Browse Tag


Waltzing Martilde

Martilde 2009 Barbera “Sportello” (Lombardy) – From what I call the “third way” of barbera vinification: neither an acid razor nor a floozied-up international travesty, but the crisp yet full-fruited version, here done in darker berry (even a bit of black cherry) tones, yet retaining the essential, food-desiring throb of crispness. Delicious. (6/12)

Rossore spot

iuli 2008 Barbera del Monferrato (Piedmont) – Red-fruited with earth, which is exactly what ones want from grape and appellation. Pushed just a little bit into the modern-but-authentic style, in that the fruit is dialed up just a bit, in greater proportion to the acidity than might once have been the case (though Monferrato wines are rarely the sharp little things that other sub-appellations within the Piedmont can be), and as a result the earthen texture also takes on a somewhat greater role. An immensely appealing wine, which makes it all the more confusing that so many producers go on to overburden their barberas with excess fruit and layers of wood. (9/11)

iuli 2007 Barbera del Monferrato “Rossore” (Piedmont) – Pushed fruit, but it’s pressing against a bit of a wall of awkward structure, including a thin wallpapering of tannin that just doesn’t seem to belong to this wine, but feels borrowed from somewhere else. The fruit is pure reddish-purple, there’s plenty of acidity, and there’s black trumpet earthiness, but the flying limbs are really only brought into coherence by food. Though that is, perhaps, part of the point and a lesson. Still, I’ve liked this wine more from other bottles. (9/11)


Cantine Valpane 2009 Barbera del Monferrato “Rosso Pietro” (Piedmont) – Smells stenchy, like it’s been cooped up too long without a good cleansing, and a little reduced as well. All of which portends ill. But the palate is spectacular in comparison, dark and toothsome fruit fired with acidity and built on a foundation of eroded rocks and fossils. As a result, the bottle’s gone so quickly that I don’t get a chance to see what happens to the aroma with some aeration. (7/11)

Ccia pet

La Casaccia 2007 Barbera del Monferrato (Piedmont) – Presents itself with a smooth slickness, but soon gives its true self away: vibrant acidity, dark and rough-necked minerality, and a fair bit of churn and motion. It finishes as pristine and poised as it started. Experience suggests that this is a wine that rewards aging, and it is quite primary right now. (11/10)

Snap out of it

Reverie 2005 Barbera (Diamond Mountain) – Thoroughly anonymous. Saccharine red fruit, sickly-sweet oak, and not even all that much acid. A little boozy, though. This is, I’m afraid, what far too many Piedmontese are trying to achieve with their own efforts. Let’s hope they don’t succeed. (10/10)


Bricco Mondalino 2007 Barbera del Monferrato Superiore (Piedmont) – Bright red-berry acidity, apple juice, gravelly minerality, and all the freshness married to light complexity one could want. Why do more barbera producers not make wines like this, instead churning out anonymous inanities lathered with oak and size? (9/10)


Cascina Roera 2004 Barbera d’Asti Cardin (Piedmont) – The first barbera I’ve been able to convince myself to drink since tasting zillions of them in the Piedmont, and just about the only reason I’m able to do so is the importer (Adonna), whose wines don’t traffic in the misplaced ambition and sloppy internationalization that plagued so very many in that tasting. This is one of the pushed-fruit examples – not traditional and crisp, but not sloppily internationalized either – and handles both that fruit and a listed 15% alcohol (I wouldn’t be surprised were the actual number a bit higher) very well, with dark-berry fruit dominating the lighter, redder elements, but still keeping that fruit firmly in the realm of berries rather than something more luxuriant. There’s a bit of soil, some pepper, even some nearly licorice-like concentration that does put me in mind of similar genre-straddling wines in Valpolicella. It’s very good. Not cheap, but doing its best to live up to its price without extravagance, and there’s every indication that it might age for a little while. (8/10)

It was a dark & stormy night

[snowy tree]Passion & warfare

The contrasts of Italy can be striking. Nerve-jangling cities, pressed close and gesticulatory. Pastoral, ambered countryside as much Etruscan as modern Italian. Verdant beauty, industrial squalor, living history, the fleeting whims of modern fashion. But always, always, always overlaid with the intensity of the Italians themselves. Hands in flight, mach 5 language in simultaneous eruption, pressing any and every point until it has been flattened or pierced, and never, ever yielding. Faster and more intense there, more restrained here…the regional and cultural differences show…but if there’s any sort of national unity in this dubiously unified country, it’s this.

