Wandering a d’Asti trail

[water & window]Back to the salt mines of blind tasting…and back to Asti. Again? Yes, again. The first 33 wines are a retread of yesterday’s ground, though I can’t really complain given that yesterday’s lineup was too long to begin with. Anyway, here they are: more barbera d’Asti from 2008, 2007, and 2006, in both regular and superiore forms. See this post for important disclaimers.

Isolabella della Croce 2008 Barbera d’Asti “Maria Teresa” (Piedmont) – Purple nurple. Already. In the first wine of the tasting! Well, this is going to be an exciting day. Solid fruit, albeit of the Welch’s jelly variety, and tasting as if from those little plastic cups they serve at diners. So, you know, actually “solid” fruit in colloidal form.

Franco Mondo 2008 Barbera d’Asti (Piedmont) – …and now, from wine number two, there’s wood. Is that wood? It’s nasty, whether it is or not. Blackberry brandy as well. A nearby taster identifies this as corked, and so we try a second: apple, guava, and an improved texture, but still nasty. TCA, if present in the first bottle, may have improved this wine.

Pico Maccario 2008 Barbera d’Asti Lavignone (Piedmont) – Walnut syrup, cooked apple jam, thick and overly burdened with tannin.

Olim Bauda 2008 Barbera d’Asti La Villa (Piedmont) – First bottle abusively corked. Second: big fruit, tannin, and vanilla. Tastes a little like a Slushie. I’m thinking strawberry/plum flavor.

Villa Giada 2008 Barbera d’Asti “Ajan” (Piedmont) – Very thick, zinfandel-like fruit. Explodes, MIRVs, then explodes again. Light vanilla plays a role. This is kinda fun, though it’s neither serious nor barbera as any sane person would recognize it.

Chiarlo 2008 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Cipressi della Court (Piedmont) – Unpleasant. A wrenched (and wretched) nose of stale hay and decay leads, unceremoniously, to a plate that’s at least acceptable for a moment. A hint of strawberry, and then…crash…sludge and effluvia. Disgusting.

Tenute dei Vallarino 2008 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “La Ladra” (Piedmont) – Brett and other more overtly fecal aromas. Tastes like vomit. No, really: the bile here is unmistakable.

Cavallotti 2007 Barbera d’Asti Ca’ La Mandrana (Piedmont) – A fun, slushy fruit bomb, OK in its pinkish-purple, Freon-toned, entirely plastic style. Finishes reasonably well.

La Barbatella 2007 Barbera d’Asti (Piedmont) – Rich. Vanilla and full-throated jam…a fruit bomb extraordinaire. How this is indistinguishable from the larger sort of Central Coast pinot noir is beyond me. The finish is even hot. It’s a dead ringer!

Lana 2007 Barbera d’Asti “l’Anniversario” (Piedmont) – Strawberry jam with ash, a nasty, plastic texture and cheap milk chocolate on the finish. Bad.

Coppo 2007 Barbera d’Asti Pomorosso (Piedmont) – Dark berries, dark chocolate, eucalyptus. A solid wall of New Worldish ornamentation, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Coppo 2007 Barbera d’Asti “Camp du Rouss” (Piedmont) – Smucker’s strawberry jam, imitation Nutella. Ugh.

Costa Olmo 2007 Barbera d’Asti La Madrina (Piedmont) – Grape jam with a hint of maple syrup. Excuse me?

Erede di Chiappone 2007 Barbera d’Asti Brentura (Piedmont) – Pure fruit in a bomby sort of expression and a short, vanilla-dominated finish. I’d like this more if the label said “zinfandel,” but it’s certainly not an unpleasant wine.

La Gironda di Galandrino 2007 Barbera d’Asti “la Gena” (Piedmont) – Smoked toast and tar with some of the grossest wood aromas I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing. It’s not just that there’s too much wood, it’s that the wood has to have been infected with quercal syphilis or something.

[stained notebook]Gazzi 2007 Barbera d’Asti Praiot (Piedmont) – Flat, dull, and oppressed.

Bersano 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Cremosina (Piedmont) – First bottle corked, or so it appears. Second still dull, but with a grainy, dead apple-like aroma. Maybe also corked. Maybe both have a different problem. Maybe the wine just sucks.

Cantina di Nizza 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “50 Vendemmie” (Piedmont) – Mint and other herbs, light strawberry fruit, and Pixy Stix. Oversmoothed, with a candied fruit character that reminds me of the worst kind of California pinot.

Garitina 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Caranti (Piedmont) – Starts fresh and plummy, all crushed fruit and…wait, is that grappa? It’s not the bottle, it’s the whole damned factory. Then: freshly-assembled upholstery, and a horror show of a finish.

Franco Mondo 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Vigna del Salice (Piedmont) – Vanilla, coconut rum, tequila. Another horror show.

Dezzani 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “La Luna e le Stelle” (Piedmont) – Incredibly dense. Berry jam and vanilla on toast, with chocolate and ashes fresh from the fireplace. Finishes quite charred.

Scrimaglio 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Croutin (Piedmont) – Spirituous (mostly cassis liqueur), sludge, cement. A neutron star of a wine, in which gravity sucks everything in, and allows nothing interesting or alive to escape its clutches.

Scrimaglio 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Acsé (Piedmont) – Vanilla, praline, toasts, coconut. Absolutely obliterated by wood. Soulless.

Olim Bauda 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Le Rocchette (Piedmont) – Dead wine, dead rocks, dead wood. Were they trying to make motor oil from these grapes? Well, that didn’t work either.

Tenute dei Vallarino 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore La Ladra (Piedmont) – Plum-flavored Fruit Roll-Up, plum, blueberry, black cherry, blackberry…hey, actual fruit! It’s like a revelation.

Vinchio e Vaglio Serra 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “I Tre Vescovi” (Piedmont) – Early-maturing notes, plum, baked apple, and graham cracker pie crust. A little absent, but the palate’s got a certain litheness to it. Frankly, this is odd.

Scarpa 2006 Barbera d’Asti “Casa Scarpa” (Piedmont) – Milkshake and candy. Completely fake-tasting, dressed with cheap costume jewelry, bedecked with rhinestones, and caked with bad makeup. But, you know, there’s good acidity. Sigh.

Guido Berta 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Piedmont) – A warm fireplace of cooked fruit, nuts, and oddness. Very lactic.

Guasti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Boschetto Vecchio (Piedmont) – Soft, pillowy fruit, cotton candy, and strawberry/cherry fruit. Wifty.

Poderi dei Bricchi Astigiani 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Bricco del Perg (Piedmont) – Mint, eucalyptus, thyme, and tight berries. The midpalate is open and even a little plush. A soft, lactic finish. Good but anonymous. As The Beatles sang, it’s a real nowhere wine…

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

The moment of preconception

[reflected fortress]I wanted to break up the barbera-blogging with something about identity, or maybe authenticity. Perhaps essentiality. You can already see how carefully- and narrowly-conceived this thought was, and how a successful, highly-convincing argument was already virtually assured.

However, it turns out that I’ve already written that post. With, I note, my usual brevity. (There cannot be a wine writer alive who benefits more from the lack of an editor…or a writer’s audience who suffers more from that same lack.) So anyway, I don’t have to repeat myself. There will be some additional thoughts on what barbera is, isn’t, and should be in a wrap-up narrative that should be happening, oh, any week now.

Instead, as I head into another blizzard of notes, followed by a very difficult and convoluted, but important, story about Barbera Meeting 2010’s day of angst and agita, I’m going to share a few thoughts on the aforementioned identity…not as it affects the drinker, but as it affects the taster.

The biggest problem with expectations, of course, is that they encourage prejudgment. While I stand firmly among those who insist there is no such thing as objectivity (nor has the concept any real value) when it comes to criticism, there are forms of subjectivity that one does better to avoid. And prejudging an entire class of wines is one of those forms.

To enter into a tasting of barbera with one’s biases intact is fine, and natural, and in fact unavoidable. To enter into that same tasting with a determination to judge each and every wine against a subjective “ideal” barbera is as easy and natural as it is entropic. An intelligent taster must know they are going to be shown not only different takes on a familiar idea, but also new ideas based on entirely unfamiliar assumptions. To fail to respond to this with an open mind, at least initially, is not only a failure to capitalize on the potential for broadening one’s knowledge, but also – and this is where it matters to everyone else – unhelpful to anyone but the taster. A taster that is writing a long series of notes that amount to no more than “this is 2% closer to my ideal barbera than that one, so I like this better” is writing notes on the mirror. It’s arguable that this is all notes ever are, but then why exert the public effort of sharing them with anyone else?

