‘Sno(w) Joke: A Tale of Barbera, Barriques, and Hard Winter in Asti

I love Barbera. I think it’s one of the world’s greatest, most versatile food wines. Its juicy acidity and vibrant cherry fruit enable it to partner happily with any number of dishes. I was really looking forward to the Barbera Meeting, an annual March event in Asti for journalists, this year disconcerting everyone with an unexpected foot of snow.

Winter was hard: cold vineyards photographed from inside a warm room

This year’s meeting also had a new feature: an online, live, by-the-moment feed to its own blogsite, barbera2010.com. The Barbera Boys (and one comely woman), a group of young American bloggers collected by Jeremy Parzen, would do their best to keep up with the flow of wine and news all week long.

They even stirred up a lot of local interest, not least by saying plainly how unhappy they were with the oakiness of most of the wines. La Stampa reported this aspect of the event for two days running. That oak constituted Asti’s second great disappointment, after the relentless snowfall. Where was my beloved Barbera juiciness and raciness? Where did all this oak come from? (The answer to that was all too obvious.)

The perturbation of the bloggers on this point was very welcome to me and my New York colleague, Charles Scicolone, who might otherwise have seemed lone voices crying in the wilderness. (If Jeremy and his gang were the Barbera Boys, Charles and I must have ranked as I Babbi di Barbera, or maybe even I Bisnonni.)  But I’m getting ahead of myself: First you need to know a little about the occasion.

The whole Barbera Meeting was orchestrated by the wonderful women of Wellcom (Thank you, Marinella prima e seconda, Annalisa, Federica, and Marta, for all your help) and sponsored by the Asti growers’ Consorzio. A battery of sure-handed Italian sommeliers presented the guests (ungrateful ones, as it turned out) with 35 to 65 wines each morning in a blind tasting.

Most of us are looking out at the snow, waiting for the sommeliers to start pouring

Each such session was followed either by visits to various wineries in the differing Barbera zones – Asti, Nizza, Monferrata, Alba – or by presentations about Barbera by enologists and producers. Each day concluded with a stand-up tasting with the producers of the zone visited, followed by a frequently delicious but always overlong dinner – so we got back around midnight, with blackened teeth and tongues, to the hotels we’d left that morning at 8:45. It takes guts – in many senses – to be a wine journalist.

As I said, I had looked forward to this Barbera Meeting with almost cliché-keen anticipation. I’ve loved Barbera in all its forms, from the simplest quaffing version to the more complex, single-vineyard, low-yield, carefully barriqued specimens that the Braida estate pioneered with its now-benchmark Bricco dell’Uccellone. Unfortunately, there is now increasing interest throughout the whole Barbera kingdom in turning the wine into something bigger and more substantial, into – to use the word we heard endlessly during the meeting – an important wine.

This meant that the wine most producers sent to the blind tasting, for us to sample at our breakfast of champions, was not their simple Barbera but their “important” one – and what quickly became clear to us all was that, in Asti, the road to importance winds through a forest of oak. Now, it is a fact that Barbera, because it has so few tannins of its own, can deal with barriques better than most Italian varieties can. But barriques, which are a recently-arrived technology in most Italian wine zones, need very careful management. A little oak can ruin a lot of wine, and we tasted a lot of ruined wines in Asti. Oak should give structure and nuance to a wine. It shouldn’t replace the grape as the primary flavor component. Unfortunately, in the blind tasting most mornings, we smelled oak on the nose, tasted oak on the palate, and chewed oak in the finish. It wasn’t Piedmont Barbera: it could have been any wine from any grape made anywhere.

Worse: when various journalists – both bloggers and the quill-pen brigade – asked the producers about “all that oak,” we were answered with first evasions, then denials – one winemaker told me that I couldn’t, couldn’t, taste any wood in his wine, when that was all I could taste – and even hostility. Commendable passion and pride, perhaps, but mighty poor public relations – and a wasted opportunity to hear what a knowledgeable segment of its audience was telling them.

Whiteout: the snowstorm at its worst

Fortunately, there is a brighter side to the story. When we had the chance to sit down with winemakers one by one and taste through their whole line of wines, we invariably found that they all had that gorgeous, juicy Barbera we were looking for. It was almost always the wine they showed us almost apologetically as their “basic” Barbera, their “entry level” wine. When pushed, they also usually admitted that this was the wine they themselves drank all the time; the one we were getting in the morning was the one they made “because the market wants it.” Since we journalists represented the international market (we were from all over the US and the UK, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Russia, Croatia, and a half dozen Asian countries) and we hated those wines, there seemed to be a major disconnect here.

Happily not all the producers were so perversely market-mad. Fabrizio Iuli, who is a craftsman of Monferrato Barbera, probably keeps his wines in barriques longer than anybody else in the zone – but you can’t taste the wood in his wines, just gorgeous Barbera juice. That clearly shows that it isn’t the oak that’s at fault, but the hand that wields the oak. Iuli’s answer to a question about that should be engraved on every winery wall in Asti: “It is a very trivial idea to think that oak makes a wine important.” 

Fabrizio Iuli in his Barriccaia

In defense of the traditional Barbera that we all love as opposed to the internationally-styled, heavily-wooded Barbera that supposedly the market wants, Jeremy Parzen posed a simple, devastating question. “If Italian food conquered the world,” he said, “why can’t Italian wine?” 

I think it could, if the makers would simply let it be Italian and not francocalifornicate with it.