And it’s so here in the Piedmont, too. Parts of it almost impossibly beautiful, reclining peacefully amongst vine-covered hills. Wines both royal and common, as richly conceived a cuisine as one will find. History. And, it must be noted, wealth, which does not always factor into the Italian equation. Every predicate, it would seem, to a peaceful, self-satisfied existence.

But illusions are no less illusory for their patina of gentility. No face can hide roiling passions forever, and those passions are what define this tenuous national culture. The Piemontese may be slower to it, at least outwardly, but eventually it will out. All the argumentative, confrontational glory of those passions, unleashed. Perhaps first on targets external…but then, inevitably, turned inward. Not just because there’s disagreement and discord – though of course there is – but because no one is better at passionately-engaged disorder than the Italians. Why waste time bickering with lesser practitioners?

We’re in the Foro Boario in Nizza Monferrato for yet anotheranother? yes, another! – tasting. More Nizza-labeled wine, more pressing of an organoleptic point that seems increasingly elusive in the glass, but ever clearer when viewed cynically. That cynicism is, admittedly, helped along by the fact that this is a (beautifully) refurbished cattle market. Well, the cattle have arrived. Let the slaughter begin.

Outside, it’s snowing. A fluffy, blanketing snow. The din of the city is muffled. Peace descends. Piedmont is quieting.

Inside, amongst the cattle? Not so much.

Écrevisse rouge

After the tasting, there’s a speech. A long one, chockablock with grand statements of intent. Not unexpected, of course, but after a lunchtime speech that was drier but had actual oenological research to report, something that’s purely marketing-driven may contribute to pushing the cattle’s tasters’ moods into the reddish hues. There’s material – and perhaps it’s intentionally vague, but at any rate it’s unsatisfactory when paired with the organoleptic evidence we’ve just finished expectorating – justifying the existence of the Nizza sub-appellation, and a fair amount of satisfaction expressed at the style and quality of what we’re tasting.

This is a little odd, to be honest. It wouldn’t be had the day gone differently up to this point; one hardly expects that the producers, here to promote their product, would be anything other than enthusiastic. But immediately after a largely hostile post-lunch Q&A in which the clear dissatisfaction of some of the assembled has been communicated, a bland reassertion of the party line might be heard in a different context. Could that be a note of defensiveness that we hear? No? Well…why not? These are producers who were pretty harshly attacked, earlier in the day, and though most of them weren’t physically present at that event, the news has to have been communicated by now. Where’s the counter-argument? Where’s the preemptive defense? Where’s the passion?

(It’s coming.)

Yet all this is still mere prelude. And had we moved directly from tasting and post-tasting speech to dinner, this post wouldn’t exist. As at lunch, the actual controversy-catalyzing event may be a more basic one: opening the floor to questions.

Matters start pleasantly enough. Here’s a Danish audient, well-pleased and happy to report same. “To be honest, I didn’t used to like barbera, but now it’s a truly interesting wine, and now I enjoy it.” To this there is some nodding from the producers, perhaps even a faint smile here and there, but far from universal approval. This is revealing because it betrays a clear and pervading sense that if some agree with this sentiment, some do not, or at least are on the fence about it.

Or, maybe, it’s that they found the old wines unsatisfactory for reasons other than personal taste. Could that be?

Near the end of the just-mentioned speech, we are treated to a fairly passionate defense of the current wines. What’s strange is that it comes not from the producers, but from a writer for Gambero Rosso. Not, it must be added, an unbiased source when it comes to championing the tools of internationalization, as their triplicate bicchieri have long-demonstrated. Moreover, it’s a very odd synergy of effort, like a Pentagon official handing the microphone to an allegedly disinterested reporter and asking her to defend a military decision. Shouldn’t there be some separation between the two camps? Is it really Gambero Rosso’s job to promote the wines of Nizza?

