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Beating an Asti retreat

[tasting room]Here begins the notational onslaught. Hundreds of barberas from ‘round the Piedmont, tasted blind and then matched, post-facto, to their names.

Let me stress the key disclaimers before the madness begins. Yes, these were tasted blind, and other than minor grammatical tweaks I have left the notes intact as written during the time of tasting. Some flawed bottles were replaced, but considering the wide array of potential flaws on display, others were just chalked up to bad wine. There is an inherent unfairness in this, but in the process of being forced to power through a long lineup of wines on a schedule, one does not always have the time to be fair. Also, these notes suffer from all the usual flaws of group taste-and-spits, in which neither sufficient time nor attention can be devoted, nor can any wine fail to be affected by those around it.

Last but not least, the names are as provided to me. I’ve made an attempt to clean up the data, but may not always have succeeded. So if there’s a wine name that, in any reader’s experience, would appear to not exist as written, I welcome corrections and amendments.

Anyway, here’s the first bunch…2008 barbera d’Asti:

Alice Bel Colle 2008 Barbera d’Asti “al Casò” (Piedmont) – Faint brett funk, chewy walnuts with a haze of rancidity. Brett continues to palate, Band-Aid & soil, tannin, sourness & greenness. Not pleasant at all. Flawed.

Cantina Sociale Barbera dei Sei Castelli 2008 Barbera d’Asti (Piedmont) – Vibrant cherry, mostly red but with a brush of black, vivid and lavish. Ever so faint hint of banana. Palate absent, good balance but where’s fruit? Structured, but not interesting enough to drink.

Cantina Sociale di Mombercelli “Terre Astesane” 2008 Barbera d’Asti “LA” (Piedmont) – Slightly difficult, gritty soil notes with a bit of funk; dark-as-night fruit scowls with its fist in the air. Very faint but present heat on nose. A little brett. Continues with good acidity, red fruit makes its first appearance on palate, and there’s a hint of something more tropical. Finishes in the pineapple realm.

Dogliotti 2008 Barbera d’Asti (Piedmont) – Black-tending cherry, intense and thick, with a spike of heat. A mélange of berries provide fair presence, but it finishes shortish.

Galarin 2008 Barbera d’Asti “Le Querce” (Piedmont) – Dark fruit (black cherry & plum). Rich, dark-fruited, slightly syrupy, and very concentrated. Vanilla and licorice make their cases as well. Modern-styled, but supports its argument. Good.

Caudrina 2008 Barbera d’Asti “La Solista” (Piedmont) – Brett, with cherries churning underneath. Black fruit, thick with skins, on the palate, with a bark-like structure. This would seem to desire age. A fair interpretation of the chunkier style.

Crivelli 2008 Barbera d’Asti Collina La Mora (Piedmont) – Succulent dark cherries, darker berries. Intense dark fruited-core, linear but very approachable. Purplish. Good acidity. Best yet.

Damilano 2008 Barbera d’Asti (Piedmont) – Very dark blueberry, black pepper, and a bit overdriven. Continues with slashing, intense fruit, rich and vibrant, almost neon-toned. Very long. Modern, perhaps, but excellent.

Dezzani 2008 Barbera d’Asti “ronchetti” (Piedmont) – Anise, both candy and herbal, with intense licorice, dark fruit, jam, and concentrated berries. Acid and tannin are equally intense, and so there’s balance of a sort, but this is an awfully powerful, dark wine

Elio Perrone 2008 Barbera d’Asti “tasmorcan” (Piedmont) – Very obvious oak, with toasted coconut layering the mix. Dark, concentrated fruit, black cherries and blackberries, with no foundation in the region or grape that I can perceive. Overwooded, even though the quantity of quercus probably isn’t that large, overall.

[blinded bottles]Trinchero 2008 Barbera d’Asti “La Trincherina” (Piedmont) – A bit of alcohol, soil, bark, and chewy loam. Smoothed over from what would appear to wish to be something more untamed than what’s evident in the glass. Finishes with dill. Never a good sign.

