Archive for the ‘Barbera’ Category

2017 Tre Bicchieri Winners

February 16, 2017

On the day of our heaviest snowstorm so far this year, the annual New York presentation and tasting of Tre Bicchieri award-winning wines took place just about half a mile from where I live.

trebicchieri-2017

So I slogged through the flying snow and the street-corner slush to take advantage of what I hoped would be a sparse crowd and a lot of idle winemakers, thus allowing me to actually taste some wines. For the first hour, I was right, and I did have the opportunity to taste some remarkable wines – but then the storm let up and the hordes came in, and my chances for thoughtful tasting ended. I’m happy for all those hard-working winemakers that the Tre Bicchieri tasting is such a popular event, but as a hard-working journalist I do most seriously wish there was some better way to experience and evaluate these wines.

But you’ve heard that lament from me before, and are probably quite tired of it now. Besides, the key thing about this particular tasting is how many top-flight Italian wines it gathers in one room, and I don’t want to let the circumstances of the tasting obscure that. My palate and the collective palate of the Tre Bicchieri judges don’t always agree 100%, but those guys sure get an awful lot right, so a collection of almost 200 top-ranked wines amounts to an event to pay serious attention to, no matter how many people you have to elbow aside to do it.

Not that even under the best circumstances I could manage to taste all 200 in one afternoon, but I did my best to get to a reasonable assortment of old-favorite, regular prize winners and some of the new kids on the block. I was impressed by everything I tasted, without exception. I don’t get the chance to say that often, so let me repeat it: Every single wine I tasted that snowy afternoon deserved its Tre Bicchieri designation. Here are the ones I tried: first reds, then whites.

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red-wine

 

From Basilicata

Re Manfredi’s Aglianico del Vulture Manfredi 2013, a wonderful example of a grape I love

From Piedmont

Elvio Cogno’s Barolo Bricco Pernice 2011, another masterpiece from winemaker Valter Fissore

Bruno Giacosa’s Barbaresco Asili Riserva 2011, one of Barbaresco’s finest crus, beautifully rendered

Elio Grasso’s Barolo Ginestra Casa Maté 2012, benchmark Barolo, as always from this estate

Giacomo Fenocchio’s Barolo Bussia 90 Dì Riserva 2010, macerated 90 days on the skins, with consequent depth and intensity

Oddero’s Barolo Bussia Vigneto Mondoca Riserva 2010, a classic Barolo of a great vintage

Vietti’s Barolo Ravera 2012, a lovely, beautifully balanced wine with potentially great longevity (and I also liked Vietti’s very nice but not prize-winning Barbera d’Asti La Crena 2013)

From Sicily

Palari’s Faro Palari 2012, year after year the best red wine made in Sicily, in my opinion (and the 2012 Rosso del Soprano is right on its tail in quality: It got Due Bicchieri)

Planeta’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico Dorilli 2014, a lovely light-bodied wine, refreshing and vigorous

From Tuscany

Boscarelli’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Il Nocio 2012, as always an elegant, complex wine

Castellare di Castellina’s I Sodi di San Niccolò 2012, graceful and lovely Sangiovese from winemaker Alessandro Cellai

Castello di Volpaia’s Chianti Classico Riserva 2013, medium-bodied, perfectly balanced, with the elegance that always marks Volpaia

Il Marroneto’s Brunello Madonna delle Grazie 2011, as always from this remarkable cru and maker, a very great wine

Mastroianni’s Brunello Vigneto Schiena d’Asino 2010, maybe the best Tuscan wine at this gathering of greats

Ricasoli’s Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Colledilà 2013, a luscious, juicy wine that drinks far too easily

Terenzi’s Morellino di Scansano Madrechiesa Riserva 2013, very young Sangiovese, with this maker’s trademark balance and elegance

From the Veneto

Allegrini’s Amarone 2012, already big and textured

Bertani’s Amarone 2008 and 2009, both still young and evolving, with great depth and the promise of decades of life

Masi’s Amarone Vaio Armaron Serègo Alighieri 2011, a stunning wine from a great site

Speri’s Amarone Vigneto Monte Sant’ Urbano 2012, another fine example of what seems to be a great year for Amarone

Tenuta Sant’Antonio’s Amarone Campo dei Gigli 2012, an infant Hercules

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I doubt anyone is surprised by the fact that Italy is producing so many fine red wines, but for me the best news of the day was how superior so many white wines showed themselves to be. Every single one I tasted had distinct varietal flavors joined to genuine goût de terroir. This for me was the most fun of the afternoon, and I kept switching from big reds to whites of every kind to keep my palate fresh. (It worked for a couple of hours, then I gave out.)

white-wines

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From Alto Adige

Abbazia di Novacella’s Valle Isarco Sylvaner Praepositus 2015, a stunning, fresh, and vigorous wine from a grape of usually no great distinction, this year slightly better than the Abbazia’s normally superb Kerner Praepositus

Produttori San Michele Appiano’s Pinot Grigio St. Valentin 2014, high-altitude, rounder than usual PG – a real dinner wine

Produttori Valle Isarco’s Sylvaner Aristos 2015 – this seems to have been Sylvaner’s year; a lovely, lively wine

From Campania

Marisa Cuomo’s Costa d’Amalfi Furore Bianco 2015, a lovely, fragrant dinner wine coaxed from postage stamp-sized terraced vineyards along the steep Amalfi coast

Fontanavecchia’s Falanghina del Sannio Taburno 2015, lovely, characteristic Falanghina, invigorating and lively

Pietracupa’s Greco di Tufo 2015, medium-bodied and deeply flavored, with strong mineral accents, a fine wine, almost as good, in my opinion, as the same maker’s Fiano di Avellino, which didn’t get Tre Bicchieri

From Friuli Venezia Giulia

Livio Felluga’s Bianco Illivio 2014, a masterful blend of Pinot bianco, Chardonnay, and the native Picolit, sapid and intriguing

Primosic’s Collio Ribolla Gialla di Oslavia Riserva 2012, one of the briefly fashionable orange wines, but better than simple fashion: intense, distinctive, rich, and with the right food incomparable