(This wouldn’t be particularly worthy of mentioning, except that it comes up again later.)

And then, the fun begins. Several things should be noted in advance. One is that much of what follows (though not all of it) is translated. Translation is a hard enough job to begin with, but translating heat – both directions – has to be draining. It is, as always, possible that certain nuances and senses have been lost in that translation. It is also worth mentioning that as tensions escalated, the translator’s tone took on a decidedly aggrieved tenor, at times seeming to do so without prompting; the clear sense was that the translator herself was getting her back up, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear. This is fully understandable, given the tenor of the room, but it may have contributed to an escalation of tensions…adding a second layer of upset when, before translation, there may have been only one.

Another is that what follows is not all from the Q&A in Nizza. At times – and it will become obvious why – it seemed necessary to include words from other times and places. Those intrusions have been clearly noted, but it’s worth mentioning to head off potential confusion.

On with the show…

[row of glasses]Issues one and two: structure & alcohol

The first volley of contrarianism comes from an Italian attendee, apparently not on board with Gambero Rosso’s enthusiasm. The Nizza wines, he says, are “very structured but lose drinkability,” and in fact are “so structured it’s hard to drink [them].” He then suggests that they’re more like Amarone than barbera. It’s an on-point charge, especially as we’ve already visited a producer who uses an appassimento-like procedure, but the concentration and density of these wines is, I think, coming mostly from the more usual methods.

Now, I’ve noted before that, sometimes, the answers to questions asked of winemakers here (and elsewhere) can be confusing and contradictory. If I may presume to divine intent, I don’t think it’s usually because the producers don’t know what they’re talking about, or that they’re lying but not very good at it. Either is possible, of course, but I’m hesitant to jump immediately to the worst possible interpretation when more charitable alternatives exist. I think, instead, that the producers are themselves sometimes conflicted on these issues. Or if they’re not, they’re cognizant of debate with their peers over controversial matters; they “hear” this internal narrative of dissent and uncertainty while they’re trying to express a coherent philosophy. Not necessarily trained as public speakers, and sometimes attempting these formulations in languages other than their own, consistency can fall by the wayside. And there’s no blame in that.

But there’s also no answer in that. For example, one producer’s response to this initial challenge is that alcohol “is a problem with these wines,” but that producers are “trending towards” making more elegant wine. But then, he changes his mind. “I don’t see higher alcohol as being a problem.” (This is the same person speaking, remember.) He then finishes with a reiteration that “we do need to go towards more elegance.” So: alcohol isn’t a problem, but we’re trying for more elegance because it is a problem. Got it.

OK, so maybe there’s at least some agreement, from some quarters, that these Nizza wines have been muscled up a little too much, and that maybe their alcohols contribute to a sense of mass that doesn’t serve them well. But then, the answer moves to address another structural complaint, this one regarding a lack of acidity in these modern barberas.

Issue three: acidity

“The fact is that we’re moving into markets where this hasn’t ever been an issue.”

Note that the charge is neither refuted nor challenged; assent is inherent in this response. But that’s not what strikes me about the answer. What does hearkens back to Kermit Lynch’s brilliant Adventures on the Wine Route. In it, there’s an encounter (I may get some of the details wrong; this is from memory) in which a producer defends his decision to start aggressively filtering based on potential new markets in places like Africa. The reasoning is that these far-flung locales couldn’t handle the immeasurable shock of sediment (or worse, instability if the wine is treated poorly in transit), and thus the entire world must be subject to the shipping conditions and theoretical naïveté of one new – and probably very small – market. Those familiar with Lynch’s position on filtration can probably guess his opinion of this defense.

