The Piedmont has, on more than one occasion, been a battleground. The myriad hilltop fortresses and fortified churches will tell that tale, even if one’s own historical assemblage does not. But it has probably not often been the venue for a wine war. Disagreements, debates…yes. But overt hostility?
Full details of yesterday’s happenings in Asti, Canelli, and Nizza Monferrato are far, far, too involved for what must – written, as this is, at 2 a.m. after an exceedingly long day – be a brief, bloggy take on the situation. That longer, and more important, narrative will come in time from my ever-loquacious virtual pen, though the tale will undoubtedly be told in shorter bursts by others in the interim. But suffice it to say that there was an open revolt against the current state of Piedmontese barbera. I don’t know that anyone other than those manning the barricades were quite prepared for it, but now it’s a crucial chapter in this week’s story, and must be told to its conclusion.
To say that it has cast a pall over the proceedings of Barbera Meeting 2010 would be an overreach. No, neither the producers nor the tirelessly-engaged public relations folk that represent them (and shepherd we journalists from site to site) could be said to have exhibited pleasure at this turn of events. But there’s local and national attention focused on the matter, based on coverage both existent and pending, and now it’s too late to wish or program it away.
The issue, succinctly distilled to the same fiery edge as the local grappas, is essentially that few tasters appear to like, or even appreciate, the modernistic path that has been chosen for barbera by ever so many. Tannin, oak, extraction, weighty seriousness, ordinance-level fruit, the wholesale abandonment of barbera’s intrinsic acid and brightness…all play a role, though they differ in importance from taster to taster. But the message is simple: this is neither identifiable as barbera nor is it good. Those are two quite different objections, of course, and I promise that a full exploration of each will come in time. But in answer to question after question, criticism after criticism, producers returned only evasions, contradictions, and…far too often…outright hostility. None were a good choice, but more importantly none were an effective choice. The word “insulting,” in response to a stylistic observation, passed nearly a half-dozen Asti producers’ lips today. This is no way to win over a skeptical audience.
The day’s multiple confrontations – before and over lunch, and then again before and during dinner – can be roughly summed up in an exchange between a Belgian writer and a collection of producers of barbera d’Asti Nizza Superiore, a newly-created subzone (the need for which is yet another question worth addressing…but, again, another time). I’ve edited it for clarity, and there are nuances I’ve elided here, but it captures the tenor of yesterday’s tête-à-tête. Here’s our Belgian objector:
“Why so much oak? Why so many uninteresting tannins? My quest is to find a wine with fruit, freshness, tannins that are interesting and not dry, and…if it is necessary…a little oak. If you think that putting oaky barberas on the market is a good idea, you only join the rest of the world in making big, oaky wine.”
I will here skip over the Nizza producer who, apparently enraged, barked in response, “Do you have any concept of wine? Do you have any idea what you are talking about?” (NB: this response was translated from Italian to English) and get to a meatier and more engaged answer from yet another producer…this time delivered in fluent English:
“The two questions from the gentleman from Belgium are on the border of being offensive, because the wines we’re trying to make are important and distinctive.”
“Distinctive,” in my opinion, they are not. I may have tasted the exact same wine 60 or 70 times over the last two days (dark berry and chocolate milkshake rent by hard tannin, with an explosively fruity midpalate and a vanilla-laden, pinched-off finish). No distinctiveness there, within or outside the Piedmont. “Important?” That is the root, heart, and body of the problem: the overwhelming, overpowering, massively destructive craving for “importance” from a grape and a terroir that do not appear to support these goals without a deformative price.
A provocative opinion? Sure. But broadly held, I guarantee, and repeatedly expressed in yesterday’s frequently-hostile engagements. Honestly, I can’t wait to write about them in detail.
The rest of the conference should be quite a ride.