Posts tagged ‘barbera’
I’ve just returned from Piemonte, tasting new releases of Barbaresco (2007) and Barolo (2006). I briefly wrote about these wines on my other blog (read here and here). Now I would like to go into a bit more depth on Piemontese reds in general.
The Langhe area of southern Piemonte where the Barolo and Barbaresco zones are located, has been on a bit of a roll as of late. After the rainy 2002 vintage and the torridly hot 2003 growing season, which resulted in wines that were powerful, yet poorly balanced, the weather has cooperated. 2004 was a glorious year, producing wines of superb aromatics along with impressive weight. While 2005 was a lighter vintage, the wines are beautifully balanced with precise acidity and are drinking well. 2006 was a big year – this is a vintage where the wines need plenty of time – and 2007 was a relatively warm year that resulted in ripe, forward wines that are very enjoyable in their youth. The 2007 reds – at least what I have tasted so far (dozens of Barbaresco along with a handful of Barolo from cask) are notable wines, though probably not meant for the long haul, especially when compared to 2006.
Then there are the vintages of 2008 and 2009. You will be reading a great deal about the quality of 2009 in Piemonte (as well as the rest of Italy). It was a warm year, producing rich wines with impressive concentration; based on what I’ve tried so far with the whites as well as some reds from tank and cask, it definitely has the potential to be an outstanding vintage. That means that 2008 will likely be lost in the shuffle, as this was a cooler year that yielded less weighty wines.
However, 2008 is an excellent vintage – don’t let the hype fool you. While the wines may be less robust than those from 2009, they do offer beautiful varietal character and, most importantly, excellent acidity, which means the wines will age gracefully.
In fact, when it comes to Barolo and Barbaresco – both made exclusively from Nebbiolo – 2008 may be the better year. Danilo Drocco, winemaker at Fontanafredda in Serralunga d’Alba in the heart of the Barolo zone, told me that he believes 2008 will be the better of the two years for Nebbiolo-based wines. “I prefer 2008 for Nebbiolo,” Drocco related. “2008 was a long, cool growing season while 2009 was a shorter, hotter year. 2009 will be better for Barbera and Dolcetto, but it was not great for Nebbiolo.” Dante Scaglione, former winemaker at Bruno Giacosa and now consulting enologist for several projects including Cascina Roccalini in Barbaresco, told me that he agrees with Drocco about Nebbiolo for 2008.
Vintage assessments are always fascinating, but it’s also important to think about the style of the red wines made in Piemonte. From what I tasted during my recent trip, it was clearly noticeable that oak is becoming more of supporting player in the wine, as it should have been all along. Barolo went through its stage of high percentage, new barrique aging during the 1990s and early 2000s, but now the tide is turning back to larger barrels and thus, less wood influence. Another promising trend is that here are more and more cellars fermenting and/or aging their wines for a short time in cement tanks. Franco Massolino in Serralunga prefers fermenting his Barolo in cement, as “this helps preserve the aromas.” How nice that producers such as Massolino, Giovanni Rosso, Elio Grasso, Marcarini, Bartolo Mascarello and others are producing wine with the goal of emphasizing the flavors of the Nebbiolo variety as well as focusing on terroir to produce a wine with a sense of place.
There are so many wonderful reds that will be released over the next 3-4 years from Piemonte and while things look good in the short term of this span, it’s especially nice that tradition will play a more important role in this area for years to come.
Today, wines made from the Barbera grape are respected as some of Piemonte’s finest reds, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, until recently (thirty years ago), Barbera was nothing more than an everyday wine meant to accompany salumi and pasta at lunch or dinner. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that (and there are times when I wish we could get back to those simple pleasures!), but the fact remains that a handful of vintners decided in the late 1970s to change the image of Barbera from an everyday wine to one meant for special occasions.
Arguably the most famous leader of this movement was Giacomo Bologna in the province of Asti, who was among the first to age his finest examples of Barbera d’Asti in barrique rather than the large barrels (grandi botti), which were the norm for decades. He also decided to harvest the Barbera grapes later than normal, resulting in extra natural sugar, but also slightly decreasing the overall acidity. As Barbera has naturally high acidity (very high for a red wine), Bologna and others of like mind believed that the wine would still maintain enough acidity to yield a balanced product.
His first great success with a Barbera in this style was the Bricco dell’Uccellone bottling from the 1982 vintage. The grapes were sourced entirely from a single hillside vineyard with optimal southern exposure and the wine was aged for more than 16 months in French barrriques – a practice largely unheard of at that time. This wine was previewed at the VinItaly wine fair in 1984 and was instantly singled out as a new direction for Barbera. although initial reaction was almost evenly split among lovers of the wine’s style and its detractors.
Bologna kept at it and soon added another single vineyard Barbera, called Bricco della Bigotta; the first bottling from the 1985 vintage. Some wine journalists thought this new wine was even better than the Uccellone; clearly, both wines are first-rate, though tend to differ a bit in style, as the Bigotta wine is generally more approachable upon release, given that these vines are ten years younger than Uccellone (Bigotta planted in 1982 – Uccellone planted in 1972.)