Russiz Superiore’s Collio Friulano 2015, a lovely medium-bodied, deeply flavored (hints of almond) example of Friuli’s native grape

Torre Rosazza’s Pinot Grigio 2015, what PG used to be, fresh, vigorous, almost rambunctious

From Lazio

Casale del Giglio’s Antium Bellone 2015, distinctive, flavorful wine from an almost disappeared variety that merits preservation (Charles Scicolone has written about this estate here)

From the Marches

Cocci Grifoni’s Offida Pecorino Guido Cocci Grifoni 2013, a lovely wine from a variety that had been in danger of disappearing

Velenosi’s Offida Pecorino Rêve 2014, another fine example of the same grape variety, medium-bodied and mouth-filling; very enjoyable

From Sardinia

Vigne Surrau’s Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Sciala 2015, textbook Vermentino, fresh and bracing

From Sicily

Cusumano’s Etna Bianca Alta Mora 2014, capturing beautifully the volcanic nuances of Etna’s slopes

Tasca d’Almerita’s Sicilia Carricante Buonora Tascante 2015, a very characteristic version of Etna’s great white grape

From the Veneto

Pieropan’s Soave Classico La Rocca 2014, always the finest cru from this consistently great producer

Graziano Prà’s Soave Classico Staforte 2014, one of many excellent cru Soaves from this producer, all fresh, enjoyable and very age-worthy

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There were many more wines to taste, but I had about reached my limit for tasting accurately and for elbowing, so I trudged my way back home through the remnants of the snow storm. I wish I had had the capacity for more, because I’m sure there were more discoveries to be made and reported on. Ars longa, vita brevis. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Non sum qualis eram, etc. You get the idea: I’d do more for you if I could, but . . .

 

 

Pre-Phylloxera Vines: Rare But Not Extinct

September 10, 2015

Along with the potato and the tomato, one of the New World’s most significant gifts to Old World agriculture was the vine louse phylloxera. Every wine lover knows that those tiny root-sucking aphids devastated European vineyards, starting in the late 19th century.

Phylloxera louse

 

Most wine lovers also know that all European vines now grow grafted onto largely phylloxera-resistant American root stocks. That, however, is wrong: Most European vines are so grafted, but not all. The spread of phylloxera through Europe was gradual and uneven, and pockets of phylloxera-free vines have survived in a number of areas, notably Italy and Portugal. The intermittently authoritative Oxford Companion to Wine mentions Hungary (the plain), Listel on the French Mediterranean coast, only one region of Portugal, and Italy not at all – that last an omission all too common in British writings on wine, and one of its most serious flaws.

You may be wondering two things: How did those vines survive? And, does it make a difference?

I’ll answer the second question first: You bet it does! The Oxford Companion observes, in its most condescending manner, that “the uneducated even today” worry that grafting European vinifera vines onto the roots of American vines will affect the taste of the wines produced. That uneducated class includes me for sure, and some substantially more authoritative souls as well – André Tchelistcheff for one.

TchelistcheffYears ago, I had the opportunity to ask Tchelistcheff that very question, and he assured me that the grafting made a very big difference. He cited as an example pre-phylloxera Bordeaux, which he said was very different from what Bordeaux wines are now. For his palate – and that is a palate I would not lightly disagree with – vines on their own roots always showed greater varietal intensity and a more firmly distinguishable varietal character than the same grapes on foreign root stocks.

Common sense of course suggests that that the vine’s root should influence its fruit, but I am even more persuaded by the experience of my own tastings of wines vinified from vines never affected by phylloxera and cultivated on their own roots. Most recently, at a dinner with some friends I tasted Cogno’s Pre-Phylloxera Barbera, and an extraordinary experience it was.

Cogno BarberaBarbera is always a fruit-forward, acid-driven wine, but this bottle of 2011 was fatter, rounder, more intensely fruity, with a vivid berry-like character far more marked than I had ever experienced in a Barbera before. And we all agreed that at four years old, this bottle was still too young to really show what it had: There were depths still to develop. It was just an amazing bottle of wine; no wonder winemaker Valter Fissore dedicated it to his father-in-law, Elvio Cogno.

The Alba area, where the Cogno vineyards are located, is a bit far north in Italy to find phylloxera-free vineyards, though Marcarini also produces one, a Dolcetto, Boschi di Berri. It was first vinified by Elvio Cogno when he was the winemaker at Marcarini (now you see the point of Fissore’s dedication of his wine). The great majority of such sites (at least so far as I know now) occur in Campania, where Feudi di San Gregorio has undertaken a project called I Patriarchi to identify those vineyards and hopefully have them registered as some sort of national treasure or agricultural patrimony.

guastaferroGuastaferro, whose wines I have written about several times here, cultivates 2½ hectares of over-150-year-old Aglianico vines, all pre-phylloxera and all still on their own roots; I find the Taurasi he makes from them outstanding for its intensity and purity of line.

In the Benevento area, Pallagrello Nero, Palagrello Bianco, and Casavecchia have been re-established from a few surviving pre-phylloxera plantations. Many of the wines from the Campo Flegrei zone near Naples are vinified from the abundant pre-phylloxera vines surviving in that area. That includes, by the way, both whites (usually Falanghina or Coda di Volpe) and reds (usually Piedirosso). Local growers don’t make a big fuss about it, because for them it’s a fact of life, the way things have always been.

How these vines have survived is relatively easy to explain: sand. The phylloxera louse can’t survive in sandy soils, and fortunately vines can. (Tough critters, vines, and highly adaptable; and so, often, are their progeny: Remember that the next time someone tells you that wines are living things, and therefore delicate. Wines, like vines, can be tougher and more durable than many people think.) Phylloxera lice also don’t like many volcanic soils, especially those rich in sulfur – and Italy has a lot of those, in some cases even overlapping with or interwoven with sandy soils, especially in Campania. The result is exactly what you might expect: many areas of vineyard, some small, some quite extensive, that have never been touched by phylloxera.

