Jo Goodman and Sebastian Payne's next stop is with these superstars of this ancient wine region
Our next port of call is with the Barberanis in the ancient wine region of Orvieto. Like Soave, Orvieto has suffered from the rush-to-the-bottom syndrome, whereby much of the wine we see is unfortunately bland and insipid, with the mass-produced wine from the plains selling on price rather than merit.
But this family estate, from whom we have been buying for several decades, bucks the trend. They are the stars of the denomination; the real deal. Their wines demonstrate just how great Orvieto can be.
Aerial view of the Barberani vineyards showing their special location near to Lake Corbara
The vineyards are located in the oldest and best part of the district on hills overlooking Lake Corbara, affording them a particular microclimate. Wine grown here is given the Classico appellation. The estate is made up of 100 hectares, 55 of which are vineyards.
From bar owners to winemakers
Sons Niccolò (winemaker) & Bernardo (sales) with father Luigi
Vittorio Barberani started the business back in 1961. He and his brother ran three bars in the town of Orvieto, growing grapes for wine to sell in their bars. Word spread about just how good their wine was and soon they were bottling it for sale, eventually out growing the local market and branching out into exporting their wine. They gave up the business of running bars and concentrated on making wine.
Vittorio's son Luigi has officially handed over the reins to his sons Bernardo and Niccolò. But all three meet us for a guided tour of the winery; Niccolò, who makes the wine, is nursing a broken arm (a recent skiing accident). Bernardo will be familiar to those members who have attended our tastings as he frequently visits and his enthusiasm and jolly demeanour are infectious. But it's father Luigi who, proudly, wants to show us around.
A sustainable approach
Serried ranks of stainless steel tanks in the sustainably designed cantina which makes use of natural light
The family has always been committed to doing things as naturally as possible and the winery, built in 1983, though not the most aesthetically appealing (hmmm, like many things from that era!), was designed to be sustainable (one of the first, I believe). They make use of natural light rather than artificial lighting, use collected rainwater and recycle it. They avoid use of any chemicals in the winery too and have been making low and no-sulphur wine. They are seeking vegan accreditation for their wines too which they believe they'll have soon.
Out in the vineyards, they have just completed a total replanting of their vines, a job that started 25 years ago. The 2015 vintage will be the first harvest of the newly planted vineyards. Rather than replanting with vine material from nurseries, they have used massal selection, taking cuttings from the best of their old plants to propagate: 'Indigenous vines are so much better adapted to their surroundings,' Bernardo says, 'We want these vineyards to last 60-70 years. We have changed the way the vines are trained – the old vines were 55-60 years old and trained on traditional cordone speronato (spur/cordon pruned), but we have changed everything to the guyot system as it tires the plant less and keeps it healthier.'
(If you're interested in the pros and cons of various vine-training methods, Caroline Gilby MW wrote an article on the subject for us here.)
The Barberanis have just completed a replanting job in the vineyards started 25 years ago
They have been working organically for a number of years and from the 2015 vintage they have official certification. Father Luigi tells us that it was always his intention to work in harmony with nature, a philosophy inherited in turn from his father.
Bernardo talking to Sebastian about the work the Barberanis have been doing to get organic certification
Before we head down to the villa and tasting room, we learn that Niccolò and Bernardo won an innovation award for young agricultural workers (both are under 40). They tell us that they have collaborated with a number of universities and are always experimenting; the award was in recognition for the work they have carried out in field and cellar avoiding use of chemicals and for producing two wines completely without sulphites.
I ask how they decided which brother was going to take over the winemaking. Both father Luigi and brother Bernarndo said without hesitation that Niccolò was the most qualified to take over the role. 'Being a winemaker is a passion not a job; it's an art and a philosophy – a way of expressing yourself and Niccolò was the one that was always in the winery as a child,' his father explained. Apparently, he was also top sommelier at just 17, one of the youngest to gain this position. Niccolò, in turn, says that he has been lucky to have one of the best teachers in the shape of one of Italy's best consultant winemakers, Maurizio Castelli.
Bernardo is well-suited to his position looking after the commercial aspects of the company, something he approaches with zeal and passion for the wine too.
Watch this short video of Bernardo talking about his wines and the estate on a trip to Stevenage a few years ago.
I asked Niccolò what he considers his biggest challenge at the moment. 'We need to know how to adapt to climate change; nothing is predictable anymore and weather forecasts are not precise – it certainly makes life interesting!' he replied.
Not just whites!
Orvieto is of course primarily a white-wine appellation, but red is also made. Foresco (Umbria IGT) which is a blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and merlot which we sometimes list, is smooth and easy to drink after 12 months in barrel and further bottle ageing and a rival in quality (but not price) to Tuscany's offerings.
Then there's a straight sangiovese, Polvento (DOC Lago di Corbara), which has 24 months in oak, which is a much bigger wine – we tasted the 2009 and though it's impressive, we felt it a little too international in style for our taste.
