production of luxury chocolates that utilize Barolo Chinato as an essential ingredient.
Unfortunately, like anything that purports to have medicinal qualities and that is produced in a unique and labor intensive process, the cost is not cheap. Average retail for Barolo Chinato Cocchi is approximately $50 for a 500ml bottle. However, digestif wines are meant to be sipped in small quantities after a meal, so the bottle should satisfy for several seatings.