La Casaccia 2008 Barbera d’Asti Vigna Sant’Anna (Piedmont) – Kinda insignificant. Seems weirdly imbalanced. Context? Yeah, probably. But I don’t like it.

l’Armangia 2008 Barbera d’Asti “Sopra Berruti” (Piedmont) – Sour dill, weeds, disgusting vegetal stew. Really vile. I can’t get this out of my mouth fast enough.

Montalbera 2008 Barbera d’Asti “La Ribelle” (Piedmont) – Tropical fruit…red, pink, orange, yellow, you name it…though really, drinking something that’s (questionably) labeled barbera with a festive umbrella in it isn’t so bad. As such wines go, well- confected constructed. Finishes with Malibu rum and a dash of fresh lemon peel. Of course. I have no idea what this is, but I’d like one delivered to my cabana.

Pescaja 2008 Barbera d’Asti “Soliter” (Piedmont) – Fully tropical, pure Malibu (or is it Captain Morgan Spiced?) rum. I have no idea what this is either, but even though it says barbera, it’s not barbera as anyone would want it.

Prunotto 2008 Barbera d’Asti “fiulot” (Piedmont) – Dark & dirty, unpleasant corned-grape hash. Good structure, and maybe this will turn into something one day. For now…no.

Scagliola 2008 Barbera d’Asti Vigna dei Mandorli (Piedmont) – Lush fruit, red, dark, and purple, extremely succulent. Acid’s a little tamped-down. Modernistic in approach, but a very pretty quaffing wine with short-term aging potential.

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See 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 escalation of Astilities

[audience question]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.

[chiarlo head in hand]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.

Francheesy pizza

[pizza]It has been pointed out to me, more than once, that no one in Italy drinks wine with pizza. I don’t know that this is true – I’ve seen it – but it is certainly not the majority choice.

But our blogging team, gathered in the pleasant chill of an early Asti evening, is if nothing else a collection of wine dorks. And so wine it will be, with Milanese-influenced pizza at Francese (via dei Cappellai 15, Asti). Lots of it, as well.

The pizzas? Crispy at the exterior, mushy in the middle – the thing A16 always gets dinged for, even though they’re doing it correctly – with intense ingredients dealt to the pizza’s upper surface with the restrained hand of the Italian rather than the lavish hand of the American. But the truth is, authenticity and appeal are not necessarily the same thing, and while I appreciate the presence of either, my personal preference is for a more cracker-like crust. The relative thinness of toppings doesn’t bother me (it depends on the specifics), and I find the balance and purity of our DOP mozzarella, basil, and tomato very nearly perfect. I just wish there was a less “authentic” crust. Our pizzas are followed by a series of cake-like desserts that are lovely in their rich simplicity, but filling to the extreme.

Jeremy Parzen, our team leader and renaissance guru of all things Italianate – on which see below for more – is a trip and a half in his escalating (as the wine flows) mix of loquacity and a certain thoughtful despondency. As the evening progresses, he turns into a one-man quote machine, for both good and ill. Much of what he says I am compelled to redact for reasons of propriety, but here’s a brief sample of his wisdom:

[costa d’amalfi bianco]“I’ve got a fuckin’ PhD in Italian poetry, fuckin’…Thor.”

“This [moscato d’Asti] is the number one strip club wine in America, because strippers love it.”

San Francesco 2008 Costa d’Amalfi “per eva” (Campania) – A blend of falanghina, pepella, and ginestra. Sounds more like an opera than a wine, to me. Anyway, it’s a touch spritzy, full of lime and lemongrass, with a surprising chalkiness that sneaks up, takes over for a moment, and then skitters away. Sour bones of structure and pale decay clutter up the finish. Very interesting.

Oddero 2001 Barolo Rocche di Castiglione (Piedmont) – Already fairly mature in some ways, with its soil turned pepper-powdery and the fruit having yielded to well-dried black roses. Old tar, laid long ago with aspiration, through a long-fallow field permeates both the tar and the structure. The finish is soil-derived but powdery. Very approachable, and despite all expectations I’d consider drinking this nowish.

