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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.