A third Barbera, named “Ai Suma” was released in 1990, just after Giacomo Bologna’s death. The wine is made from late-harvested grapes and is quite ripe with licorice and marmalade notes. The name of the wine means “we’ve done it” in local dialect, a reference to Giacomo’s quest for perfection.
Today his ebullient daughter Raffaella runs the winery, while her brother Giuseppe is the winemaker. All three of the bottlings of Barbera are still ranked as among the finest of their type each year, as are their charming versions of Moscato d’Asti – whimsically named “Vigna Senza Nome” (“vineyard without a name”) – and Brachetto d’Acqui, a slightly sweet red sparkling wine from grapes in the province of Asti. Both of these light sparklers are ideal with fresh fruit, but are quite delicious on their own.
As she carries on the work done by her father, Raffaella Bologna remembers the true meaning of his vision. “He gave the producers the courage to leave behind the path of tradition and to cross new roads.”
After spending a bit of time in the province of Asti tasting Barbera last week (thanks to the organizers of Barbera Meeting 2010), I can report on one aspect that is rarely mentioned regarding this variety; the ability of Barbera to age well.
In reality, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Barbera can age; after all, this is a variety with nautrally high acidity. Yet, as the grape also has extremely low levels of tannins, many wine publications emphasize this factor. The writers of these journals naturally compare Barbera to Nebbiolo, a very tannic variety that does produce long-lived wines, such as Barolo and Barbaresco. But of course, the potential to age is not just the amount of tannins, it’s a balancing act, as some vintages of Barolo such as 1989, 1996 and 2001 age better than vintages such as 1990 and 2000, as the latter two vintages don’t have the proper acidity levels for long-term pleasure.
Yet, given the history of Barbera as a simple, high-acid wine best served with antipasti, it’s easy to see why few have considered Barbera as a variety that would be thought of for its longevity. The most widely planted red variety in Piemonte, it has been referred to as the “Coca-Cola” or “Pepsi-Cola” of the region, hardly a term of endearment. So when a few producers started to focus on making a more “serious” Barbera (for lack of a better term), these vintners turned heads in the area.
One of those quite famously was the late Giacomo Bologna, who started to experiment with aging in French barriques for Barbera instead of the usual large casks (botti grandi). He focused on specific vineyards and decided to harvest the grapes a bit later than normal, looking for a riper, more powerful wine that could age. A later harvest meant that the acidity would decrease, but given its naturally high levels to begin with, Bologna and other producers reasoned the wine would still have sufficient acidity and balance.
I attended a special tasting at the winery (known as Braida di Giacomo Bologna) in Rocchetta Tanaro, a short ride from the town of Asti, which was hosted by Giacomo’s daughter Raffaella and son Giuseppe. There are three top-end bottlings of Barbera d’Asti: Bricco dell’Uccellone, Bricco della Bigotta and Ai Suma. The last, meaning, “I’ve got it,” in local dialect is a wine made from very late harvested grapes and has a notable ripe quality when young, yet rounds out nicely with several years in the bottle. The other two wines have rightly been celebrated as among the finest of all Barbera; from year to year, the press has favored one or the other – Uccellone from older vineyards and displaying greater intensity, while Bigotta is generally a bit lighter on the palate, though this is all relative, as it is a deeply concentrated wine in its own right.
Here are notes on the wines presented in this tasting at the winery:
2001 Bricco dell’ Uccellone
Roast coffee and dried cherry aromas; beautifully balanced from start to finish with excellent concentration and very good acidity. 5-7 years more on this.
1999 Bricco della Bigotta
Medium-full with very good concentration and excellent acidity; nice complexity with a lengthy finish with distinct herbal notes. 3-5 years on this.
1998 Bricco dell’ Uccellone
Raspberry and dried brown herb aromas; notable acidity- wonderfully elegant. 3-5 years on this.
1997 Ai Suma
Maple and dried coffee aromas with a light raisiny note; excellent concentration with notable grip in the finish. Though 1997 was not as great a year in Piemonte that some have proclaimed, it was ideal for this late-harvest wine. 5-7 years more.
1996 Bricco della Bigotta
Coffee, dried strawberry and cherry aromas; excellent concentration; very good acidity; quite round and complete; 5-7 years on this – maybe longer?
1995 Bricco dell’ Uccellone
Nearing peak, this has distinct herbal notes and very good concentration; 2-3 years on this.
The other producer I visited this day was La Ghersa in the small commune of Moasca (population 461, as it was proudly pointed out), near the town of Castelnuovo Calcea. This estate is run by Massimo Pastura and with a last name like Pastura, you can imagine how nature plays an important part in his winemaking!
My fellow journalists and I were treated to a vertical tasting of seven vintages of their Vignassa bottling. Produced from a single vineyard planted in the first decade of the 20th century, this wine is a Nizza Superiore, one of the most restrictive DOC designations in all of Italy. Yields are quite low and vineyards must be south or south-east facing to catch as much of the sun as possible; these factors combine to yield deeply concentrated wines.