The above is one of the many reasons I find points and other scoring systems unsatisfying. Yes, they’re a shorthand for a hierarchical ranking, in which some find value. But they absolutely enforce the sort of thinking I’m criticizing in the previous paragraph, in which one identifies – or constructs, if an actual example doesn’t exist – some sort of Platonic ideal of a wine and then ranks everything by its qualitative proximity to that ideal. That seems awfully narrow-minded to me, but beyond that it seems a little hostile to the audience…essentially demanding that they embrace the taster’s preferences before they go on to make use of those rankings. Certainly there are both more utilitarian and more expressive ways to communicate preference to another. Like, for example, the text of a note.

The thing is, a determination to avoid this sort of preferential trap doesn’t, as a rule, last long in the face of the actual tasting experience. First, one’s experience of wines will change due to the influence of the other wines in the same tasting (a contextual effect). Then, as one adds to an accumulation of organoleptic data, new conclusions will coalesce around that data (an observer effect). Ultimately, one will start to judge wines based not necessarily on preconceptions, but on reconceptions born from within the process itself.

So it was with the barbera tastings. I approached them assuming two styles: sharp, biting little numbers that I considered “classic” barbera; and slick, modernized versions layered with the individuality-numbing, internationalizing effect of new wood. I left having found not only three general categories (traditional, internationalized, and a middle-ground style in which the fruit and acid had been modernized but the wine is not overburdened with barrique), but a different fulcrum point for the two known categories.

I’ll expand on that to (much) greater length in the aforementioned wrap-up post, and I’ll also note that there were good, bad, and indifferent wines within each category. And I certainly have my thoughts on which I prefer, but also which I think will and won’t bring the barbera producers of the Piedmont success on the international market.

The important lesson, however, was that – despite my preconceptions – there was something both new and unexpected to learn about the wines, both individually and taken as a group. And not just the things for which one might hope, like vintage characteristics or each sub-zone’s terroir signature. Instead, it was the how and/or why of the various possible stylistic choices, the role the grape does (and doesn’t) play in those choices, why barbera (rather than another grape) was chosen for this experimentation and marketing effort – for that is, at the heart, what Barbera Meeting was – and, finally, the tension between how the producers see their work and how their potential markets see that same work.

And yes: “tension” is the right word, for more reasons than one. For it turns out that the preconception-laden approach isn’t just a danger for wine tasters. The producers themselves have some issues along these lines…

It’s a manzo world

[dinner companions]The president of Asti is making love to her Rs.

No, really. I mean, those of us without the Italian chops are hearing a translation, but it’s hard to pay attention to what’s otherwise a pretty standard “thanks for coming, etc.” speech. Because her Rs are not just rolled. They’re a love story. They’re a romance. They might even be something a little more salacious. I could listen to her pronounce that letter for hours. And when she finally hands the microphone to someone else, I feel a sense of deflation. Of loss.

Slightly delirious with hunger? Yes, that’s me. And thirsty? Why, yes! Wine to drink rather than analyze? Here’s my glass. So…dinner, tonight a rather lavish affair at the swanky Villa Basinetto above Asti and catered by Il Cascinale Nuovo in Isola d’Asti:

millefoglie di lingua di vitello e foie gras, dadini di gelatina al porto
mille feuille of beef tongue & foie gras, with small cubes of port gelatin

zuppa di patate e fagioli borlotti con maltagliati all’uovo
potato & borlotti bean soup with maltagliati pasta

bocconcini di manzo stracotti al vecchio barbera d’asti con polenta
beef stew in old barbera d’asti with polenta

dolci sorprese alla tonda gentile di langa
dessert “surprises” with langhe hazelnuts

Of course, a wine geek’s job is never truly done, and so with the food there’s more note-taking. We’re seated, as we will be all week (except during breakfast, though I’m sure it’s just through lack of foresight) with winemakers, whose own wares – and others’ – appear at our table, have their contents adjusted downward, and are then passed on to other interested tables.

Pastura “La Ghersa” 2009 Gavi “Il Poggio” (Piedmont) – Strident greenish-white fruit that gets more pleasant as it aerates. I don’t have enough time with this wine to discern its destination, but there’s at least hope.

Carretta 2009 Roero Arneis “Cayega” (Piedmont) – Spiky to the point of near-frizzante-ness. Lemongrass abounds. Nice acidity.

Rivetto 2008 Langhe Bianco “Matiré” (Piedmont) – Made from nascetta. Light and slightly floral…lilies, mostly. Simple, pretty, and pretty simple.

Pastura “La Ghersa” 2009 Grignolino d’Asti “Spineira” (Piedmont) – Wrenched. Skin bitterness, needles of acidity, and planar fruit.

Pastura “La Ghersa Piagè” 2009 Monferrato Chiaretto (Piedmont) – Made from barbera. It’s a pretty little thing, smirking from the glass with spiced apple, strawberry, raspberry, and mustard powder. Very crisp. Pure enjoyment.

Pastura “La Ghersa” 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Le Cave” (Piedmont) – Volatile. Crushed berries with some dirt. Pretty straightforward, and decent enough.

Pastura “La Ghersa” 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Camparò” (Piedmont) – Thick but not overdriven, with darkish, lush fruit pushed rather aggressively from behind, but not so hard that it trips over its own feet.

Castlet 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Passum” (Piedmont) – Huge. Massive. Sizeable. Big. The adjectives sort of peter out, and so does the wine. Oh, it’s long enough, but the New World blast of volume never goes anywhere, and eventually just collapses under its own weight.

Rocche Costamagna “Bricco Francesco” 2005 Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata (Piedmont) – Corked, though this is a minority opinion at our table.

Pastura “La Ghersa” 2009 Moscato d’Asti “Giorgia” (Piedmont) – Frothy orange and brighter citrus. Floral, of course. Simple.

Romano Dogliotti 2009 Moscato d’Asti “La Caudrina” (Piedmont) – Lightly floral and quite supple. Usually these things are little more than explosions of the flower/perfume variety, so delicacy is something to be admired in a sense. In another sense, however, one wishes for a bit more. I know, I know: one can wish for too much.

After dinner, we find the one bar in downtown Asti that’s open late (and even they’re closing, though they take pity on a bedraggled group of foreigners) and replenish ourselves on the electrolyte-refreshing sports drink of wine folk everywhere: beer. All is right with the world.

The question is: will I stick to that story tomorrow, when I’ve only had three hours of sleep?

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

Up Braida-ed

[scribblings]Sixty-eight wines – line ‘em up, knock ‘em downthis morning. Rush through lunch in the basement of a history-laden palazzo, a basement that I don’t think was ever designed for crowds of hungry wine dorks. Pile onto the bus. Drive, taste, repeat. Listen, listen, listen. Another sixteen wines are swirled, regarded, and (with one or two exceptions) expectorated. Teeth are nightshaded, eyes are lidded, enthusiasm is long past ebb and has now receded with the tidal undertow.

What am I in the mood for? Oh, definitely a walk-around tasting – three rooms’ worth – with more barbera. A lot more. And not just barbera, either. The producers are here, grinning (well, not all of them) behind their tables. I recognize this. I’ve done it a thousand times, or maybe more. But…why am I doing it now?

It must be a junket. I’m not here for me. And so, I plunge into the depths. Well, maybe not “plunge.” Wade. Tiptoe. I’ve the ability to taste a little more wine, but not a roomful. Certainly not three rooms’ full. Enthusiasm must be parceled. Metered.