Why haven’t we heard about these vines before now, if – as they had to be – they were sitting there all along? That’s a very difficult question to answer, and I can only hypothesize. I can tell you this: Over 30 years ago, I had an assignment to write about old vines in Italy, and I couldn’t do it, because winemakers were unwilling to talk about them.

This was a time when Italian winemaking was undergoing tremendous changes, with many regions scrambling to adopt modern equipment and modern viticulture. There was a widespread frenzy of re-planting “on modern principles.” And I can only shudder at the number of priceless old vines – of who knows what grapes? – that may have been torn up in those years. People with old vineyards, I think, were reluctant to talk about them because they didn’t want to be thought old-fashioned and behind the times. When all your neighbors are ripping out those old peasant varieties and replanting densely with Cabernet and Chardonnay, only a dumb cafone would keep them, right?

It has taken Italian winemakers a long time to overcome a sense of inferiority in the face of the reputation of France and the technology of California. Now an awareness of the richness of Italy’s vinous patrimony has arrived, and with it a new pride in the hardy surviving vines that form so valuable a part of that patrimony. I only hope it keeps on growing, and that we will hear about yet more precious old vines surviving in yet more parts of the vast vineyard that is Italy.

A Final 2010 Barolo Visit: Burlotto

August 7, 2014

Burlotto – to give the estate its full name, Commendatore G. B. Burlotto – is a long-established Barolo producer that I have been late in coming to appreciate. For the last few years at Nebbiolo Prima (the annual blind tasting in Alba at which about 300 producers show their new releases to invited international wine journalists) I’ve been noticing that I consistently score Burlotto’s wines very high. This year I decided it was time that I found out something about the winery, so I arranged to visit. Winemaker Fabio Alessandria hosted me for an afternoon at what turned out to be, to my intense pleasure, one of the most traditional wineries of the zone.

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Fabio and Botti

 

Not only was Burlotto’s cellar filled with fine old botti – the very large barrels of Slavonian oak that have been the traditional wine fermenters and containers in Piedmont at least since the 19th century – but also the family continues to grow all the traditional Piedmontese grapes – Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo – as well as the now-almost-endangered Freisa and Pelaverga. The latter were for me a special treat, because they make wines that are distinctive and always accessible and refreshing, especially after the sometimes daunting task of each morning’s tasting through 50 or 60 young Barolos.

Unfortunately Freisa and Pelaverga are not well known outside their native zone, hence don’t make a big market item, and, hence again, are steadily losing vineyard space to better-known, more easily sellable varieties. That’s yet one more instance of how the very success of wine is contributing to its homogenization. Thank whatever gods may be for steadfast traditionalists like Burlotto.

Fabio led me through a tasting of Burlotto’s extensive line of wines. All remarks within quotation marks in the rest of this piece are Fabio’s comments.

“Giovan Battista, my great-great-grandfather, is considered one of the founders of Barolo.  According to my family legend, he was the first producer to bottle a Barolo under his own name. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but he surely was one of the pioneer small producers. We are still a family farm – 15-16 hectares, mostly in Verduno, plus some others in Cannubi and a few other places. We grow mostly Nebbiolo, but also a little Freisa and Pelaverga in Verduno.”

 

The vineyards of Verduno, northernmost of the Barolo townships. Monvigliero (in brown) is the most important. (Detail from Alessandro Masnaghetti's Barolo DOCG The Official Crus. Info@enogea.it)

The vineyards of Verduno, northernmost of the Barolo townships. Monvigliero (in brown) is the most important. (Detail from Alessandro Masnaghetti’s Barolo DOCG The Official Crus. Info@enogea.it)

 

“We’re close to organic, but we’re not certified organic – no chemical fertilizers, no pesticides. The cellar is very traditional. The work is all artisanal, all done by hand. We don’t even try to control the fermentation temperature too much; we prefer to be as natural as possible.”

Viridis Sauvignon blanc 2013:  Classic nose, with lots of lime, citrus, sage, mint. On the palate, a bit less extravagant, but passionfruit-tasting: sweet and acid all wrapped up together. Very refreshing. A good example of Sauvignon from an unlikely zone. “In Verduno, we have small patches of chalk in some vineyards. That’s great for Sauvignon blanc, which is why we tried that variety here. “

Elatis Rosé 2013:  (45% Nebbiolo 45% Pelaverga 10% Barbera)  Very nice: light, fresh, berry-ish, with a few other fruits mixed in – strawberries and raspberries plus, as Fabio says, “a touch of pepperiness, a touch of peach – but especially the wild strawberry, from the Pelaverga.”  He adds, “Rosés aren’t traditional here. We were the first cellar in this area to produce and bottle one. They are becoming more and more popular now.”

Pelaverga 2013 and 2012:  The nose is very underbrushy, almost wild, especially wild strawberry. Complicated flavor, fresh and very interesting: very lively. All these characteristics very pronounced in the ’12. This is a variety I am really happy has survived. “Pelaverga evolves in the direction of Pinot noir – aromatic cooking herbs, thyme, bay leaf. My grandfather really loved Pelaverga and kept growing it while other people were abandoning it. It’s having a new life now, especially as a lunch wine, for which it’s perfect: light and flavorful, with a little complexity.”

Dolcetto 2012:  Lovely strawberry nose: classic Dolcetto aromas. Very fine: a beautifully done traditional Dolcetto. “2012 was a strange harvest, very warm. The wines turned out very different from our expectations – not fat or big, but more elegant, less alcoholic.”

Barbera 2012:  From vineyards in Roddi and Verduno. Aged in botti. Blackberry, brambly nose. Delightful Barbera fruit and acid: great fun – a perfect Barbera.

Barbera Aves 2012:  A selection of the best parts of each vineyard. Aged in tonneau. A touch of wood on the nose: smoother on the palate than the first Barbera, but still lively fruit. A bit more polished and elegant than the basic Barbera. “An important experiment for us, a chance to vary a bit from tradition. Barbera is more receptive to a little oak than Nebbiolo is.”