And so, here is the suggestion that if no one knows barbera used to be a high-acid wine, no one will miss the acidity. Well, maybe that’s true for these mysterious new markets (though I think pretty much anyone can guess who’s being talked about), but it’s a little insulting to everyone else. If, next year, barbera is sold to us as a sweet white wine because someone in Bhutan doesn’t know that it was ever otherwise, are we supposed to embrace that as well? Is no one listening to Professor Vincenzo Gerbi, the university researcher who presented our lunchtime lecture?

“Barbera, more than any other grape variety, owes its character to acidity. In the past, people have boasted – for not the right reasons – about this acidity. […] We can produce balanced and great-tasting barbera, [and w]e can do so while maintaining the defining character of barbera.”

[producers]Issue four: tannin

The fun – the real fun (by which, of course, I mean red-faced confrontation and controversy) – starts with the ever-cantankerous Belgians. No, really.

Bernard Arnould, taking the microphone, pauses for a moment to collect his thoughts. They’re not entirely unlike those of the Italian’s earlier challenge, but they’re presented somewhat more aggressively. And they’re certainly taken that way; tensions in the room immediately escalate and never entirely abate. Here’s Arnould:

“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’s necessary…a little oak. If you think that putting oaky barberas on the market is a good idea, [then you just] join the rest of the world in making big, oaky wines.”

There’s a low rumble from the assembled. And that’s just the attendees. From the winemakers and their representatives, there’s a matching hum in a darker tone and a simultaneous, many-handed grasping for a microphone. But Arnould hasn’t relinquished his, and finishes with a direct question that’s probably intended to be one of a series (he never gets the chance): “do you add oenological tannins?”

Yes, it’s aggressive. Confrontational. Even a little obnoxious. Candor is one path to the truth, no? But Lodovico Isolabella can take no more. Into a freshly-acquired microphone, he shouts (yes, shouts):

“Do you have any concept of wine? Do you have any idea what you are talking about?”

Now, maybe the answer is no. And maybe it’s not. But remember: this is a promotional event. The assembled invitees have not called the producers here to berate them over what they view as deformative practices (who would attend?). Rather, the producers have called the invitees here to teach them something, or to market to them, or at the least to support an argument for their grape and place with their wines. It’s true that they’ve paid for this event and all its trappings, and maybe they believe (or someone has led them to believe) that this will inevitably lead to enthusiasm, or at least mute assent, in return. Well, their mistake. But this sort of attack is very close to the least helpful of all possible responses. One that is echoed in tone and content, a few minutes later, by another producer, who sniffily insists that “to ever suggest that we’re adding tannins doesn’t deserve response.”

(Note, for the record, that in neither case does the response include any synonym of the word “no.”)

Now, a less even-keeled questioner, having tasted Isolabella’s wines and found them as lacking as I did, might have snapped back, “I don’t know. Do you?” But neither charity nor politesse are required. We can, instead, just listen. Here, for example, is the winemaker from l’Armangia, just a day earlier:

“The new [trend] is to say that [a] wine is not aged in wood…but fine tannins are added.”

One of them might be, as the euphemism goes, in error with respect to the facts. There might be a translation/transcription error. Or, more likely, one of the two just does not agree with the other. The latter seems more likely, and the evening’s ongoing contradictions will support this theory After all, we do get a better answer to Arnould’s question, eventually, albeit from a different producer: “there is enough tannin in the oak to make wine’s [overall] tannins what they should be.”

That’s the end of this, then? It’s just a simple divergence of opinion, right?

[hastae slide]Well, wait. Here’s a slide (pictured at right) from this afternoon’s Hastae presentation, backgrounding the wines that were produced to determine and demonstrate differences between pruning methods. The Hastae organization, remember, is suhbeaded by the names of its founding producers: Berta, Braida, Chiarlo, Coppo, Prunotto, and Vietti. So unless these are absentee directors…and they can’t all be, since Michele Chiarlo was most definitely present while this slide was being projected a few feet behind him…they are almost certainly aware what was done to the wines.

(For those who can’t decipher the slide, it reads: “both wines obtained from Guyot pruning and spur cordon pruning were treated by oak tannins [and] grape seed tannins.)