21 Responses to “‘Sno(w) Joke: A Tale of Barbera, Barriques, and Hard Winter in Asti”

  1. Armada Media Blog Facts - Says:

    [...] SPIT: oak; BITTEN: the hand that feeds Seven bloggers went on a sponsored trip to Piedmont to taste some wines made from the barbera grape. They were served oaky “important” wines and juicy, entry-level ones. Their criticism of the first category was so loud that it made paper (local and national)! Tom Maresca, also at the Barbera meeting, has the tale. [...]

  2. Leisure Nouveau Says:

    Heavy Oak Tests Italian Wine Journalists…

    I read on Dr. Vino’s Wine Blog about a meeting of Italian sommeliers, wine journalists, and wine bloggers who were given blind tastings of a variety of fine Barberas.  It doesn’t seem like too much of a surprise that the……

  3. Wine Bent » Baboons, biting hands, Bordeaux disarray, sommeliers – sipped and spit Says:

    [...] SPIT: oak; BITTEN: the hand that feeds Seven bloggers went on a sponsored trip to Piedmont to taste some wines made from the barbera grape. They were served oaky “important” wines and juicy, entry-level ones. Their criticism of the first category was so loud that it made paper (local and national)! Tom Maresca, also at the Barbera meeting, has the tale. [...]

  4. charles scicolone Says:

    Reading your artice was almost like sitting next to you tasting the wine!
    My impressions were almost the same-great article

  5. karinfstr Says:

    Hello Tom,

    Greetings from Ponzano Monferrato !

    It was a pleasure meeting you in Asti. That was some week! And now I can finally laugh about the winery tours, negotiating through the Monferrine snow mess…it’s all gone now. We tasted some good Barbera.
    I have some photos of you and Charles that I want to send on.

    Please visit me at Piemontèis Life

    http://piemonteislife.wordpress.com

    Wishing you all the best,
    Karin
    karinfstr(a)yahoo.com

  6. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Good job, Tom. You wrote what had to be said. Perhaps they’ll get the message.

  7. The Barbera affair: what really happened that snowy night in Nizza « Do Bianchi Says:

    [...] The Barbera affair: what really happened that snowy night in Nizza The following is my account of the events that took place on Tuesday, March 9, 2010, during Barbera Meeting 2010. The facts, ma’am, just the facts. See also the account published by Tom’s Wine Line. [...]

  8. Cory Cartwright Says:

    I sure wouldn’t invite us back. Perhaps seven barrel coopers can blog the event next year?

    Also great to meet you Tom. Hope to see you and Charles again in the future.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      They need you guys back, Cory. The Asti Barbera zone is trapped in a time lag. More prestigious Italian wine zones have already worked through their infatuation with heavy oak, have learned how to use it judiciously, and are putting out wines that have a polish of oak elegance without the overpowering taste of oak. Barbera d’Asti needs to be prodded up the same learning curve, and I think you bloggers, with your ability to generate immediate attention, are the guys to do it.

  9. Baboons, biting hands, Bordeaux disarray, sommeliers – sipped and spit : Wine Blog Reviews Says:

    [...] SPIT: oak; BITTEN: the hand that feeds Seven bloggers went on a sponsored trip to Piedmont to taste some wines made from the barbera grape. They were served oaky “important” wines and juicy, entry-level ones. Their criticism of the first category was so loud that it made paper (local and national)! Tom Maresca, also at the Barbera meeting, has the tale. [...]

  10. Marcela Says:

    I am Argentine-Italian and I lived in Milano for three years. I love gorgeous wines that carry their terroir with them and the tendency to over oak everything and mask varietals with oak- sometimes with” commercial yeasts or chips!- just makes me feel angry and nostalgic at the same time. i just hope that what you and some other wine critics have told these Italian winemakers about this tendency- maybe to get higher scorings on popular wine magazines in the US- will make them realize that that way they are losing their portion of the market as anyone anywhere could make the same wine. I still keep my hopes high that the glorious Piedmont wines will not be lost in an oak cask.

  11. Thor Iverson Says:

    And thanks for taking one for the team during the question period, Tom. I figured we digital malcontents had already caused enough trouble. I doubt we had any effect at either end, but I at least hope they heard us.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thor: from what I’ve heard leaking back from Italy, I think we were heard — at last. Old timers like Charles Scicolone and myself have been chanting the no-oak mantra for some time now, but I think the addition of you wave-of-the-future bloggers may just have tipped the scales. Speriamo, eh?

  12. DailyPour Says:

    Scandalous and at the same time kind of sad.

  13. Alfonso Cevola Says:

    Mighty fine writing Tom. Now that you are blogging, perhaps soon you will start adding links too. It’s not part of the quill-pen brigade, but it is a major part of the bloggy-blog world, even for I Babbi di Barbera.

    I bet your mustache started to look like Charlemagne’s beard, with all those young Barberas smooching up to you in the early hours of the mornin’, eh?

  14. Ingvar Johansson Says:

    Very interesting report. It seems like you all did a good job and have started an important discussion. I wonder if the bloggers will be invited back though

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      I certainly hope so. Even though some producers were annoyed, the bloggers did the right job: they were consistently honest and straightforward — and that’s all you can ask of any journalist. And, hey! they drew attention to the event and the wine, and that is not insignificant.

  15. fredric koeppel Says:

    Tom, thanks for a well-reasoned and accurate summary of events during the Barbera Circle of Hell last week. I loved Iuli’s pinot nero!

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Fred: I very much liked all of Iuli’s wines, except maybe the barbera/nebbiolo blend. The Monferrato zone and the Alba zone saved the whole week for me.

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