The Barolo Question -- whether or not Americans will take to this classic wine of Italy as they have taken to bordeaux and burgundies -- has yet to be answered. Barolo belongs in every decent cellar and remains well priced even when compared with red Rhones, another characterful but undervalued category.

Barolo is the ultimate expression of the nebbiolo grape, grown in Piedmont in northern Italy and named for the fog -- nebbia -- that rolls into the foothills in the autumn. It is a powerful wine, but by no means daunting. In fact, some of the common associations evoked by barolo -- violets, and faded roses -- are among the most delicate attributed to red wine. (However, it can also be tarry.) Some enophiles even claim to have found hints of truffles, although I've never had such luck.

Barolos tend to be alcoholic, and high in acid. This is good for aging but not always easy on the gut. So robust is barolo that the Piedmontese save the "fondo della b,otte" -- the bottom of the bottle -- for their friends to drink the day after the wine has been served.

Barolo is produced south of

Alba, some of the best coming from

the areas around the villages of

Barolo, Monforte d'Alba, La

Morra, Serralunga d'Alba, Cherasco and Grinzane Cavour. The microclimates in which the grapes are

grown are very important, and

barolo varies considerably because

of this. Monforte and Serralunga

wines tend to be the most acidic

and take the longest to mature. Those from La Morra tend to be approachable earlier than other barolos.

The best recent vintage was 1978 -- full, rich wines that need at least a decade to mature. The '74 barolos, another great year, are just now coming round. 1980 was the first year the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) laws, intended to improve the quality of the best Italian wines, were applied to barolos.

Among the good producers of barolo available here are Ratti, Prunotto, Ceretto and Dosio. The latter, from La Morra, produces a wine somewhere between the booming old-fashioned barolos and those tailored to the contemporary market. The '80 Dosio, not a particularly good vintage, has plenty of barolo characteristics, including a powerful nose, and should be ready to drink within a few years. The '79 is also less than great, but still a good, early maturing wine with a long oaky finish.

The '78 is a rich wine with a lot of staying power; the '74 has taken on the orange tones of age; the '71, still somewhat tannic, has the legendary sweetness of well-aged barolo that lingers long after the wine is gone.