As a result of this lack of exploratory energy, I will completely miss the presence of Oddero – one of my favorite traditionalist producers – in the ill-attended third room upstairs. Well, my fault. Though it seems few of us have the energy for the stairs anyway.

l’Armangia 2006 Monferrato Rosso “Pacifico” (Piedmont) – Nebbiolo, merlot, freisa, barbera, cabernet sauvignon, cat, ’81 Volvo, and bits of the last 15 prime ministers of Italy. (No, no. I’m just kidding. Send the lawyers home.) Thick and very tannic, with a chewy, leafy structure. Dull. (3/10)

l’Armangia 2007 Monferrato Rosso “Macchiaferro” (Piedmont) – Acidic strawberries. That’s all I’ve written, so there must not be much more than that. (3/10)

l’Armangia 2009 Moscato d’Asti “Il Giai” (Piedmont) – Very, very flowery. By-the-numbers moscato d’Asti. (3/10)

Crivelli 2009 Grignolino d’Asti (Piedmont) – A brittle shell of a light red wine, with cold tannin encasing sharp acidity. Very severe. (3/10)

Crivelli 2008 Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato (Piedmont) – Living up to ruché’s reputation as “red gewürztraminer” with its lurid aromatics and neon fatness. Cherry, pastille, and exotic weirdness. I wouldn’t want to drink it every night, but I kinda dig it. (3/10)

Crivelli 2007 Monferrato Rosso “Aghõghē” (Piedmont) – Ruché and syrah. That’s a first for me, I think, and I’m surprised to find that it works. Smooth and leathery, with blueberry and blackberry paired. Micro-bead structure and lingering tannin. Quite long. Muscular but impressive. (3/10)

Damilano 2005 Barolo Cannubi (Piedmont) – Laughing roses and the expected mass of structural tannin. Underneath, however, there’s a swell of New Worldish concentration that pretties this wine up a little more than is good for it. The finish returns to the hard, hard road Barolo often travels. There’s a good wine in here somewhere, but I don’t think it’s been dealt with as well as it might have been. (3/10)

Damilano 2005 Barolo Brunate Cannubi (Piedmont) – Even more muscular than the Cannubi, with a wallop of angular tannin, but better-balanced. Yet again there’s some syrup marking the midpalate, after which it finishes hard. Steroidal, and then dressed in designer duds. Will this ever be drinkable? And why the sheen in the meantime? (3/10)

Damilano 2005 Barolo Liste (Piedmont) – Roses – a surplus of them – with absolutely brutal tannin. There’s fruit, too: red cherry and strawberry. Also, bark and a cheese rind texture (not the spoilage or refermentation aroma, just a texture). Probably balanced in its idiom, but the twenty or so years likely required to bring the tannin down to something manageable…I just don’t know. I doubt there’s the complexity or fruit persistence to sustain that sort of timeframe. I guess we’ll see. (3/10)

Cantina Sant’Agata 2008 Grignolino d’Asti “Miravalle” (Piedmont) – Bones and chilled fruit soup with a spicy midpalate and a flat finish. Very high acidity. Minor oxidation as well? Perhaps a bit. It’s fun, though. (3/10)

Cantina Sant’Agata 2008 Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato “’Na Vota” (Piedmont) – Papaya, guava, and lurid pomegranate…all of them in neon light. Finishes short but prettily. Surrealistically enjoyable. (3/10)

Cantina Sant’Agata 2008 Barbera d’Asti “Baby” (Piedmont) – Made for the American market, and despite all the talk here about “the Americans” wanting oaked-up, tarted-up, plastic surgery wines, here’s someone who understands that there’s another American market…one that might like a barbera done exclusively in stainless steel and that actually tastes like the grape. Fresh cherry, acid, and a little dirt. Classic and bright, with that acidity lingering. Varietal character, where have you been all day? Nice to meet you. Finally. (3/10)

Cantina Sant’Agata 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Altea” (Piedmont) – Barbera in botte. Smooth red fruit, dominated by strawberry, with roundness and persistence. Good tannin with hints of the graphite texture for which I’m nearly always a sucker. Not bad at all. (3/10)

Cantina Sant’Agata 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Cavalè” (Piedmont) – Barbera in barrique. Very concentrated fruit with big structure. Tries to finish clamped down-upon by its tannin, but then there’s a reemergence of sweetness. In this style, quite decent. (3/10)

Cantina Sant’Agata 2007 Monferrato Rosso “Monterovere” (Piedmont) – Barbera, cabernet sauvignon, and nebbiolo. Very tannic and yet soupy, with leather, wood, and candy all fighting for supremacy. Overworked. Not at all my sort of wine. (3/10)

Bologna “Serra dei Fiore” 2009 Langhe “Il Fiore” (Piedmont) – Chardonnay and nascetta. Possibly some other grapes; it’s a little unclear amidst the din of a crowded room. Very aromatic – citrus flowers, apples (with skin intact) – and a pleasant hint of fatness. Well-formed. (3/10)

Bologna “Serra dei Fiore” 2008 Langhe Riesling Renano “Re di Fiore” (Piedmont) – Very ferric, austere, and long. One must like drinking both iron and steel, though. Interesting. (3/10)

Bologna “Serra dei Fiore” 2008 Langhe Chardonnay “Asso di Fiore” (Piedmont) – Peach and citrus rinds. Straightforward. Nice. Hey, it’s only chardonnay, what more do you want? (3/10)

Bologna “Braida” 2009 Barbera del Monferrato Frizzante “la Monella” (Piedmont) – Raspberry, apple skin, and needles. Short but fun. The aggressive acidity of barbera is utilized to excellent effect in a wine like this, even if this particular bottle is no more than middle-of-the-road. (3/10)

Bologna “Braida” 2008 Barbera d’Asti Montebruna (Piedmont) – Red fruit (mostly raspberry), clean and crisp. Long. Great purity of expression. This is the large Slavonian oak bottling, and it shows. (3/10)

Bologna “Braida” 2008 Monferrato Rosso “il Bacialé” (Piedmont) – Barbera with pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot. Structured, very young, and completely dominated by dill, green coconut, and oak tannin. Yuck. (3/10)

Bologna “Braida” 2007 Barbera d’Asti Bricco dell’Uccellone (Piedmont) – 15.5% alcohol, but not showing it except in overall size. Big fruit offset by apple and walnut skins. Very spicy. Not at all bad in its style. (3/10)

Bologna “Braida” 2007 Barbera d’Asti Bricco della Bigotta (Piedmont) – Big, with an intense core of fruit nearly obscured by layers of spiced coconut and vanilla. Radiates sophistication, but all that polish comes at a very woody price. Anyone have some Pledge? (3/10)

Bologna “Braida” 2007 Barbera d’Asti “Ai Suma” (Piedmont) – Late-harvest barbera (that is to say, made from grapes that have desiccated on the vine). Dark. Heavy. Licorice-infused fruit, and a lot of it. Very Amarone-like in style, for sure, though the organoleptics are – aside from the licorice – different. I guess if one must have something like this, it’s a good example. (3/10)

Bologna “Braida” 2009 Brachetto d’Acqui (Piedmont) – Pure strawberry, sour cherry, watermelon Jolly Rancher™. Fine acidity balances the light sweetness. Very nice. (3/10)

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

Lurëi of hope

[asti vineyards]Talk. All talk.

That – or more accurately, listening to someone else talk – is what we’ve been doing since this morning’s massive blind tasting. Lots of talk. Little action.

I don’t know if it rises to the level of a truism, but in my experience, it’s generally the case that wineries who talk an awful lot about what they do tend to be the ones who don’t do it very well. A blizzard of words – whether they be oenogeekery or marketing blather – usually precede, and surround, wines that need all the help they can get. And I’ve never been asked “what do you think of the wines?” by an eager proprietor who’s just poured me a half-dozen tastes of liquid excellence. Those who make really good wine…well, they don’t need to ask. They already know.

So I suppose it’s no real surprise that this, our third and final winery visit of the day, is a little light on the talk. It’s not that there’s no information imparted. It’s just that we’re tired, that the winemaker can sense that we’re tired…and that the wines here at Il Falchetto speak for themselves.

There are some early signs within the little talk we do get, though. Some hints. Some promises. At one point, during a discussion of green-harvesting (grapes are dropped on the barbera vines until four to five bunches are left, depending on vintage characteristics), our host says that more are left on white-grape vines “to preserve acidity and limit sugar.”

Imagine that!

Yeasts? Inoculated, and chosen for “freshness.” Wild yeasts have been tried, but after some unclean ferments have not since been encouraged. The moscato d’Asti is a special case, however: yeast is cultured from a “mother” preparation that’s already well past its twentieth birthday.

And that’s it. Which is to say: there’s more talking, and there are answers to questions, but the really vital information is in our glasses. Which we proceed to with all due haste.