So here’s my follow-up question: does Lodovico Isolabella have any concept of what his peers are doing? Do they have any idea what they are talking about? Maybe he should direct his ire at them.

Issue five: oak

Of course, even the aforementioned polite response about oak tannin has its own problems. Tannin, not a significant natural variable in the barbera structural equation, absolutely is added to these wines. Just not necessarily in the packaged form Arnould was asking about. Instead, it’s added by the use of barrels, whether new or used…though of course, more and more often they’re new. Regarding this practice and its benefits, there is a certain discord:

“The use of wood is necessary” – Michele Chiarlo

“It would be uniquely stupid to try to sell wines that have imbalanced oak.” – another producer, this one of Dutch nationality but with a predictably impeccable command of English, and also the one who thinks that asking about oenological tannins “doesn’t deserve response”

“The use of wood can be compared to a beautiful woman; the clever use of makeup can be used to make a beautiful woman more beautiful.” – yet another producer, whose admission that new oak is as much a cosmetic as a qualitative element is welcome

“Some producers [use] barriques; this [is] a mistake.” – Professor Vincenzo Gerbi, earlier today

[glass of barbera]This is where the writer from Gambero Rosso reenters the discussion; not in person, but as an elevated authority whose opinion must necessarily trump that of our rebellious cohort:

“Someone” (the speaker points to the writer) “who tastes these wines on a regular basis says [our] use of wood is more elegant, and then you…with this opinion that there’s too much wood… [the thought goes unfinished, but the tone is fabulously besnotted] …obviously, wood is very popular.”

Ah, yes. “Popular.” As with our acid-ignorant new markets for barbera, which can only understand a grape by the products of today rather than of the past, the other standard by which we are to judge the quality and difference of these wines is popularity. Chiarlo insists that wood is “extremely popular” in his markets…and after all, as he noted over lunch and reiterates (with a minor clarification) this evening, “in commercial terms, a wine is a good wine when it sells.”

So who’s craving these woody barberas? I suspect most readers suspect who’s going to receive the blame, eventually, but the journey to and around that point is intriguing.

Issue six: the market

Here’s Chiarlo again:

“I’ve never made a wine for any market”

That seems like an odd thing to say when one is near-simultaneously moved to tout the extreme popularity of wood in one’s export markets. If one really isn’t crafting wine for the market, then the proper answer is some variation on “I make wine the way I want to make wine.” Whether or not it’s true, the needs of marketing are served and it’s difficult to gainsay.

An here’s our Dutch friend again, who I might mention is running away with the award for the day’s most witheringly sarcastic tone:

“we are infinitely aware that the consumers are seeking a well-balanced, fruit-forward wine”

Well, which consumers? As I suggested, I think we all know who’s about to be named. Dutch guy again, breaking the ice:

“American taste is ‘very different’ from Swiss or Belgian”

That’s right. It’s the Americans’ fault. Of course. By way of confirmation, here’s a winery owner from a few days later. A big, big, big producer and exporter of wine, and a master marketer. I won’t name him or the winery as I have been asked not to (for reasons that seem exceedingly silly to me, though I will detail them in a later episode) but I think anyone familiar with the region can probably guess:

“[W]e must make wines to compete with American-style wines. […] Of course, the German market is entirely different [and] wants wines with no wood. […] Sometimes it’s very hard for us to figure out what the market wants.”

Now, let’s go back to that earlier discussion regarding acidity, and why we’re told its diminution in these wines isn’t a problem. The markets being referred to can’t be Europe, because these wines have long been available there. And it can’t be the U.S., either, because they’re no strangers on our shores, either. Looking around the room at the attendees and the regions they represent, or just employing simple common sense, it’s clear who’s meant: Asia. It’s the Asians who, according to these producers, don’t care about barbera that lacks its signature acidity.

It’s not important to know, at this stage, whether or not this contention is true. It might be, and it might not. Asia’s an awfully big market. What’s important is that a market and its preferences have been identified. And now, over another issue, we have more geographical subdivision: successful European markets like Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium apparently prefer unwooded barbera. (To this one could likely add Scandinavia and much of the rest of Northern Europe.) And the Americans are believed to want fruit and wood.