Langhe Freisa 2012:  Wild strawberry and raspberry aromas and flavors; fine acid/tannin balance; some elegance: Very fine. Another traditional Piedmont variety that deserves being preserved. “80% of the DNA in Freisa and Nebbiolo is the same. Freisa is the older variety, so it may be some sort of rustic great-grandparent of Nebbiolo. Yield is lower than Nebbiolo and the harvest is later, because Freisa’s tannins don’t ripen as well as Nebbiolo’s.”

Langhe Nebbiolo 2012:  Black cherries and underbrush; on palate cherry and earth notes. Medium body. Very elegant, very composed. “A little raspberry too in the flavor.”

Barolo 2010:  Wonderful black cherry, earth, and tar aroma. Delicious, with pleasing soft tannins, great acidity and freshness. A five-star wine for sure, and this is just Burlotto’s basic Barolo. “We produce four different Barolos. We work very traditionally. Verduno Barolo is more delicate and elegant than other zones, and we try to emphasize that.”

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Barolo Acclivi 2010:  This is what used to be called a riserva – a selection from several vineyards in the best years. More tar on nose – the fabled goudrun – and palate, more structured and less giving now. This one is built for the ages.

Barolo Monvigliero 2010:  “A single-vineyard wine, but one of our most traditional: We crush the grapes by foot, and we don’t always tightly control the temperature during fermentation. Two months maceration on the skins.” Lovely and elegant, with undertones of dried flowers, tar, dried fruit. Silky tannins. Totally enjoyable already, and yet giving every sign of long life ahead of it.

Barolo Cannubi 2010:  Equally as good as Monvigliero, but very different; austere, showing more power and a bit less elegance, but in no way heavy. A wonderful, pure Nebbiolo-fruit finish. Very, very fine: All these Barolos are five-star wines.

So concluded yet another fine visit in Barolo-land, leaving Ubriaco to mourn once again the passing of the days when one could take almost a case of wines onto the plane home as hand luggage.

More Fine 2010 Barolo Visits: Paolo Scavino

July 28, 2014

It was very hard to find a bad wine, even a mediocre one, among the 2010 new releases that I tasted in Alba back in May, so that made my afternoon visits to individual producers (the blind-tasting sessions ran all morning) very pleasurable indeed. One that I particularly enjoyed was to the Paolo Scavino estate, where Elisa Scavino treated me to their whole gamut of Piedmont wines. Scavino is a fourth-generation, family-owned producer.

Scavino family. Elisa is second from left.

Scavino family. Elisa is second from left.

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The winery and family headquarters are located in Castiglione Falletto, but the Scavinos own pieces of 19 different crus, scattered through the many communes of the Barolo zone.

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Scavino vineyards

Barolo crus in light purple; Scavino vineyards in dark purple

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Their most prized bottlings are:

  • Barolo Carabric (mostly Castiglione Falletto commune),
  • Barolo Bricco Ambrogio (the only cru of the small zone of Roddi),
  • Barolo Monvigliero (the grand cru of Verduno),
  • Barolo Cannubi (one of the most famous crus of Barolo township),
  • Barolo Bric del Fiasc (Castiglione Falletto commune), and
  • Barolo Rocche del Annunziata (the great La Morra cru).

In addition to those, the family also makes the classic Piedmontese gamut: a white (atypically vinified from Chardonnay and a little Viognier), Vino Rosso, a simple red blended from young vines of typical Piedmont varieties, plus Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo Langhe. So, as you can easily understand, these necessitate many small, separate vinifications. All the “simpler” wines – in Piedmont, it’s always wise to say “simple” in quotation marks – are fermented and aged only in stainless steel, while all the Barolos undergo malolactic fermentation in used barriques and later age in large botti, to finally rest for some months in stainless steel before bottling.

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Here are the wines I tasted, with my impressions and some of the remarks about them that Elisa Scavino made as we tasted.

Sorriso 2013:  A refreshing white wine (especially after a whole morning of young Nebbiolo), with a lovely Viognier nose, lively and friendly on the palate (apple and quince notes). Quite enjoyable. Elisa says this wine began as a project for the family’s use and only gradually grew into a wine for the portfolio. Slow, low-temperature fermentation, and no malo, in order to preserve the bright acidity.

Vino Rosso 2013:  A cuvee from young vines – Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, and a little Merlot. Big red fruit nose, pleasing simple red fruit on the palate, soft tannins, good acidity: a straightforwardly enjoyable wine for everyday meals. Elisa: “No wood at all on this wine or the Dolcetto or the Barbera.”

Dolcetto 2013:  Classic Dolcetto nose; on the palate, light sweet fruit, with great clarity and purity. Very fine and charming, in the best Dolcetto manner. Elisa: “In Piemonte, we always start an important dinner with Dolcetto: it lets you begin gently before you drink the big wines.”

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Barbera d’Alba 2013:  Textbook Barbera nose and Alba palate – round, fresh red fruit, a little peppery, with a clean, briskly acid finish. Very nice indeed. From a La Morra cru, Elisa said, with eastern exposure, not too warm, so it ripens slowly. “La Morra gives great elegance, both to Nebbiolo and to Barbera.”

Barbera d’Alba Affinato in Caratti 2012:  According to Elisa, this special Barbera comes from Bricco Ambrogio in Roddi, from vines that were planted in the 1950s. I found it very intense and complex, more serious and fine than Scavino’s basic Barbera, but no less authentically varietal. Elisa: “I like Barbera with a little age, because it gives the wine a chance to pull together and harmonize.”

Langhe Nebbiolo 2012:  Intensely tobacco-y Nebbiolo nose; big, soft fruit on the palate. Dark flavors, but lightish and live on the palate. Very good and quite drinkable. Elisa: “For us, this is an introduction to Barolo, a way to come to know Nebbiolo – less demanding or intimidating than Barolo, a wine that can be drunk younger than Barolo. Langhe Nebbiolo especially needs to be top quality because of that.”

Barolo 2010:  A lovely example of the vintage, with great fruit and real charm: impressive structure as well, as is a hallmark of the 2010 vintage. Very, very fine. “From seven different crus in Castiglione Falletto, Barolo, and Serralunga d’Alba, the selection depending on the vintage, blended to make the traditional Barolo,” says Elisa. “It should really be called Barolo Classico, but Italian law won’t let us do that.”