Il Falchetto 2009 Langhe Arneis (Piedmont) – Very lush fruit in the banana realm, but there’s an edge to it that’s more plantain-like…something greener and less ripe, combined with a textural ripeness that suggests, but does not deliver, an element of tropicality; a sort of Musa equipoise, if you will. Crystalline minerality coalesces over the course of a fairly long finish. Balanced and quite nice, perhaps with the potential to be even more than that.

Il Falchetto 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Lurëi (Piedmont) – A dramatic wine, and for a change that drama has been written by the authors Grape and Site, not the infamous ghostwriter Tonnelier. High-toned minerality dominates this wine, which is firmly-structured with graphite-textured tannin and great acidity. “Fruit,” such as it is, is dark and scowl-visaged. Very, very impressive.

Il Falchetto 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Bricco Paradiso (Piedmont) – Made from three very different sites from which the overall harvest lasts about a month, then given the sort of treatment a winery gives it’s “flagship” wine (that is: well over a year in barrique). Which means we all know what’s coming. Low acidity leaves roundness in its wake, and the tannin is extremely fine-grained. While the fruit is still of a reddish hue, it’s suave and sophisticated in the manner of…well, the name that immediately comes to mind is Gaja, and one may interpret that based on how one feels about that winery. There’s a bit of heat showing its reddened neck, as well. While it’s very good in the modern, “important” style, I don’t like that bit of heat, and I really don’t need yet another wine that tastes like this.

Il Falchetto 2003 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Bricco Paradiso (Piedmont) – “Smells like an ‘03” comments a fellow taster. Tastes like one, too. Dense – almost syrupy – but still red-fruited (an achievement of sorts). There’s also heavy tannin that’s not quite ripe, and shows hints of dill and allegations of unresolved powder. Everyone (me included) talks about the heat and overpowering fruit of 2003, but it’s really the chewy, undeveloped, yet massive tannin that’s going to bring to many of these wines to an early demise, not the fact that they’re neutron fruit bombs. The finish is chalky sludge. I suppose this is OK for the vintage, but that’s not exactly high praise.

[barrel + bottle]Il Falchetto 2007 Monferrato Rosso “La Mora” (Piedmont) – A blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and barbera. The greenness of the first two grapes (in contrast to barbera, that is) really sticks its neck out here, and not in an unpleasant way. There’s minerality, good acidity – and now we can thank the home team’s grape – and while it’s not all bad given that it’s a blend for which I don’t have much personal use, milk and oak really stew up the finish.

Some group musings on this wine lead to a short narrative on the presence of “foreign” grape varieties in the Piedmont. Along the way, our host tells us something that I find a little shocking. Apparently, one is allowed and even encouraged to “rescue” old vineyard sites within the various DOCs, but one may not use the best DOCs on wines from those replanted vineyards. Since there’s no market for the region’s traditional grape varieties as lesser-denominated or table wines, wineries wishing to recoup their expenses and eventually capitalize on these vineyards are – I’m using our host’s word here – essentially “forced” to plant non-indigenous varieties.

OK, no, what I said a moment ago is a lie. I find this a lot shocking…if it’s true. Is it? Is there a “rest of the story” that I’m missing? This would explain a lot about what’s going wrong in this region, if it’s so. But it still seems like a wholesale abandonment of patrimony, and while I would defend a winery’s choice to take this path on their own (provided they dropped the protected appellation), I find it inexplicable that a country’s or region’s wine law would encourage it.

Well, anyway, there’s still some tradition left to taste. We’re in the heart of moscato country, and here’s one from four different sites that, according to our host, provide “four different perfumes.”

Il Falchetto 2009 Moscato d’Asti “Tenuta del Fant” (Piedmont) – Very fresh, sweet, and pure. Orange and apple blossoms with bright malic acidity (or at least so it seems) and hints of cider. Really fun.

I don’t want to over-dramatize and say that this winery has restored my faith in barbera. I only really liked one of the three we were poured, after all…though I also enjoyed the two whites. But after a day in which I’ve tasted depredation after depredation for reasons of aspiration as often as indifference, it’s refreshing to taste wines that – even if they stray from my preferences – are able to express themselves without coaching from the finest minds of Allier, Tronçais, and Nevers.

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

The yeast of our worries

[l’armangia bottles]If the message at Paolo Marcarino is a little muddled, despite wines that make fairly clear statements, l’Armangia flips that equation. The words and purpose are clear, but the wines…not so much.

We’re spared a cellar tour – unless one is at, say, Gravner or there’s something really unusual worth explicating, they’re almost always overly familiar ground for those in or writing about wine – for which we’re thankful, but then spend a good deal more time on the winery’s threshold, discussing theory and practice, than I think our schedule-conscious hosts would prefer.

The thing is, there’s almost always a subject on which even the most reserved winemaker can be energized into a fully polemical diatribe. Sometimes, one knows what that subject is going to be ahead of time, and can choose to engage or avoid it as the situation warrants. And sometimes, it’s a surprise. So when we prod on the subject of sulfur, having just left a winery where the non-use thereof is a point of difference, and are met with a fairly bland response (“my father can’t tolerate added sulfites,” and in fact “we both get sick” from excessive levels, so they work with as little as possible; however, they don’t “believe” in senza solfiti wines, “because they’re a natural byproduct of fermentation”), it’s the argument that any low- but not no-sulfur producer uses, and we figure we’re in for a fairly easy rhetorical ride.

Not so.

There’s some talk of the Canelli subzone in which we’re currently situated, in which the best sites are planted to moscato, and despite some regrafting to barbera the best red grapes are still sourced from other zones. No chemicals are used in the vineyard or cellar, so as not to “affect aromas.” And a “handful of tools to deal with acidity” are mentioned, though the identity of those tools is a little surprising as iterated: alcohol, tannin, and complexity/richness. It would seem that the goal here is not to actually manage the acidity, but rather to find ways to counterbalance it. I admit that I respond positively to that notion, though whether or not it will be reflected in the wines remains to be seen.

And then, someone mentions yeast.

“In my opinion, the thought that natural or ambient yeasts make better wine is just stupid.”

Oh boy, here we go. The ambient/inoculated yeast argument is a well-worn one that I won’t re-adjudicate here. Suffice it to say that there are sensible and justifiable arguments on all sides, and that putting aside industrial wine production as a separate category with different needs, the actual division among more artisanal practitioners really boils down to a debate between those who believe yeasts are either part of or at least sympathetic to terroir, versus those who prefer a measure of control over uncertainty, and must include many intermediate points on that continuum. Choosing a side in this argument is very easy for someone sitting at a computer, and a little more difficult if the existence of food on one’s table is a direct outcome of that choice, but it’s worth saying for the record that while I enjoy many wines made with either kind of yeast, I’m always interested in wineries that have at least explored the ambient option, even if they then go on to reject it.

I issue this lengthy definitional and personal disclaimer because I will now proceed to lament a discussion that starts with such a bald-faced straw man. While there are certainly a few who argue that ambient yeasts make “better” wines, the far more common argument is that they remove a deliberate intervention from the winemaking process. This is a value-neutral assertion from a qualitative standpoint, and instead a manifestation of a philosophy or approach to winemaking. Or, if one prefers, a reordering of the words involved: not “to use ambient yeast is to make a better wine,” but “it is better to use ambient yeast to make a wine,” where “better” is here a synonym for “more correct given a particular philosophy” rather than a synonym for “superior quality.” It’s also not to say that winemakers who use ambient yeast don’t think they make better wine as a result of their choices, but that the gestation of the choice is not a clear “ambient yeast = better wine” equation.

Of course, calling something “stupid” within a dozen words of broaching a topic means we’re not in for a nuanced debate along “on one hand, but on the other hand” lines. So we brace, and gird, and put scribbling pens to notebooks, and are thus treated to the following:

“If I use a type of yeast that’s not invasive, and doesn’t add flavors, that’s fine. […] The important thing is to use yeast that’s clean and non-violent.”

So far, so good. Certainly an improvement on “stupid.” But then:

“If I wanted to make New Zealand sauvignon blanc, I would use yeasts that are very violent and aggressive [and] a temperature-controlled fermentation.”

Well, now, that’s interesting. Because while it’s true that industrial New Zealand sauvignon blanc (and that label applies to a number of wines that people don’t necessarily think of, nor that are marketed as, industrial…including the most famous one) is a “recipe” of yeasts and sometimes other biochemical nudging, the trend among the most interesting producers of the grape – even in Marlborough – is experimentation with, or outright adoption of, ambient yeasts. And in fact has been for some time now. That the resulting wines are more interesting than their industrial peers may or may not have all that much to do with the yeasts themselves, as they’re never the sole differentiating factor, but that they help contribute to a decidedly non-industrial character of greater individuality is fairly unquestionable.