So…are we sure no one is making wine for the market? Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that our anonymous owner is (and admits same) and that Michele Chiarlo isn’t. But there seems to be an awful lot of identification of market preferences going on, that by pure coincidence happens to coincide with a massive upsurge in new oak (and a concomitant downgrade of acidity), resulting in wines that by pure coincidence happen to serve the perceived preferences of those markets.

Me, I’m a firm believer in coincidence. But not appellation-wide coincidence.

[snowy night]Issue seven: the United States

I have a question, though. Are the producers of barbera right? Are fruity, woody wines what the Yanks crave?

Not so fast, objects Charles Scicolone, who is becoming somewhat of a professional Asti antagonist today. He has a problem with the idea that Americans like oaky wines; in fact, he counters, Americans are turning away from oak. “I’m tired,” he insists, “of hearing ‘we made this wine for the American market.’” He’s tired of tasting allegedly American-style wines at producers around the world, wines so heavily-barriqued that they’re “not the wines that locals want to drink.” He then gestures towards the row of bloggers of which I’m a part (six sevenths of whom are Americans) and points out that we’re obviously examples of Americans who do not, in fact, like big, fruity, oaky wines…and have been rather stridently saying so.

Scicolone is right, but it’s worth bringing some nuance to this issue to clarify the bounded sphere in which he is right. “Americans” is an awfully big, Hydratic market with a lot of different preferences. If the American market in question is the one that buys the lower echelons of the Constellation Brands portfolio (.pdf) and its Australian/Chilean/Argentinean/South African/etc. counterparts in supermarkets and corner liquor marts, then yes…that American market probably does want fruit-forward, oaky wines.

But those are also inexpensive wines. The barberas that live that price realm are not fruit-forward, oaky wines. They’re the steel or old-wood versions in all their traditionally lean, razored sharpness. In other words, the “classic” barbera that we’re alleged to not want. And this cannot really be otherwise, because new wood and other heft-inducing techniques in the vineyard and the cellar are expensive. Pricing that’s competitive with mass-produced, industrial wines is unlikely at best.

No, these wines carry a higher cost…in some cases, significantly so. As such, they are attempting to capture the interest of an entirely different market. One with a much greater diversity of options from pretty much everywhere in the world, and one that can afford to make stylistic choices based on that diversity. This market has fragmented, and anyone who was actually familiar with it would be quick to say so. Yes, there are those who prefer fruit and oak. But there are also those who crave fruit without oak, and those who prize elegance and austerity, and those whose preferences are more philosophical than organoleptic. There are lovers of high-acid wines and those that find acid shrill. There are embracers of conformity and adventurers after diversity. There is, in other words, no one market.

What, then, is the pitch to be made for these wines? For it is no easy task to grasp and hold the attention of consumers who have as many choices as any wine lover throughout history has ever had. And it’s even more difficult when working with somewhat-unfamiliar grapes from previously-unknown places…like, say, barbera from Nizza. If the pitch is the singular character of barbera, which those who know the wines’ history will expect and seekers of difference will require, then a deluge of wines that have been reconceptualized in an anonymously international style will be eminently ignorable. And if the pitch is that fruit-forward and oaky style, then what’s the compelling reason for a lover of such wines to divert funds from any of the dozens (hundreds?) of wine regions already making exactly this kind of wine? What does barbera from Nizza (or anywhere in the Piedmont) have to offer that’s unique?

The “American market” that loves and wants these wines exists, I’m afraid, only in theory. It may have existed fifteen or twenty years ago, and the Piemontese might have captured it then with the work they’re doing now. Or it might come back again; wine trends can, of course, sometimes be cyclical. But right now, absolutely the last thing one should be doing to attract a cash-strapped, ever-more-fragmented American market is to be making wine-a-likes in a style that is already fading from majority favor.