Barolo Carabric 2010:  Fine fruit, great structure – a fine wine, surprisingly drinkable already. Elisa: “Beautiful drinkability and great complexity, without being huge or overpowering – the 2010 vintage was like that right from the start – a beautiful vintage.”

Barolo Bricco Ambrogio 2010:  Cherry-sweet fruit from the only cru of Roddi. Intense underpinnings of tar/tobacco/earth/mushroom. Very fine and quite distinctive. Elisa: “Full south exposure, lots of limestone in the soil, vines nearing 20 years of age. Good fruit focus in this cru, always.”

Barolo Monvigliero 2010:  Black fruit, earth, mushrooms in the aroma. Black, sweet fruit on the palate. Again, distinctive – a huge structure, but with delicacy: the interplay of strength and delicacy is fascinating. A very, very great wine. Elisa: “The grand cru of Verduno – limestone and chalk soil. The grapes are always a little bit spicy.”

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Barolo Cannubi 2010:  Earth, dried flowers, funghi porcini in the nose, and in the mouth mineral, rock, funghi, then fruit – in short, classic Cannubi. A very great wine. Elisa: “We lease this vineyard year by year, since 1985. It’s unquestionably one of the best vineyards we work with. Largely Michet clone of Nebbiolo.”

Barolo Bric del Fiasc 2010:  In nose and palate, earth, tobacco, funghi, sottobosco; great fruit and minerality; very welcoming. Its underlying complexity opens slowly and gently. Elisa: “Our cru since 1921, the first we vinified as a single cru, in 1978. Very complex soil in this vineyard. For me, since I grew up with it, this is a classic expression of Barolo, a bit introverted and needing to be learned, but very long-aging and persistent.”

Barolo Rocche dell’ Annunziata Riserva 2008:  Simply gorgeous. Big, sweet, dark fruit, great structure and freshness: years to go. Lovely. Elisa: “Fantastic year, 2008. A very warm vineyard, with white, sandy soil, great drainage. We have one and a half hectares, which we are replanting, because the vines are too old. We’re using our own massal selection for the new vines.”

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This was the last wine I tasted that afternoon. I couldn’t imagine a better way to end a visit in Piedmont, with this majestic Barolo serving as the capstone of an impressive array of wines, consistent from start to finish in style and quality.

Piedmont Vineyards Become a World Heritage Site

June 26, 2014

Barolo, Barbaresco, and some of their companions in the Langhe hills have just been designated a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO Standing Committee, meeting this year in Qatar, where I bet Commission members are wishing vainly that they could drink some the juice they’ve just honored.

vineyard 1

“It’s a just reward for the winegrowers who have preserved the Barolo and Barbaresco hills, skillfully cultivating their vineyards with respect for tradition and old farming skills,” says Pietro Ratti, president of the Barolo and Barbaresco Protection Consortium. “For us, the UNESCO recognition is a stimulus to keep on doing our job well with an even greater responsibility to pass on to our children the marvelous land that our fathers handed down to us.”

The new UNESCO site includes the Barolo DOCG communes of Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Grinzane Cavour (and especially its castle), La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Novello and Serralunga d’Alba, and the Barbaresco DOCG communes of Barbaresco and Neive. Nizza Monferrato and Canelli, which are primarily sites for the production of Barbera and Spumante, are also included within the designated area.

nominated zone

Areas in pink and red are the UNESCO-designated site

All are regarded by UNESCO as “a cultural landscape,” because their present appearance results from, as the official announcement rather stuffily puts it, a unique, historic interaction of nature and human endeavor. Most wine lovers would readily agree that that assessment is as true of the wines made there as it is of the fields from which they flow.

Just to jog your memory, here are a few photos of what the designated portion of Piedmont looks like.

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vineyard 2

 

vineyard 3

 

You can find out more about this World Heritage Site designation – Italy’s 50th (are you surprised?) – here.

 

 

 

 

Cascina delle Rose: a Great Barbaresco Estate

May 30, 2014

What makes a great Barbaresco? Easy to answer, not so easy to achieve. Superior grapes to start with, from a superior site, tended in the field with great care and in the cellar with great restraint, resulting ideally in a wine that expresses both the character of the Nebbiolo grape and the nature of the region’s special terroir. Cantina delle Rose does all the right things, and its Barbarescos show all the right stuff – as does every other wine this stellar estate produces.

cascina estate

Many winelovers have never even heard of Cascina delle Rose. It is neither one of the big names of Barbaresco nor a big estate: three and a half hectares – that’s under ten acres – and a total production of about 20,000 bottles. Family-run: Giovanna Rizzolio and husband Italo Sobrino and sons Davide and Riccardo do everything, including having designed and now operating the charming B&B on the manicured property.

cascina family

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Most important wine zones, anywhere in the world, usually first break into consumers’ consciousness through the efforts of large estates or large negociant firms that have the quality and especially the volume of production that allows their wines to be present in noteworthy numbers in multiple markets, and these market openers usually establish the standards for the wines of their zones. It’s the sign of a maturing wine zone when small producers start turning out wines at the top level of quality that begin appearing – usually in limited quantities – in multiple markets.

From my experience at this year’s Nebbiolo Prima in Alba in May, tasting new releases of Barolo 2010 and Barbaresco 2011, I’d say that those two wine zones are entering that phase of winemaking maturity. My tasting notes proclaim this year’s event The Year of the Small Producers. This is not to say that larger and well-known producers did poorly with those vintages. Far from it, in fact: Many of them turned out wonderful wines, up to their own best standards. But in the blind tastings that are the norm at Nebbiolo Prima, I found that many of my top scores (after the tasting we get the answer sheet that identifies the wines for us) went to producers scarcely known to me, most of them small growers who have been steadily improving their winemaking skills over the past decade.