Also, it must be said that this is an argument that would be enhanced by a spectacular sauvignon blanc from l’Armangia. See below for more on how that turns out.

One might think that this argument, plainly stated, against ambient yeasts might end here, as a point of differentiation and a defense of personal practice. Alas, no. This is the Piedmont, and as I’m learning, it is sometimes not enough to say what one does or does not do. One must also thoroughly repudiate anyone with a different opinion.

“For us to switch over to ambient yeasts would be ruinous. [I know of] wineries that have ruined their market because they switched to ambient yeasts.”

Somehow, I suspect that the presentation of a list of wineries whose market presence has been enhanced by a switch to ambient yeasts would not be met with equanimity. It’s not really important, anyway. If he says he knows of these wineries, then short of accusing him of lying one must believe him. It’s certainly well within the realm of possibility to lose control of a fermentation and thus lose a vintage due to an ill-considered acceptance of the wrong native critters. But it seems like an awfully large burden of guilt to place on poor ambient yeasts, which are used effectively and in a commercially successful way all over the world. I rather suspect that the problem at these unfortunate wineries was a little broader and more fundamental than the simple switch from inoculated to ambient yeasts.

Having denunciated with passion, there now appears to be a mental pause, which is followed by a sort of backtracking. I write “sort of” because the speechifying now takes a very curious and somewhat inexplicable left turn.

[steel tanks]“It would be right to use yeasts from Piedmont, but we can’t. […] I would rather use a yeast from Canelli, but I don’t have the money.”

Now, it’s true that I’ve never heard an economic argument made for why one cannot employ a locally-sourced yeast. I have heard an economic argument against the uncertainty of ambient yeasts in toto, but that’s clearly not what’s on our host’s mind here. I can only surmise – no other reason of which I can conceive makes sense – that the aforementioned philosophical linkage between terroir and ambient yeast has suddenly occurred, and what we are now hearing is a response to that internal reminder.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. One is that if one is going to add packaged yeast, it seems largely unimportant from a philosophical standpoint whether the lab that isolated or created that yeast is down the street or halfway ‘round the globe. It’s still a packaged yeast, for all the importance (or lack thereof) that someone places in such things. Those drinkers who harbor a philosophical preference for ambient yeasts, a small but extant and vocal niche within winedom, are unlikely to be swayed to the desirability of inoculated yeast because it comes from within a thirty-mile radius of the winery. And to anyone else, the argument doesn’t matter a bit.

Another is the assertion that a Canelli- or Piedmont-derived yeast would be beyond this winery’s means. I admit complete ignorance on how this might be so. Is the price differential for yeast inoculants really so large that the economics of it matter to such a degree? If so, why? Simple economies of scale? Or are certain yeasts the Armani of the Saccharomyces set, while others hang out on the clearance shelves at Walmart?

(After some post-facto conversations, however, I’ve another theory: perhaps what’s meant, though to my knowledge this goes unsaid, is that any winery wishing for a local strain of yeast isolated and then reproduced in commercial quantities might have to pay for this research and development themselves.)

Having deployed a full palette of arguments against ambient yeast, the subject now appears exhausted (and our schedulers seem to be mentally projecting an impatient tapping of their watches), and so we move inside for a tasting. We begin with the ubiquitous white interloper of the region, for which a defense is peremptorily offered: “you can call me a follower of fashion, but chardonnay is one of the oldest white grapes here.”

l’Armangia 2008 Piemonte Chardonnay “Pratorotondo” (Piedmont) – 70% stainless steel and 30% wood, sulfured only once at bottling. Shy, lending a brief glimpse of melon and lemon (the latter heavy on the rind) under the shade of an acacia tree. Kinda…eh.

l’Armangia 2007 Monferrato Sauvignon “EnnEEnnE” (Piedmont) – Yes, yes, everyone has the same question: what does that mean? Roughly, “bastard child,” here a reference to the unusual (for the region) grape variety. Floral aromas, woodsy and a little bit woody as well, though it’s less of a prominent aromatic factor than it is a participant in the muting and restraining of other aromas. Fairly sticky and dense, with some heat evident. The texture is lavish, and without that alcoholic imbalance this could have been a more interesting wine than it ultimately turns out to be.

Cheap snark alert: as an argument against whatever New Zealand is doing, this is perhaps not enormously effective.

We enter into the barbera portion of the tasting with a little primer on recent vintages, at least as seen from this winery’s vantage point. 2006 was not particularly hot, but dry, and some August rain freshened the grapes. 2007 is considered the best of the three it anchors, with an accelerated beginning (there were leaves on trees as early as February), a hot August, and a cooler September. And 2008? A rainy, cold winter, but no midsummer rain, and so the grapes tend towards high sugar and good color but little richness. Our host states it plainly: “2008 is not going to be a great vintage.”

l’Armangia 2008 Barbera d’Asti “Sopra Berruti” (Piedmont) – Chocolate and lactic milkiness with only a rough stab at integration. Kinda flat, otherwise. Not very good.

l’Armangia 2006 Barbera d’Asti “Sopra Berruti” (Piedmont) – Buttered fruit, dark raspberry jam, and spiky acidity. Alcohol prongs forth as well. The texture is somewhat unfortunate – Nutella and peanut butter – which just adds to the problems.

At this point, apparently feeling that not enough contentious assertions have been provided during our discourse on yeast, our host offers the following as an aside. And what an aside!

“The new [trend] is to say that [a] wine is not aged in wood…but fine tannins are added.” This is a contention that will be rather violently refuted the following afternoon, but it’s worth noting in advance of that tale that it’s not just foreign journalists that are sniffing around this question. Lacking evidence either way, I can only report the controversy as it played out within our hearing.

l’Armangia 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Titon” (Piedmont) – Syrupy fruit and alcohol. Were there such an English dessert as “sticky cherry toffee pudding,” this would be the perfect partner. Jam abounds, with infusion-like leaf bitterness on the finish. Very, very dense.

l’Armangia 2004 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Vignali” (Piedmont) – Huge. Massive fruit layered with chocolate and mint. While this is balanced in its own hulkish way, I challenge someone to slip it into a blind tasting of Napa cabernet/merlot blends and then pick it from the lineup. Maybe the acidity would tell the tale, but I doubt it.

This last wine is interesting, because it comes alongside a musing that “now that there are more people drinking wine more regularly, they’re moving from cabernet to pinot” and “don’t want such heavy, overpowering wines.” I think that for some drinkers that’s true, and is reflected in certain segments of the market, but there’s nothing in this portfolio to suggest organoleptic kinship with pinot noir, nor a rejection of heaviness or power.

…with this one exception: we’re told that the yeast used for inoculations here is RC212. Let me quote Lallemand’s description of this yeast:

Lalvin Bourgorouge RC212 was selected from fermentations in Burgundy by the BIVB to extract and protect the polyphenols of Pinot noir. Due to the limited adsorption of polyphenols on Lalvin Bourgorouge RC212 yeast cell walls, there is limited color loss and structure is protected during aging. It requires high nutrient additions to avoid the potential development of sulfides and demonstrates best results when rehydrated with the right nutrient and protectant. Lalvin Bourgorouge RC212 consistently produces Pinot noir with good structure, ripe cherry, bright fruit and spicy characteristics. Wines made with Lalvin Bourgorouge RC212 can be blended with wines made with RA17 to achieve more complexity and finesse.

Trying for pinot noir but achieving something very different? Cheap snark alert number two: maybe ambient yeasts are the answer after all.

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.


[bottles on radiator]One taster calls it “the most confusing discussion with a winemaker ever.” I can’t quite go that far, since I’ve conversed with Nicolas Joly on more than one occasion, but it’s close.

The wines of Paolo Marcarino are not, I think, well-known. If there’s a web site, I can’t find it. No one I (very casually) survey in the Piedmont has ever heard of the producer. And to be completely honest, even we are only here for one reason. That reason? To taste unsulfured barbera.