But it's the Barberani whites which we are here for. The straight Orvieto Secco 2015, which goes under the Vallesanta label, is a traditional blend of grechetto, trebbiano (procanico), malvasia and druppegio. The nose is intense and there's a touch of honey to the exuberantly fruity but dry flavour. I'm not so keen on the stalky nose, but the flavour is impressive.
Off-dry Orvieto: the original wine of the region
We then move onto the off-dry version known as amabile (which means 'lovable' in Italian), a wine we have listed for many years and which has a loyal following. I confess that I had never really got this wine, but was immediately converted after tasting it in situ.
Bernardo explained that the amabile version of Orvieto is the traditional style of this wine and was the style of wine that people preferred to drink. Grapes (which are the same as for the dry style) are left a little longer on the vine and then the fermentation is stopped before all the sugars have been converted to alcohol. The beauty of the wine is that it is a little lower in alcohol with round and gentle flavour, and just the right amount of acidity to play against the sweetness.
The grechetto grape, it is explained to us, actually has tannins, which counterbalance the effect of the sugar and leave a satisfying dryness on the finish. 'This is what makes the wine a great aperitif; we like to serve it with cheese or savoury biscuits, but it is also delicious with shellfish or fish pie, or even slightly spicy dishes. Equally, it is nice at the end of a meal with goat's cheese or fresh fruit,' Bernardo told us, and yes, I could see this really working.
Next comes a single-varietal Grechetto 2015 (Umbria IGT), a wine officially certified organic. The grechetto grape is one of the most ancient of the region going back to Roman and Etruscan times. This is a step up in quality and you can sense the dryness from the tannins mentioned above but combined with soft, fruity elegance. All in all, it is gentle and easy to drink with an appealing lemony zip to the finish.
Castagnola Orvieto Classico Superiore 2015 comes next. This is a 'cru' wine made from a selection of better grapes from the Barberani vineyards and is a blend of traditional grapes grechetto and trebbiano procanico with riesling and chardonnay. 'A modern interpretation of the Orvieto tradition,' the Barberanis say. It's a blend that really works with lovely drinkability matched by a bit of intriguing complexity … 'hints of honeysuckle and gooseberry' I see Sebastian has written in his tasting note!
Before we move onto the Barberani's top cru wines, they proudly reveal new labels which have been produced to commemorate the move to organic certification – an important milestone in their history. 'The label has been commissioned to communicate tradition, our story and the artistry involved in producing wine, but with a modern approach; and that ultimately, wine is made from grapes,' Bernardo tells us. Quite a tough brief to fulfil, I feel, but the new labels are striking and very different and the hand-drawn design quite beautiful too.
The Luigi e Giovanna label was created in 2011, to mark the 50th anniversary of the estate and is a celebration of love between the parents, father Luigi and mother Giovanna. The label depicts the view of the Lake Corbara, pretty much the view we have looking through the tasting room window.
With the Luigi e Giovanna Orvieto Classico they wanted to make a wine using only traditional varieties, grechetto and trebbiano. 'We wanted to show the potential of the soils in this area,' Niccolò says, adding that because the amabile style was also the tradition of the area, they included an element of botrytised grapes in the blend too. Bernardo takes up the story: 'the grechetto grape is my father – he is the character and structure of the wine; my mother brings the sweetness and balance and brings everything back into harmony.'
These are certainly impressive wines, with exotic fruit flavours and rich, almost oily texture but very elegant none the less and they have proved popular with the Italian wine press, winning many awards and understandably so.
The new Luigi e Giovanna label depicts the view of the Lake Corbara from Barberani
Finally we move onto arguably Italy's best noble-rot wine, Calcaia Orvieto Classico Superiore Muffa Nobile. They are able to make this wine because of the extraordinary micro-climate here. The proximity of the lake means that in autumn time the vineyards are often coated in mist, then as the sun warms up and burns off the mist it promotes the growth of botrytis cineria, or noble rot. They have to pass through the vineyard up to around six times in November and even into December selecting only the grapes that have been shrivelled by the noble rot. The resulting wines are rich and opulent with hints of apricot, mandarin and lemon, and a beguiling bouquet. We try the 2013 which is lovely with a lightness of touch which makes it less heavy than Sauternes, say.
The perfect TV dinner chair
If you need an excuse to open this kind of wine (you shouldn't, it is great on its own!), Bernardo says that it is lovely with little cheese and ham pastries, some of which appear from a side room, as if by magic.
The noble rot was amazing in 2015, the brothers tell us, but the wine wasn't ready for tasting yet, so we'll just have to wait and see… something to look out for in future!
In the meantime, this rather mesmerising video that the Barberanis have produced, gives some idea of the almost mystical process behind the production of muffa nobile.
The Barberani estate includes some agriturismo holiday lets, and they also take people on guided tours and have a shop in Orvieto; Wine Society members are especially welcome.
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