‘Name me two wines from Piedmont?’ I would ask wine-loving friends and colleagues.
To which everyone answered Barolo, and 90% said Barbaresco (the balance was Gavi and a smattering of Barbera d’Asti).
Have you ever tried a Barolo? I would counter.
‘Have you ever tried Barbaresco?’
‘No,’ said the majority. ‘It’s a kind of poor man’s Barolo, is it not?’ being the common refrain.
A lesser Barolo probably described my impression too, before I was lucky enough to visit Piedmont last winter with our Italian wine buyer Sebastian Payne MW and fine wine editor Janet Wynne Evans. I say winter, but you wouldn't have known it as we bustled around this fabulous region in short sleeves basking in the glorious November sunshine.
I was asking Sebastian about this disparity between the number of people who had heard of Barbaresco as opposed to the number of people who drank it as we drove to the eponymous town, and he admitted that he'd struggled to find Barbarescos worth the price.
While good Barolo can be some of the finest wines in the world and a great buy at almost any price, most Barbaresco tended to be thinner and just not significantly cheap enough in comparison to its neighbour. And a steady demand for Barbaresco in the USA had maintained and even inflated prices.
We were en route to visit the headquarters of Produttori Del Barbaresco.
Barbaresco's Greatest Asset
Established in the 1950s, Produttori is a co-operative of some 50 members accounting for 100 hectares of vines (all devoted to the nebbiolo grape) across nine different Barbaresco crus.
But possibly its greatest asset is managing/technical director Aldo Vacca, formerly right-hand-man of local icon Angelo Gaja. I could have sat for hours listening to him.
For Aldo, it's climate change that has really allowed Barbaresco to blossom and emerge from the shadow of its larger neighbour, Barolo.
This century, a few extra degrees of heat have changed the wines making them much more approachable and tangibly lower in green tannins. This made them instantly more appealing, especially in the United States which accounts for 30% of the co-op's market. Aldo said that they'd never felt the need to 'Parkerise' their wines to curry favour – global warming had done it for them!
The co-operative makes 11 wines: a Nebbiolo Langhe, nine Barbaresco Riserva 'cru' wines and, the wine that has made the Produttori's name, is not a cru bottling but Barbaresco pure and simple. This last wine accounts for at least 50% of production at any time, and when needed, the cru fruit goes into it to maintain standards and keep the faith. It's only when nature is bountiful that the crus are bottled under their own name, as 'riserva'.
A spare, businesslike and energetic 50-something, Aldo patently has no time for small talk – his welcome speech, such as it was, was that he had very little wine to sell – but plenty of passion to impart and share.
A Veritable Golden Age For Barbaresco
His mini-lecture on the region and the DOC was masterly, underlining the differences in vintage conditions between Barolo and Barbaresco, where weather systems can vary and picking is earlier.
A case in point was 2014, reckoned to be rather testing in Barolo, was ‘exciting’ here. Though some rain during flowering reduced the crop, and July was pretty wet but August was dry and there were no problems with hail either.
In 2010, though, earlier picking worked against Barbaresco, when just three day-long downpours in September, one a week, were enough to waterlog the grapes. The later harvest in Barolo saw the benefits of two wonderful sunny weeks at the end of the month and a ‘classic’ vintage emerged. Moreover, according to Aldo, 2009 and 2011 are better vintages in Barbaresco, which is generally favoured by warm years.
As for 2015, whisper it not, this is going to be a great Italian vintage, from Alto-Adige to Pantelleria.
Since the millennium, climate change has effectively brought harvesting forward from October to September. 2007, which started on 15th September was the earliest on record. Spring was two weeks early, followed by a warm summer and a 'beautiful Fall' creating a perfect season and seamless wines. Sadly there were none to try!
However, it doesn't always work that way. The latest harvest on record was 2013 which, after a very cool summer, got going on 10th October.
More valuable intelligence on past vintages, which tell a tale of their own:
- 1988, 1989 and 1990 were nothing short of a ‘glorious’ Holy Trinity, as they were in the Rhône, Bordeaux, Burgundy etc
- 1991 was good but had an impossibly hard act to follow. Overlooked, it ended up being sold off in bulk. Some buyers must have had a bargain and a half.
- 1992, 1993 and 1994 were poor vintages that were sold in bulk, and the blenders and bottlers made all the profits, presumably because they are more cynical and more easily satisfied than the co-op!
- 1994 was the last to use chaptalisation
- 2005 (which we were privileged to taste, below) was a cool summer but a balanced vintage that ended up under the radar, between 2004, 2006 and 2007
Another raiser of the bar in Barbaresco has been clonal selection, building on pioneering research by the university of Turin that has delivered a quantum improvement in quality with lower yields and better colour. These über-vines became available for planting in the 1990s and are now coming of age. Meanwhile, the existing workhorse vines have become older, naturally lower-yielding and better so this is a veritable golden age for Barbaresco.
A good Barbaresco, says Aldo, has a life of 20 years max, and an optimum drink window of 8–12 years. They are matured for two years in botti and a year in bottle, Riservas for an extra year in botti, a mix of 50-hectolitre and 500-h/ltr capacities. The first six months are passed in inox or cement. Bottling takes place in April/May, so the 2011 Riservas will be released next year. This usually happens early (January/February) in time for Vinitaly in April.
Langhe Nebbiolo (13.5%) is made in the same way as Barbaresco but from younger vines (less than 15 years old) and aged for a shorter time (bottled after six months in oak as opposed to 18). So, a piccolo Barbaresco, lightish, strawberry-infused and delicious.
This was a vintage where all the single vineyards went into the pot rather than into individual bottlings. Normally this rather more than basic brew accounts for some 50% of production in any given year and is reckoned to be one of the stars of the region. Aged for two years in botti and a year in bottle. Very clean, good fruit, upfront and nicely lingering on the palate. A light vintage, but elegant and refined.
Barbaresco 2011 by contrast showed the hallmarks of a properly hot September - much more stuffing here, younger-tasting and chunkier. A very warm summer, says Aldo, that was too much for some Barolo but which here provided that all-important contrast between hot days and cool nights, and, combined with the earlier picking factor, delivers precision aromatics.
Barbareseco Pajè Riserva 2011
Pajé (pronouned Pah-YAY) is a cool site to the south of the DOC, though not as far south as Rabaja, close to the river Tanaro and not too high up. It’s a cru marked by finesse, concentration and suppleness and it didn’t disappoint. Fresh, firm, brightly perfumed and delicious.
Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà 2012
One of the pre-eminent crus of Barbaresco, Rabaja (Rab-eye-YAH), is a warmer site to the south-east, relatively high on the slope on very compact soils. It’s considered a five-star cru, along with Montefico to the north and neighbouring Martinenga. Very sexy, curvier and chunkier than Pajé with more complexity.
Barbaresco Riserva Vigneti in Montefico 2005
Described by Aldo as the austere one, this small, southerly-exposed cru in the north of the DOC sits on more mineral, calcium-rich soil. This had wonderful perfume and a rich, seductive balance of chew, smack and purr if we could be so technical. None available, sadly.
‘Proper job’ I noted. The tout-court bottling was no less completely delicious with bags of damson fruit and real character. If you have some in your cellar then I’m very jealous!
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