I had come to know Cascina delle Rose just a few years ago, because I’d noticed that for some time I had been scoring its wines very high and thought that I ought to learn something about it. Being, in my lucid moments, a fairly logical guy, I did just that, enjoying a memorable introductory visit that firmly proved that there was no mistake about the scores I was giving the wines. At this year’s Nebbiolo Prima, I revisited Giovanna and Italo. I was more impressed than ever. Wine after wine showed an almost Cartesian purity of fruit and structure, a fidelity to varietal character that simply obviates criticism. Because Cascina delle Rose is a small producer, its wines won’t be in every market – but they are emphatically worth the trouble of seeking out. (Very helpfully, the US importers are listed on its website.)

Here are the wines I tasted at the winery, and some very brief comments on them. (There are only so many exclamation points I can expect my readers to tolerate.)

cascina wines

Dolcetto d’Alba A Elizabeth 2013: Classic nose and palate – delightful light dinner wine.

Langhe Nebbiolo 2013: Beautiful fruit, great Nebbiolo character, long juicy finish – very, very lovely.

Barbera d’Alba 2012:  Textbook Barbera, fruity and lively.

Barbera d’Alba Superiore Donna Elena 2012: A barrel sample, aged longer than the regular Barbera. Slightly nebbiolized style: more elegant, complex, rounder, with chocolate and tobacco notes. Fine. (They later poured me some of the 2004 vintage of this wine, which was simply amazing: they have only a few bottles left, alas.)

Barbaresco Tre Stelle 2011: Very pretty, with dark Nebbiolo flavors already emerging. Wonderful structure. Five stars, the top rating on my simple scoring scale, as is the next wine also.

Barbaresco Rio Sordo 2011: Rounder, fatter, longer finishing than Tre Stelle. Quite lovely. These two Barbaresco crus are the flagship wines of the house, and in ’11 and ’10 (which I tasted at Nebbiolo Prima last year), they are the equal of any Barbarescos I’ve encountered.

After those current-release wines, Giovanna and Italo offered me a vertical of their Langhe Nebbiolo, which has never seen wood – it is fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel. I’d already tasted the 2013, so they started with 2012 and ran back every year to 2004. The wines were uniformly fine and absolutely true to Nebbiolo type. In some years they could easily be mistaken in a blind tasting for medium-bodied Barbaresco. All, even the oldest, were fresh and lively and had wonderful fruit. As they got older they showed more and more earth and mushroom scents and flavors. The ’04 was actually starting to go white-truffly in the nose, and – finally giving in to the temptation I’d had several times in the course of this visit – I didn’t spit it.

This was for me a memorable visit to a new star in the Barbaresco firmament. The whole session was a demonstration of first-class winemaking exercised upon first-class grapes from first-class vineyards – one of those afternoons that make my job enviable and me very happy.

 

 

Emptying the Bad-News Bin

December 18, 2012

It’s always a good idea, as the year dwindles to its close, to jettison as much of the bad stuff as you can, so you can start your new year with a calm mind, a clear conscience, and a hopeful outlook. So – be warned – I’m here purging my files of a few troublesome items that have been hanging around and nipping at my heels for too long.

soldera labelThe most serious item I suspect some of you already know about – the vandalism at the Case Basse estate in Montalcino. This happened at the beginning of December. During the night, person or persons unknown broke into the cellar and opened the spigots on all the huge casks of Brunello, vintages 2007 through 2012. This would be an outrageous loss for the owner even if the wines were just ordinary: six years of hard, devoted work literally down the drain. But by all reports these were wines well beyond that, standing at or near the top of quality among Brunellos.

gianfranco solderaThe owner of the estate and the maker of the wines, Gianfranco Soldera, is a perfectionist and devoted to his craft. As a winemaker, he has the respect of all his colleagues. As a person, the story is different. He can be very difficult (some would say impossible), with no low opinion of his wines and no reluctance to proclaim his disdain for many of the other wines of the zone. Rumors have persistently named him as the whistleblower who precipitated the Brunello scandal of just a few years past. He denies this, and I believe him: I suspect that if he had begun that whole brouhaha he would have been more than willing to take credit for it.

The attack on his cellar has shaken up the whole zone. Only another winemaker can viscerally understand what a loss like that feels like. In a small way, I have a sense of it, having had my own wine storage twice broken into, with a loss of many cases and some utterly irreplaceable large bottles. No comparison in magnitude, of course, but I do have an idea of the feeling of violation that Soldera must have experienced.

The Consorzio and its officials have been swift to deplore the vandalism and to express solidarity – backed up with promises of positive action – with Soldera, along with protestations of the solidarity of spirit of all the Brunello producers. Much as I wish the zone and its winemakers well, I can’t help but feel that is whistling in the dark. Whoever dumped Soldera’s wine, for whatever immediate motive, vandalism of that scale shows how very deep and rancorous the divisions within this important appellation are. I don’t know what the Brunello Consorzio can do to heal them, but somebody better get working on that problem PDQ.*

zraly bookItem 2. A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Tom Hyland published a review of the new edition of Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. While praising the part of the book that concerns itself with French wine (the bulk of it), Tom goes ballistic over Zraly’s offhand treatment of Italian wines, in terms of both the scant space allotted to them and the often erroneous data provided about them. Zraly’s dismissal of Italian white wines particularly infuriates Hyland. I quote Tom Hyland quoting Kevin Zraly:

“The Italians do not traditionally put the same effort into making their white wines as they do their reds – in terms of style and complexity and they are the first to admit it.” (page 187)

Can you believe he actually wrote that? I had to read the sentence several times to make certain my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. Yes, I’m quite certain that great vintners such as Leonildo Pieropan, Roberto Anselmi, Silvio Jermann, Sabino Loffredo and Ciro Picariello would admit they don’t put much effort into their white wines. What a truly outrageous statement!

I confess I haven’t looked into Zraly’s book for years now, for the simple reason that I recognize it as an anachronism, reflecting the attitudes of the wine world when the course on which it’s based first came into being, several decades ago. With every passing year, as new parts of the world succeed in producing quality wine, the “Complete” in the title has become more and more of a misnomer, and the almost relentless focus on the wines of France more and more inadequate as a reflection of the contemporary wine world or of the choices confronting the consumer. Keven Zraly is of course a New York colleague, a long-standing acquaintance, and a very decent person – but as Tom Hyland has made abundantly clear, his book (and the course?) is seriously out of date and badly needs a thorough revision.