All this unsolicited (and, let’s be honest, potentially wrongheaded) strategic marketing advice aside, I’m less certain than the winemakers we’ve heard from that Americans and their quercal tastes are really to blame. I think the entire foundation of the decision to remake wines in this fashion comes from something else: an obsession with importance. Or, to write it in the reverent terms with which it is regularly employed by winemaker after winemaker here, IMPORTANCE.

But this is already far too long, and that extremely fraught issue will have to be left for another post. In any case, I think the perfect coda for this afternoon’s conflicts has been provided by the much put-upon Michele Chiarlo, who – after what seems like an hour of pushback and complaint from the audience – somewhat resignedly says the following. A direct contradiction of much of what he and others have said so far, but even more significantly a direct contradiction of the vast majority of what we’ve tasted:

“no one intends to pursue oaky wines for American market”

Were it only so, Signore Chiarlo. Were it only so.

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.


[bagged bottles]Outside, all is grey or white and soft. The snow falls, and it’s gentle, but it’s also persistent. It’s the kind of snow that will be with us for a time. It blankets the city of Nizza Monferrato with silence, muting the usual urban din but also suppressing the local urge to roam. Why not stay inside where it’s quiet, and enjoy the peaceful monochromic recasting outside the window? It’s going to be a beautiful afternoon and evening.

As for our little barbera band, reassembled in a bright, open space that seems to be nearly all windows, there’s a chance to do this. For a time. We listen to another lecture, this time on the meaning and intentions of the newly-designated Nizza subzone and its producers, while yet another tasting is assembled. To be honest, the information flow is a little dry, and largely the sort of procedural and rote stuff that wine writers have heard dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Besides, it’s so nice out. Can’t we go have some fun in the snow?

Oh, but we only need wait. If it’s cooling outside, it’s heating up inside. And it’s about to explode.

In the meantime, there’s a tasting to get through. It’s true that many of us find visiting producers a more interesting use of our time, but the organizers undoubtedly find what we’re doing now a more valuable use of our time. And hey, it’s their show, their dog, and their pony.

While we might not be overly enthused about another procession of foil-wrapped bottles, it must be admitted that this one is admirably focused: all 2006, all barbera d’Asti, and all from the subzone of Nizza. Some of these wines are new, some we’ve had in a different vintage, and some are repeats from this morning’s Nizza tasting. This is, at least, purposeful blind tasting, which our forays thus far have not always been.

What might not be apparent to our hosts and the producers (who are represented in near-entirety), however, is that there are two concurrent purposes being pursued here. One is theirs: to demonstrate the character, style, and (dare it be mentioned?) terroir of Nizza. But the other is ours: to attempt to judge whether or not that purpose is being achieved. Does Nizza have an identity? A meaning beyond the simple marketing trick of differentiation?

We’re about to find out. Maybe.

Avezza Paolo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Sotto La Muda” (Piedmont) – Big purple fruit. Tannic. OK in its brutish style.

Bava 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Piano Alto” (Piedmont) – Garbage, stewed weeds, and sour acidity. Those of a younger bent might opine that this “tastes like ass.” I’m not sure I can get away with such phraseology, but they wouldn’t be wrong.

Bersano 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Red licorice Twizzler and unidentified Jolly Rancher. To wrest an old Texan saying: all candy, no cattle.

Isolabella della Croce 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Augusta” (Piedmont) – Supple. Solid purple fruit, but it’s all up front. New World in style, and good in that idiom for a few moments, but the finish is nowhere, and what’s left in the glass is much more akin to Chartreuse than it is barbera.

Giovenale 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Ansema (Piedmont) – A soup of modernity. Very ordinary.

Guido Berta 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Canto di Luna (Piedmont) – Gritty, heavy tannin. The wine’s got good texture despite this. Very purple in both aspect and aspiration.

La Barbatella 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza La Vigna dell’Angelo (Piedmont) – Flat. There are a few mineral-enhanced soil notes, but otherwise this wine is dead. Dead nose. Dead palate. Dead finish. A shame. I don’t even think I can make the funeral. I never knew the wine that well.

Lana 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Sludgy cherry milkshake. Could be anything, from anywhere.