A bit of contextualization might be helpful. The natural Piedmontese reaction to anything that the winemaker with whom one is currently speaking is not themselves doing is inevitably negative. Negative in the extreme. On which subject more in a future post, but “impossible,” “stupid,” “insane”…these and similar terms are regularly and widely deployed in the service of decrying whatever techniques a given winemaker does not use, but that their neighbors (real or imagined) might. Often followed by an overall condemnation of the producer doing that very weird thing. It’s all a little soap operatic, to be honest, and while it’s hardly unique to this region, it has been raised to a bit of an art form here.

So it’s easy to imagine the warm embrace with which a senza solfiti wine is greeted in the region. Or rather: would be greeted, if anyone had heard of it. But that’s why we’re here, now.

There’s the usual cellar tour – tanks, barrels small and large, nothing really out of the ordinary except a little machinery that I will detail in a moment – and recounting of the family history. Nothing exceptional there, either: their own vineyards, expanding a small family estate into something more aspirational, etc., etc., etc. A story heard hundreds of times by anyone who’s visited many producers. The ink for this story is still fresh…a cellar not yet finished, labels not yet affixed…and so, aside from the sulfite issue, the most interesting aspect of the visit is to taste at the point of transition. On the point of the fulcrum. Which way will the balance tip?

We hear from the family for a while, mostly on matters historical, but speechifying is soon turned over to the not-the-oenologist, Mauro de Paola*. The turnover follows closely on the heels of a self-reflective question: “how can we distinguish ourselves?” This is a question every winery should ask itself – especially in the context of our barbera tastings, in which there seems to be a dismaying pressure to conform to an international style – but of course the answers to that question can lead to dramatically different results.

*Mauro de Paola is introduced to us as the oenologist during our visit, but described as a “friend” and decidedly “not the oenologist” in subsequent email exchanges between our translator and the Marcarino family. Whatever his title, he does a good 50% of the talking during our visit, including answering all the technical questions. Does it really matter whether or not he has a title? No, not to me. But it’s one more element of confusion in what will prove to be a very confusing encounter.

One answer here seems to be the no-sulfite path. It is perhaps significant that, despite a few questions, I don’t think we ever really get an answer as to why. Is it simply a point of the stated desire for distinction, or is there a greater purpose? Our visit will suggest the former, and in fact we are told that the goal is “not to make good wine without sulfites, but [to make] a great barbera.”

Paolo Marcarino 2009 Barbera d’Asti “Zeroincondatta” (Piedmont) – A no-added-sulfite barbera, one of the very few in the entire region (that is to say: I don’t personally know of another, but someone might). This is, compared to other barberas of the region – even the pushed-ripeness variety – very violet-purple in color…a color that one often encounters in the absence of sulfur, no matter which grape varieties are employed. There’s also the spiky brittleness expressed alongside a prickle of (pleasant) volatility that seems to come with the genre, and which I’m told derives from the particular sort of semi-carbonic fermentation necessary when working without sulfur. As for the rest: lavish acidity, fruit in the grapey/blueberry-ish range, and fine-grained, overtly crystalline tannin. It’s pretty, but there’s a hint of highly-tinted mascara (think Donna Mills in Knots Landing) to the attractiveness; not that I mean to suggest that the wine’s made-up or artificial, just that there are some showy, lurid aspects to its visage. Acid asserts itself as the finish progresses. I like this a great deal.

A “great barbera?” I don’t know. It’s a very good wine, but it’s also pushing and tearing the envelope that I consider to envelop barbera’s typicity. That’s not particularly unusual when comparing no-added-sulfite wines to their normally-elevated brethren. If it means anything, it’s the best no-added-sulfite barbera I’ve ever tasted. (Also, by definition, the worst, as it’s the only.) Beyond that I can’t really say.

[vineyards in asti]We go on to taste a second barbera, and though the word is not used, it’s clear that this is the “serious” one, from what they perceive to be their best terroir and the beneficiary of what heft-inducing cellar practices they’re willing to employ.

Paolo Marcarino 2007 Barbera d’Asti Terranuda (pre-release) (Piedmont) – Made from vines planted in the 1920s, and enhanced by the addition of the pressed juice of dried-on-mats grapes; juice that comprises 20% of the finished wine. Post-fermentation, the wine receives its first dose of sulfur and is then put in barriques for one year. As with almost all dried-grape red wines, there’s a noticeable spike of volatile acidity that has a little bit of a slapfight with the dark, dusty aromatics. Despite its lifted beginnings, it’s a clenched fist of a wine, not overly marked by its wood, and delivers a long finish that grows juicier as it lingers. This needs time to expand and develop, obviously, but I think it will be impressive one day. Right now, it’s mostly just big.

For some tasters, the addition of dried-grape must at 15-16% alcohol (not mirrored in the finished wine, I should add) is a little bewildering. The wine doesn’t lack size or power, and wouldn’t seem to lack either even without the dried grapes. Viewed plainly, this is the oenological equivalent of blood doping…a term I hesitate to use because unlike in sports, it is not only not disallowed but in fact rather traditional in winemaking, but which is the best non-wine analogy I can come up with, and for which I beg a sympathetic reading. Yes, it “works.” But is it necessary?

The discussion which stems from a few attempts to ask this question is where things get confusing. I will do my best to present the winery’s case (almost exclusively as presented by the not-the-oenologist), interpolated with my own reactions, but it’s important to note up front that I am not assessing the correctness of the winery’s assertions on any point of practice, only responding to them. And one final disclaimer: all of this is based on a near-simultaneous translation, so there are multiple opportunities for errors and shifts in meaning between the speakers’ intent and this reporter’s understanding, for which I must preemptively apologize.

While Marcarino does not – at least to us – profess to be “natural,” they do claim that whatever they do to the wine once it enters the cellar is restricted to “sophisticated technology based on nature.” Further examination of this statement leads to a short treatise:

“You have to understand that bottles are not born in the vineyard,” begins the not-the-oenologist, identifying “three human ingredients” (I think a post-facto interpreter would prefer something like “paths of potential intervention” here, even though those are not the words used), which are identified as:

1) chemical correction, “a form of oenology that’s obsolete”
2) “to put our faith in biology,” meaning no intervention at all
3) “intelligence,” which he defines as trying to understand the natural processes at work in the grape-to-wine transformation and then “guid[ing] that natural process with natural tools”

It’s clear that he understands Marcarino to be following the third path. He then goes on to explain how, in his view, each potential human intervention might manifest itself:

1) the “chemist” would add copper
2) the “biologist” would “allow bad smells to develop”
3) the “most intelligent” one would choose the “right yeasts” and so forth, to guide the process

The assumptions and preconceptions in this triptych are manifestly obvious. Here we have a producer whose practices would be decried by many of their peers (and from both directions) finding a target that they can decry, and then wasting little opportunity to do so. All of these positions are defensible and arguable, both in theory and in practice, and while (as noted earlier) the dismissal of others’ practices seems to be par for the regional course, this dismissal seems not to be rooted in a philosophy or firm set of oenological theories, but instead in a rather confused jumble of contradictory thoughts.

That requires some unpacking. The above having been said, an additional piece of information about the “Zeroincondatta” barbera is proffered: the wine is put through micro-oxidation. (“Everything else is traditional” is the very slightly defensive coda…though a cooling system for the press is later mentioned, and temperature control to manage oxygenation, and CO2, and then of course there are those inoculated yeasts. “Traditional?” As always, it depends on which producer and time period one chooses to identify as the basis for that tradition.) Later, in response to the aforementioned questions about dried-grape additions to the Terranuda, it is asserted that this is necessary to “manage tannin” (apparently, the old vines are naturally inclined to excess in this regard). Of course, there are other ways to manage tannin, and since they’ve already the technology for one of them in the cellar, I ask the obvious question: why not use micro-oxidation?

[barriques at marcarino]The answer? “Not enough is known about how micro-oxidation interacts with polyphenols.”

Well, OK. Let’s assume that this is true. Then why are they using it on the senza solfiti barbera? The most delicate, fragile, unpredictable wine in the portfolio…and it gets a micro-oxidative roll of the ten-sided dice? This makes absolutely no sense.