A small aside: It’s fascinating to me how the reflex kowtowing to French wine just doesn’t die. I’m not entirely surprised to find the prejudice in favor of the always-and-forever superiority of French wine in Brits, who are invested in Bordeaux – especially in Bordeaux – in ways that Americans are not, but we’re supposed to be more open-minded, more flexible, more open to argument and proof. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. I love French wines. I learned wine on French wines, and I freely admit that many of them set the standards for their kinds (standards, alas, that they don’t all always meet anymore) – but their kinds aren’t all the wines in the world. Italian winemakers in my lifetime have risen to great heights with different kinds of wine – different, but of equal worth and quality. If we could all stop saluting Romanée Conti for a moment, we might realize that Cannubi or Rabajà deserve a genuflection or two as well.

Item 3. This concerns a couple of small but worrisome disappointments. At a pair of recent dinners, I poured for the fair Diana, Mistress of the Revels, and myself wines from two of Piedmont’s standard-bearer producers. (What I’m about to say is a little ironic in the light of that last paragraph, but what the hell? I can only call’em as I see’em.)

gaja 1The biggest disappointment was a bottle of Gaja’s Sori San Lorenzo of the 2001 vintage – a great vintage in Piedmont, from a great winemaker, and a wine for which I consequently had great hopes. All too quickly dashed, however: The wine lacked Nebbiolo intensity and showed no complexity whatever. My first thought was that it was in eclipse, but what flavors it was giving were wrong for that; it wasn’t dumb, it just tasted middling. I’m puzzled, and hope I just had a bad bottle – but the experience is worrisome.

Giacosa 2Especially since it was more or less compounded just a few days later when I opened a bottle of Bruno Giacosa’s 2008 Barbera d’Alba. ‘08 was a good year for Barbera, and Giacosa stands among the best winemakers in the Alba region, so once again I had high hopes for the wine, and once again they were disappointed. Just as the Sori San Lorenzo lacked Nebbiolo intensity, this wine lacked Barbera vivacity, on top of which it displayed prominent non-Barbera tannins. The taste was of a wine that had been exposed to too much wood and hadn’t been able to assimilate it. As my friend Charles Scicolone would put it, this wine had gone to the dark side.

Now, two disappointing bottles do not add up to a catastrophe. But because of the expense of Gaja’s and Giacosa’s wines, these are not everyday tipples for me. When wines like these disappoint, and disappoint in the ways these two did, it raises questions – it makes you wonder, and not in the marvelous sense one hopes for during the holidays.

‘Nuff said. The bad-news bin is empty. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

* Update: This morning (December 21) I received an email from Montalcino, informing me that an arrest has been made in the case of the Case Basse vandalism. The person charged with spilling the wines is a former employee of the estate.

Piedmont Panorama: Part Two

June 24, 2012

It’s such a joy to visit winemakers in Barolo and Barbaresco. No matter how packed your schedule or how long your day, each visit deserves and rewards however much time it takes. So each day of the Nebbiolo Prima this year, after tasting 65 to 80 young, rough wines in the morning I happily bolted my lunch and went off for an afternoon of tasting more Nebbiolos.

Last post I told you about my sessions with the Angelo Negro family and Tiziana Settimo. This post I want to fill you in on my visits to Renato Ratti, Boroli, and Roccheviberti.

Renato Ratti

The eponymous founder of this estate was a pioneer of the modern age in Barolo, and his son Pietro is carrying on with the same style and panache. We sat in the light-filled tasting room of his impressive new winery and tasted an equally impressive battery of wines – Dolcetto 2011 and Barbera (both Alba 2011 and Asti 2010), Nebbiolo 2010, Barolo Marcenasco 2009 and 2008, Barolo Conca 2008 – and then a vertical of Pietro’s prized cru, Rocche: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2001, 2000, and 1999.

The ’08 was big and tannic but balanced by terrific acid and fruit, the best wine of that vintage I’d tasted that day (that includes some 70+ in the morning session). The ’07 seemed slightly rustic and forceful, more forward and attention grabbing.

“2008 is a precise vintage,” Pietro says; “you can taste the differences of place from place. 2007 is exuberant; 2008 is more narrow but deeper – more interesting, with more acidity, more focus. 2006 is more classic, more fruity – same family as ’08, but more classic.” In fact, I found the 2006 very similar to the ’08, deep and composed, a wine to wait for. Both remind me of the 1974s, which evolved into some of the finest Barolos of the second half of the century.

Ratti’s 2005 you don’t have to wait for: It’s already together – a lovely middle weight, totally drinkable now. The 2004 went to the other end of the spectrum, a great vintage, along with 2001 one of the greatest, but nowhere near ready to drink. The 2001 showed itself more developed, the nose darkening to tobacco and coffee, even burnt earth, the palate deep, smooth, and complex – almost but not quite ready. The 2000 stood among the better examples of this too-hot vintage, but it will never be my favorite. “A great Barolo vintage,” Pietro says, “combines power and elegance.” His 1999 Rocche did just that – big Nebbiolo fruit and leather and porcini on the nose and in the mouth, with an endless finish. A lovely wine, with years of development still before it.

Boroli

This is a newer house, run by a team of brothers with a lot of modern technology but also great love for traditional Barolo character, both of which showed nicely in the wines. Villero is their best cru: it’s one of the choice sites in the Barolo zone, and Boroli does it justice. The 2004 sported big Nebbiolo fruit – juicy black cherry – along with tobacco and leather. I thought it elegant and balanced and still very young. The ‘05 Villero showed itself very accessible, as is characteristic of that vintage – quite drinkable already, although evidently still young and growing. This is what people have in mind when they talk about a good restaurant Barolo. 2006 also proved true to its vintage: a structured, big, austere wine, with great minerality – a wine for long, long cellaring to enjoy at its maximum. Villero 2007 was an almost complete contrast, fresh and amazingly accessible for so young a Barolo. It too will no doubt mature and deepen, but it’s so enjoyable now that it may be hard to wait for it.