Instead of giving notes on each wine, a few overall comments. The differences in the wines were due to vintages – 2000 being rather simple with moderate acidity, whlie a wonderful year such as 2004 showing excellent depth of fruit and structure. This tells me two things; the consistency of the winemaking as well as the excellence of the site. The oldest wine we tasted was the 1989, a legendary vintage for Piemontese reds; this has wonderful balance and complexity and was quite stylish, though nearing peak. I’d have to say that my favorite wine was the 1996; Massimo commented on how this is not a vintage that is discussed much for Barbera, but after tasting this wine as well as the Bricco della Bigotta (noted above), I’d have to state that 1996 was an outstanding year for Barbera. There is plenty of still-fresh black cherry fruit and the mid-palate is wonderfully generous, while the acidity is simply beautiful. The lengthy finish and fruit persistence argue for another 5-7 years.
These wines offered more proof not only of the excellence of Barbera, but also the surprises one finds in Italian wines. Barbera as the everyday soda pop wine of Piemonte? Not from these two producers!
Text and photos ©Tom Hyland
This past week I conducted a class at Perman Wine Selections in Chicago that included some of Italy’s finest and most famous wine types. I dubbed the class “Italy’s Killer B’s”; the wines tasted were examples of Brunello, Bolgheri, Barbera, Barbaresco and Barolo.
No one really knows how many grape varieties are planted throughout Italy today for the production of wine. There are at least 300, but the number could be as high as 1000 – or perhaps even higher. The reason that there is not fixed number is that growers are constantly finding a few rows of an obscure variety that they thought was extinct, yet there it is, mixed in amidst other varieties.
Of course, Italy has so-called international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Chardonnay planted in various regions, but the numbers for these varieties are small compared to the total acreage of indigenous varieties found throughout the country. It’s varieties such as Greco, Fiano and Aglianico in Campania, Sangiovese and Canaiolo in Tuscany and Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Arneis in Piemonte that are only a few of the distinct indigenous grapes that define the Italian wine world today.
I’ll cover some of the more important indigenous varieties in the next four posts; this will be A-C, while I’ll cover D-Z over the next few posts.
One of Italy’s greatest red varieties, primarily found in the southern regions of Campania and Basilicata. The most famous red wines made from this variety are Aglianico del Vulture, the best red wine of Basilicata and Taurasi and Aglianico del Taburno, both from Campania. Taurasi is one of the country’s most complex and longest-lived reds.
Popular thought has it that the word “aglianico” is a derivation of the word “hellenico”, an adjective for Greece; thus a reference to the Greek colonists that first planted this variety over 2000 years ago. Other linguists disagree with this reasoning.
Red variety with very good acidity and flavors of cherry, currant and plum used for production of lightly sweet dessert wine in Tuscany and Puglia.
White variety grown in Piemonte, most famously in the Roero district, across the Tanaro River from the Langhe. Usually non oak aged, the flavors are of pear and pine. Arneis in local dialect means “rascal” or “crazy.”
Grown in Piemonte, this is a red variety with light tannins and high acidity. Most famous examples are Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba (see post on Barbera).
A white variety with high acidity grown along the coastal zones of Campania, most famously in the Amalfi Coast and the island of Ischia. Many excellent whites from these areas have Biancolella as part of the blend.
There is both a Bombino Bianco and Bombino Nero. These varieties are found in Pugila – generally in the north (Castel del Monte DOC) – and are usually blending varieties.
A lovely red variety used most often to produce a charming lightly sparkling (frizzante) wine, especially Brachetto d’Acqui from Piemonte. Flavors of strawberry and raspberry. Some producers also make a passito version of Brachetto.
A traditional blending variety used in the Chianti zone. Light tannins with cherry fruit flavors. Many producers today in Chianti have gotten away from this variety in favor of better-known (and deeper-colored) international varieties.
Grown in Sardegna, this is known as Grenache in France. Produces light, earthy red wines with berry fruit and moderate tannins.
Also grown in Sardegna, this is known as Carignane in France (it is also grown in Spain). Deeply colored with raspberry and black cherry fruit, good acidity and rich, but not heavy tannins.
A white variety, found in the Etna district of Sicily. A few producers work with this variety and produce a long-lasting white with rich fruit (pear, lemon) and very good acidity. The name is translated as “constant.”
A white variety from Sicily, this produces simple, clean citrusy and apple-tinged dry whites meant for consumption in their youth.
A synonym for Nebbiolo as used in the Valtellina district.
Literally “cherry,” this is a red variety used in Tuscany, especially in the Maremma. Often used as a blending variety, there are a few examples of 100% Ciliegiolo that are quite full on the palate. Cherry flavors (naturally) and moderate tannins.
Another blending variety from Toscana, often used in Chianti. More deeply colored than Canaiolo.
The principal grape of Gavi (also known as Cortese di Gavi), a dry white from southeastern Piemonte. Flavors of pear with notes of almond.
One of the major red varieties used in the Valpolicella district (and in the production of Amarone). Rich tannins, plenty of spice and cherry fruit. This is the variety that gives the most intensity to a Valpolicella or Amarone.
Another variety used in the Valpolicella district. Similar characteristics to Corvina, but with fewer tannins and more forward fruit.
See my companion website: learnitalianwines.com
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