Alas, there’s no opportunity (or perhaps insufficient will on my part) to ask this question, for now that the subject of tannin management has been raised, the all-too-ubiquitous barriques – another potential approach to that management – are now under discussion. Here’s our not-the-oenologist again:

“There was [here in the Piedmont, but also elsewhere] a ‘silent revolution’ that no one wants to talk about.” That is: the change from botti (the large, and old, wooden casks traditional to the region and still employed in some form by many producers) to stainless steel. This was “great for hygiene,” but the problem is that stainless steel “encourages the polyphenolic structure to reduce.” Thus, in these post-revolutionary times, the choices faced by a winemaker are “less polyphenolic content” or “aging in wood.” Since smaller wooden containers provide faster oxygenation, “the use [of barriques] became almost mandatory.”

I don’t know if the silence that greets this statement is real or just imagined as a consequence of the bewilderment in my head. I understand that the use of barriques to achieve faster oxygenation is a possible approach, but I admit to not understanding how that so effortlessly becomes “mandatory.” Like so many other discussions of the desirability of small French oak, it also elides the explanation of why botti are either no longer an option or a lesser option, despite their ubiquity in the region.

Ultimately, I wonder if all this discussion of tannin management and oxygenation might not be a red herring. Late in the visit, the not-the-oenologist suggests another possible reason for the buffing-up of the Terranuda: “the press tends to like bigger, more muscular wines.” Well, maybe, and maybe not. But just once, I wish a producer would admit this up front, and dispense with the circuitous steps of the natural/technological/traditional/modern ballet that convinces only the credulous.

Anyway, there are more wines to taste.

Paolo Marcarino 2009 Cortese (unfinished sample) (Piedmont) – I don’t know what the appellation for this wine is or will be. It’s still extremely cloudy (cross-flow filtration is in its future), made without the addition of sulfites, and it’s fabulous. It explodes in a burst of flowers and piercing, razor-edged acidity that lashes that palate like a cat o’ nine tails. Eventually, it narrows to a thin wedge of steel. I suspect that, once tamed for commerciality, there will be a little less ordinance here. But it’s fun while it lasts.

Paolo Marcarino 2007 Moscato d’Asti “Lucifero” (Piedmont) – Paper scented with mercaptans, and not particularly sweet even within its genre. This reminds me a bit of a Léclapart Champagne, and it also reminds me that I’ve never liked Léclapart Champagne. Orange blossom and some freshly-fired ash contribute to the discussion, but only in monosyllables. Many of my fellow tasters like this, but I do not.

The moscato d’Asti is described as “old style” and from older vines. And just so we don’t leave without a confusing quasi-tautology lingering in our heads, the not-the-oenologist gives us one final thought to ponder:

“You have to appreciate this style of wine to make this style of wine, because you have to know how and when to intervene.”

Unthreading the definitional contradictions in that statement would take hours, and I’m not going to attempt it here. In any case, it is of a piece with the winery’s very confusing – or, if I’m inclined towards uncharitability, confused – thoughts on their purpose and the methods by which they are achieving that purpose.

In the end, for some (and sometimes for me) the only important conclusion is this: except for that moscato d’Asti, this is a winery that produces very good wines, very interesting wines, and occasionally both at the same time. To the extent that one cannot drink a philosophy, the quality of the wines is the only thing matters.

And then again, it does. Philosophy and purpose inform viticultural and oenological decisions. Those decisions lead to stylistic outcomes. Consistency of philosophy or purpose are not in any way the same thing as quality, or even consistency of quality, but they do matter. They matter because in an overwhelming world of options in which no one can taste everything for themselves, nor even truly follow others’ collective efforts towards this comprehensiveness, tools to aid in the winnowing and selection process are essential. Applied philosophy in the vineyard and cellar, and the open knowledge of same, is one of those tools. Not a 100% reliable one, and always subject to evaluation and evolution of preference, but a helpful tool nonetheless. A winery that does not have a clear and consistent answer to “why” will also, except by accident, not have a clear and consistent answer to “how.” And thus, this tool is removed from the workbench, increasing the informational entropy for any potential customer.

The cynical reader might naturally be inclined to view the no-sulfite regime here as bandwagon-jumping for the purposes of differential marketing. Certainly more than a few winemakers and journalists in the region will offer that exact interpretation without prompting. While I could never be considered to lack cynicism, I think it’s far too early to accuse or excuse. Time and the market will work their pressures, we’ll see how the winery responds, and only then might we be able to draw some tentative conclusions as to definitional intent. And given that time, maybe the answers to the difficult questions of practice and purpose will find clearer, more consistent answers.

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

An ether/or situation

[solitary man]No one needs a brief respite from the ongoing (and no-end-in-sight) assault of the living barberas more than me, so why not dive headfirst into the current cri de courriel * of the oenosphere? It’ll be a nice change of pace.

*I know email doesn’t have anything to do with blogs, but the multilingual wordplay was too enticing, and I’m very weak in this regard. Very, very weak.

…wait, hang on. I’m supposed to write about why no one reads wine blogs? A title that comes very, very close to begging it’s own implied question, but instead merely leads to one: for whom am I supposed to write a response, given that we’ve concluded that no one is reading this?

I suppose it’s worth dispensing with a little typically bloggish nitpicking right from the start, since some of the comments there and elsewhere are casting a jaundiced peeper at the data. Tom Johnson (whose autograph is on the cannon that fired this broadside) writes:

[…] the top 100 wine blogs combined would be the 280th most popular blog in the country. […] There are 40 million regular wine drinkers in the United States, and the aggregate audience for wine blogs is maybe a couple hundred thousand people. […] Assuming that people who visit wine blogs visit more than one, even within our self-declared niche, we’re reaching less than 0.5% of our target audience.

OK. So in a general interest newspaper (remember them?), one that might have a wine column (remember those?), what percentage of the total subscriber base is actually reading that column? I’ve been the byline on a fair assortment of same, and my recollection is that the numbers were always pretty discouraging…something that may have come up once or twice during negotiations over freelance rates. As bad as a mere half percent? No, maybe not. But not a whole lot better, either.

Without this keystone, the statistical foundation for Johnson’s argument is showing signs of substandard contracting. Presumably, more people read Andrew Sullivan than Cory Cartwright for the same reasons that more people read Maureen Dowd (shudder) than Eric Asimov…whatever those reasons might be.

But I call this a “nitpick” because, numerical justifications aside, I actually agree with the crux of Johnson’s column.

Let’s first move away from a dull milieu of twisty little tasting notes, all the same? (No one under 40 or who has ever had a girlfriend is going to get that reference.) Yes, indeed. There’s a reason I shuffle the reportage on my weekly glass recycling to another blog, after all. Tasting notes have a utility, and they can be an essential staging ground for insight, but they’re neither the most interesting thing to read nor a facet of wine communication at which blogs or their descendants are ever going to be particularly good, for reasons that Johnson identifies.

More linking to one another? Sure. I don’t think this is a very important problem, though. Wine is not the same sort of collaborative pursuit that the really popular blog topics – politics, parenting, semi-literate cats, sneezing fetishes – are, and while a conversation is more suited to an increasingly social media universe than an endless series of Riedel lecterns, the future isn’t mere linking. It’s actual collaboration, which is going to require all of us to come out of our mothers’ basements for a spell. Hopefully we’ll put on fresh pajamas. GrapeStories is one form that this necessary collaboration will take, but there are other possibilities.

More stories, more insight, more writing? Yes, please. But I’ve already been heard (though apparently by almost no one) on this point.

Significantly, this call n’allez pas aux barricades also happens to dovetail neatly with the other recent snittery of the wine bloggers, Stephen Tanzer’s allegedly inflammatory suggestion that some people have more expertise than others. Yes, Tanzer could have put that a good measure more elegantly, though if his purpose was rabble-rousing-as-free-publicity, I congratulate him on a hand well-played. But I just don’t see that what he said (rather than how he said it) is particularly controversial.

It stands to reason that fewer, but better, voices help focus attention in any field one would like to identify. It’s also completely obvious that enthusiasm is no substitute for experience. (Though: the reverse is both true and worth considering.) That said, I don’t think a proactive culling is necessary, nor is it likely to be effective. Darwin will, eventually, point his Beagle at the survivors, and this will require no help from bloggers or their external critics.

Also, there’s this. The greater percentage of consumers are not yet ready to listen to “us” (meaning blogs), because even the most obsessive cannot possibly keep up with the current torrent of information, and the non-obsessive would neither wish to try nor know where to begin. Until such time as natural selection works its winnowy magic, we are and almost inherently must be a niche talking to a niche. And that’s OK. That is, after all, what this whole public internet thing has been best at since long before there was a web, and the overstuffed toolbox with which the modern publisher must go to work has not changed this truism.