Roccheviberti

This is the smallest producer I visited – about 20,000 bottles a year, and that includes some Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo, as well as Barolo. Production that small makes Claudio Viberti only a little more than a garagiste, but in quality he is approaching the top tier. He works roughly 13 acres, 5 of which are Nebbiolo, in the tiny village of Rocche within the commune of Castiglione Falletto. I went to visit him because, in the past two or three years, I had been giving his wines top marks at Nebbiolo Prima’s morning blind-tasting sessions, and I thought it was time I found out something about him.

I am very, very glad I did. His 2010 Dolcetto d’Alba Vigna Melera and his 2009 Barbera d’Alba Superiore were both textbook wines, so delicious and so characteristic that the first taste told me that I was in the hands of an excellent winemaker. His 2008 Langhe Nebbiolo confirmed that: It was all beautiful black cherry fruit that tasted fresh! fresh! fresh!

The vertical of Barolo Rocche di Castiglione that followed was the icing on the cake. 2008 showed classic Nebbiolo color, the true garnet bleeding to an orange edge, and the classic “feminine” Castiglione body, sapid, juicy, and well structured. The 2007 smelled of raspberries and roses and tasted of sweet black cherries, tar, and tea. The 2006 had a nose of dried roses, earth, and tea, and on the palate big acid and firm tannins supporting a huge body of fruit – a wine that seems to me will get better and better for decades. His 2005 showed the same dried roses in the aroma and great minerality on the palate, with excellent acidity and fine fruit. 2004 again smelled of dried roses, and on the palate was evolving beautifully, with plenty of still fresh fruit beginning to develop complexity and depth – a gentle, elegant, and deep wine.

These wines demonstrated an impressive consistency of quality and style from vintage to vintage. Claudio said that he ferments his Barolos for 18 to 25 days, depending on the harvest, and that he uses only French oak in large, traditional botti. His grandfather had started the winery for bulk sales, and he began making wine in 2003 – and he doesn’t make a Riserva because he doesn’t have the space. Honestly, I hope he never has: I wouldn’t want him to change a thing.

The Barolo and Barbaresco zones are real winemaker country. You’re never greeted ceremoniously by guys in designer suits. Instead, men and women in purple-stained jeans and equally stained hands welcome you with boundless enthusiasm for their wines and plenty of information about their last half dozen vintages – or more, if you display any curiosity. Is it any wonder that I visit as often as I can?

Putting La Morra on the Map and Other Nebbiolo News

June 14, 2010

Three short items today: a new vineyard map; a précis of Nebbiolo Prima, formerly the Alba Wine Event; and a buying opportunity for top-flight Barbaresco.

I spent an intense week in Piedmont last month tasting wines and visiting producers – I’ll report briefly on that here, in detail in future posts. I want to start with what is definitely good news: the map of the commune of La Morra that Alessandro Masnaghetti has just issued.

Alessandro Masnaghetti

As I explained in an earlier post, Alessandro Masnaghetti is a highly respected Italian wine journalist, the publisher, editor, writer, mapmaker – pretty much the whole writing and production staff – for Enogea, a bimonthly Italian-language journal devoted to the wines and terroir of Italy’s great red wine areas – most notably, Piedmont and Tuscany. He has been producing a series of vineyard maps, in Italian and in English, of individual communes in those zones. These maps are more accurate, more detailed, and provide more information about sites, expositions, and ownership, than any vineyard maps I have seen for any other wine region. So complete are they that you can even use them to locate the newly created subzones of Barolo and Barbaresco.

This newest map, of La Morra commune and nearby Roddi and Cherasco, is fully up to the standards set by its predecessors. It completes Masnaghetti’s survey of the vineyards of Barolo. So he has now issued complete maps of both major Nebbiolo denominations, Barolo and Barbaresco, containing as much vineyard and producer information as any wine maven could desire. The maps can be obtained by contacting, in Italy, almasnag@tin.it or, in the US, www.rarewineco.com.

Map detail: the village of La Morra and some nearby vineyards and wineries

Nebbiolo Prima: the Short Version

Now for the less good news. What used to be the Alba Wine Event (I always liked the acronym) is now Nebbiolo Prima, with new (and definitely not yet up to speed) PR crew replacing the very competent Wellcom staff who previously ran it. So there were glitches, not least important of which were the temperature of the wine storage (tasting samples were too warm) and tasting room (chronic trouble with the air conditioning) – both of which make serious problems when you’re tasting 85 newly bottled Nebbiolo wines every morning.

Here is the summary of the event. The 2007 Barbarescos are charming – very accessible, with lovely fruit, good acid, decent structure. They may not be the longest-lasting wines ever to come out of the zone, but they will be enjoyable drinking over the next ten years.

Charm, on the other hand, is not a word to use in connection with 2006 Barolo. These are tough, enormously structured wines, complex and deep, but leatherbound right now and maybe for the next five years. If you miss old-fashioned Barolo as I do – wines that took years to come round and then got better and better for decades – 2006 is your vintage.

Buyer, Be Aware

Here’s an important piece of news that should affect your wine budget: Produttori di Barbaresco, the superb cooperative that every year offers some of the best wines and finest bargains in Barbaresco, has decided not to bottle separately any of its cru wines in the 2006 vintage. All have been vinified separately but will be blended back into the “basic” Barbaresco.

The reasons for this are, apparently, first, that there is too much wine already in the pipeline, and, second, that in 2006 the cru wines reflect the vintage – as in Barolo, it is that kind of dominating vintage – much more than they do their individual terroirs. Whatever the reasons, this makes a fantastic buying opportunity for Nebbiolo fans: a first-rate vintage from a first-rate producer at bargain-basement prices. I have already seen Produttori 2006 Barbaresco here in New York for as little as $30 a bottle. That’s a whole case of a fine, long-lived Barbaresco for the price of a single bottle of Gaja. Need I say more?

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

March 15, 2010

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.