Ratti 2001 Barolo Marcenasco (Piedmont) – Light and dirty, with a lift to it despite the dark-fruited, brooding core. Crushed flowers everywhere. This is still developing, and while there are prematurely mature elements present, the wine itself is still reasonably firm and grippy, and will need another five-plus years (at the very least to yield its full range of aromatic complexity.

[incredible cake]Produttori del Barbaresco 2005 Barbaresco (Piedmont) – Very tannic and brutish, with flailing acidity and a biting lash of tart red fruit. Powerful and concentrated in a way that’s perhaps not expected from this basic blend, with sour cherry mostarda taking control of the finish. Very, very young.

Forteto della Luja Loazzolo (Piedmont) – A moscato passito, piney and floral, with a giant burst of intensity that comes up short. Striking for its moment, but that moment is soon lost.

Saracco 2009 Moscato d’Asti (Piedmont) – Bright apple foam, lightly perfumed and joyous, but with a serious face as well. Neither pure fun nor overly aspirational, but forging a middle path.

Lactic infomercial

[vineyard]Bera 2005 Barbera d’Asti “Ronco Malo” (Piedmont) – The needle and pierce one expects from barbera are both present and vibrant here, though without the so-often accompanying thinness and over-transparency. Even among the cohort that avoid those flaws, this is a big’un, intensifying the vivid red-berried fruit and turning up the supporting structural and earthen harmonics. Complexities continue to emerge as the wine finishes, and airs, and there’s not yet an end to them by the time the bottle’s empty. All that said, there’s a somewhat clumsy adolescence to the wine that I think, but do not know, will resolve with time (certainly, there’s no indication that the wine requires immediate consumption). It really shines with a heavy, yet acidic, meal, while I think it might overpower something as simple and pure as a marinara. (2/10)

My heart’s on fire, el Vajra

[vineyard]Vajra 2008 Moscato d’Asti (Piedmont) – No mistaking what this is. But in addition to the usual flower shop/perfume truck accident, there’s weight, and texture beyond the fizz, and even some smoothly polished minerality. It’s not heavy (nor is it my brother), but it’s more interesting than most within the genre. (1/10)

Pian & suffering

[grapes]La Spinetta 2000 Barbera d’Asti “Ca’ di Pian” (Piedmont) – Dense blueberry with pretty good acidity, but the finish is goopy, flat-nosed, and awful. This is not barbera. (9/08)

Rive gauche

Araldica “Il Cascinone” 2004 Barbera d’Asti “Rive” (Piedmont) – Smooth caramel, soft red fruit, freshly-finished wood desk, and furniture polish. Finishes like burnt sugar. (2/07)

Ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-bera

cascina ‘tavijn 2005 Barbera d’Asti (Piedmont) – Slightly medicinal, with big, fun acidity in the form of crisp apples fresh from the tree. It’s an acid that bites with the faintly bitter tang of underripeness. All red fruit on the finish. Old school! (1/08)

American Grigno(lino)

cascina ‘tavijn 2006 Grignolino d’Asti (Piedmont) – Small, tight, and slightly angry. Albino wine – all bones and shells – with white-pepper tannin. Quite acidic, too. Wants, needs, cries out for: food. (1/08)

Leave the body, take the canelli

Bera 2007 Moscato d’Asti “Canelli” (Piedmont) – Not moscato d’Asti as it’s commonly understood, but an almost passito expression…and not gassed, but rather allowed to spontaneously referment. Plus – unlike the vast majority of similarly-labeled wines – meant to age. Its delicate bead is soft yet surprisingly persistent, and the palate is rich with melon and grape. None of the usual flower-truck-crashing-into-a-perfume-shop stuff here. The strength and, it must be said, seriousness of this wine are as surprising as they are profound. Absolutely terrific. (1/08)