There will be a time when the apes – that’s us in this odd little primate analogy, you know – rise up and take over. Though hopefully with not quite so much violence or overwrought speechifying as Caesar employed in the just-linked movie:

Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch, and conspire, and plot, and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall. The day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we will build our own cities, in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you NOW!

(Yeah, that reads like an enraged wine blogger, alright.)

But that day is probably not today. Wine blogs will find their audience, in their time. Or they won’t, and they’ll die out, and some post-Twitter content stream entitled “S%$# My Dad Drinks” will rise above the fields of the fallen. And maybe even get read by more than a half-dozen people.

The Asti pudding club

[99 bottles of barbera on the wall]The fourth and final set of notes from the morning’s barbera d’Asti tastings (there are afternoon and evening sessions yet to come), this time all wines from 2006, both regular and Superiore. See this post for important disclaimers.

Caudrina 2006 Barbera d’Asti Montevenere (Piedmont) – Chocolate malt drink.

Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Gresy 2006 Barbera d’Asti Monte Colombo (Piedmont) – This shows very different fruit than any other wine in the room: strawberry powder with Starburst-like qualities. Watermelon, as well? There’s no doubt that it’s very odd.

Agostino 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore La Marescialla (Piedmont) – Bored now. Flat, depressed (and depressing) fruit which never goes much of anywhere.

Castlet 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Litina (Piedmont) – Reminds me of New World pinot, which is at least an appealing improvement over the New World cabernet and New World shiraz I’ve been tasting of late. Pleasant, puppy dog fruit. Strawberries and cream. Breakfast at Wimbledon? Sure, why not?

Costa Olmo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Piedmont) – Dark cherry syrup, hints of licorice. Dead fruit. Dead wine. Dead taster, if I have to suffer many more wines like this.

Araldica “Il Cascinone” 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “d’Annona” (Piedmont) – Stinky feet marinating in barley. And there’s something uncircumcised and unclean about it. Yes, it’s that sort of bad.

La Ballerina 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Ajè” (Piedmont) – Very, very chocolately. Myself, I prefer these sorts of things made from a fine, single-sourced cocoa, rather than the syrupy stuff that comes in a squeeze bottle. Also, a slightly fresher milk would be better; this tastes like that room-temperature, chemically frightening “milk” the French drink.

Castello di Razzano 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Vigna Valentino Caligaris (Piedmont) – When I was in first grade, I was bitten by a dog. I had a heavily-bandaged and en-casted arm for a time, and I remember the incredible stench of trapped, humidified flesh and slowly-healing scar grunge that exploded forth when the cast was finally removed. Who knew they’d bottled that smell? The thermonuclear fruit device within helps mask the miasma, but not enough.

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

Superiore complex

[grissini]The third set of notes: barbera d’Asti Superiore from 2007. See this post for important disclaimers.

Agostino 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Moliss (Piedmont) – Bark and dill, chewy dark fruit, fine particulate tannin, and graphite. Except for the weirdness on the nose, this could actually be a good – albeit dark – wine.

Boeri 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Pörlapà” (Piedmont) – Very fruity. It’s black, concentrated fruit, in fact, chunked up by seeds and stones, then slathered with tannin and vanilla. Finishes thoroughly brutalized by its élevage.

Boeri 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Martinette (Piedmont) – Dark, dark, dark…fruit, wood, acorns, leaves, bark, nuts. Is there some salt here, as well? Very odd. Tastes like Barossa shiraz, albeit lighter.

Cantina Sociale Barbera dei Sei Castelli 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Le Vignole (Piedmont) – Lavish, satiny fruit. Dark and gelatinized. Texturally mouth-coating, but finishes with more of that thick vanilla miasma that’s ruining so many of these wines.

Cantina Sociale di Mombercelli “Terre Astesane” 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Piedmont) – Milkshake. Pride-like (the winery, not a group of lions) in that, with blueberry and milky, malted chocolate well-evidenced throughout. So, so anonymous.

Sant’Agata 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Altea” (Piedmont) – Full-throated fruit crying out for succor in a dark and seedy alleyway. Concentrated. Actually not bad at all, for a fruit bomb. Boom!

Sant’Agata 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Cavalè” (Piedmont) – Absolutely identical to the same winery’s “Altea” but with the addition of a pleasant, minty complexity. Very good in this style.

Castlet 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Passum” (Piedmont) – Mint. All mint. Mint tea, mint leaves, dried mint. But nothing other than mint.

Pastura La Ghersa 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Muascae” (Piedmont) – Chunky black fruit, good acidity, lots of tannin, dark chocolate. I’m losing my ability to perceive wood or its absence in these wines, so I can’t tell if there’s any here, but the goopy chocolate (a bad thing) never goes away.

Pastura La Ghersa 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Vignassa (Piedmont) – Dark fruit and – making a reappearance after a long absence – dark soil as well. But it’s all in the service of a chocolate/cherry layer cake. There must be good material here, but it’s being partially obliterated.

Castello di Razzano 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Vigna del Beneficio (Piedmont) – Very dark fruit ranging into the cassis realm, with some intrusive brett and spicy wood notes, plus coconut. And chocolate. Again. And again. And again.

Cocito 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Violanda (Piedmont) – The fetid stank of horrid, diseased wood. Spoiled candy. One of the worst noses in a quality, non-experimental, or homebrew wine I’ve ever experienced. Pure candy on the palate. Pixy Stix are more authentic than this. They taste better, too.

Elio Perrone 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Mongovone (Piedmont) – Heat, brett, chocolate, rum. Lament for what’s been done to this wine. Dill, spinach, cocoa, espresso. Lament, lament, lament.

Trinchero 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Rico” (Piedmont) – Back to normal, everyday internationalizing…full fruit, mixed chocolates, Fruit RollUps. Spiky/spicy acidity on the finish.

[tasting sheet]Araldica “Il Cascinone” 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Rive” (Piedmont) – Armpit and crotch. Yes, I just wrote that. No good at all.

Ivaldi 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “1613” (Piedmont) – Jam and Nutella on toast. Very short. You’d think that if one is going to do this sort of stuff to a poor, defenseless wine, one would at least supply a finish. Then again, maybe that’s a blessing here.

Marchesi Alfieri 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Alfiera” (Piedmont) – Good, solid fruit. Thick structure, dense with tannin and chocolately oak. Milkshake and wine coexist here, which isn’t entirely bad for those who like that sort of thing.

dei Fiori 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Rusticardi 1933” (Piedmont) – Chocolate, dark berry, mint, and some earth. Gravelly. A really sophisticated, polished wine with a pretty fair structure. It’s not my style, but still, I have to admit that I kinda like this one. It’s got class.

Il Falchetto 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Bricco Paradiso (Piedmont) – Mint & rose hip jams, tangy. There’s a chewing gum element here that I can’t quite decide if I like or not. Finishes high-toned and herbal. Some eucalyptus, as well.

Il Falchetto 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Lurëi (Piedmont) – Menthol grappa, kirschwasser, and detergent. A world of no. Edited to add: tasted at the winery a few hours later, this will be the best wine I’ll taste all day, so what I’ve written here absolutely must reflect a damaged bottle. Or a damaged taster. Maybe both.

La Fiammenga 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Paion” (Piedmont) – Flat-aspect fruit, low-ebbing and dull. Seems tired more than anything else, as if the fruit is simply fatigued after being subjected to overt effort.

La Meridiana 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Tra la Terra e il Cielo” (Piedmont) – Lavish dark fruit in whole-berry, jam, and jelly form, with tannin and a hard shut-down of wood on the finish. Starts showily, but ends unpleasantly and in complete disarray.

La Pergola 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Cappelletta “Vigne Vecchie” (Piedmont) – Chunky. Lacquer and paint with a varnish of…no, sorry, I can’t bear to continue. It’s just not worth it.

da Vino 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “La Luna e I Falò” (Piedmont) – When I was a kid, I used to mix the bobbing remnants of Count Chocula™ and Frankenberry™ in my breakfast bowl, so as not to waste the yummy sugary fakeness. I survived without becoming a diabetic, to end up here…drinking the exact same thing.

Vinchio-Vaglio Serra 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Vigne Vecchie” (Piedmont) – Tedium in the form of overworked dark fruit. Wood and tannin, tannin and wood.

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.