Garitina 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Neuvsent” (Piedmont) – Brett, rosemary, and loads of tannin. Plus, some bonus volatile acidity. Ugh.

Coppo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Riserva della Famiglia” (Piedmont) – Sour, lactic, hard, and unpleasant.

Dacapo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – A wallop of fruit with a good, graphite-like texture. And then…it dies.

Erede di Chiappone Armando 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Ru” (Piedmont) – Big, ripe fruit dominated by strawberries and sour cherry candy. There’s a weird lactic note competing for attention, but overall this isn’t bad.

[bannered ceiling]Franco Mondo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bigna della Rose (Piedmont) – Hot, tongue-scalding fruit soup. Burnt powdered sugar. Very confected.

Gazzi 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Prajot (Piedmont) – Stale paper. Horrid. (Post-facto edit: I have reason to believe that something may have been wrong with this bottle.)

Guasti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Barcarato (Piedmont) – A friendly burst of fruit dusted with pepper. Pleasant enough.

La Gironda 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Le Nicchie” (Piedmont) – Soupy fruit circling a black hole. In other words, not only is the center of this wine void, but that void is sucking everything else into it into nothingness.

Malgrà 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Mora di Sassi (Piedmont) – Massive mega-purple fruit. (For the record, I’m not suggesting MegaPurple™, but the descriptor is too evocative to eschew.)

Noceto Michelotti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Montecanta (Piedmont) – Sour and disgusting garbage aromas, weeds, milk and bitter chocolates. Mmmmm.

Chiarlo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “La Court” (Piedmont) – Sweet plum and even sweeter strawberry. Girly wine.

Poderi dei Bricchi Astigiani 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Preje (Piedmont) – Juicy, plummy fruit with good acidity. Fair.

Scrimaglio 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Ascè (Piedmont) – Fun fruit, with a gloppy texture. In its idiom, fairly pleasant.

Olim Bauda 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Very sweet strawberry jam, but then taking a detour through a tar-producers’ convention hall. That’s both an aromatic and structural comment. Fruit Roll-Ups™, big and structured, but lacking any sort of finish whatsoever. Ugly. This is like drinking ittle Miss Muffet after she’s been beat up by a gang of roving thugs and left for the spider to find her, bruised and sobbing, beside her tuffet.

Tre Secoli 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Candy powder, pollen, cotton candy, and Starbursts™

Vietti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza La Crena (Piedmont) – Brett and sourness. Thankfully, it’s extremely short, so it’s all over quickly. But, like ripping a bandage off a scar, there’s still discomfort.

Villa Giada 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Dani (Piedmont) – Dominated by olatile acidity. Nasty, overworked fruit. Wretched.

Vinchio e Vaglio 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Laudana (Piedmont) – Stale oils. Nothing else? No, not of note. Vile.


Conclusions? One inevitable one is just how bad this sort of mass-production blind tasting is for both wine and taster. There were six wines that appeared in both the morning and afternoon tastings. Two of them have completely different notes, both organoleptically and qualitatively: the Gazzi, suggesting something wrong with the afternoon bottle, and the Guasti, which I hated in the morning session but was more receptive to in the afternoon, and didn’t describe as anything like the same wine. The other four match fairly well in qualitative assessment and less, but still forgivably, well along general organoleptic lines. One might think that two out of six isn’t bad, but of course that’s just over the wines common to the two tastings. If one extrapolates those results over the entirety of our blind/group tastings, that’s a lot of mistakes and inconsistencies. Too many. Whatever this says about a taster’s (or this taster’s) skill might be notable, but is really irrelevant in comparison to the level of unfairness with which a so-afflicted producer is burdened.

[expectant glasses]So how about Nizza and its signature characteristics? There’s absolutely no way to say, because the wines are too variable and, in so many cases, too tricked-up. I don’t mean actual fakery…because that’s an accusation I wouldn’t make without evidence…but modernizing, fruit-enhancing techniques in vineyard and cellar coupled with the increasingly nefarious influence of new wood. If they really want to showcase the Nizza terroir (if indeed it has one worth identifying), they’re going to need to show us the unoaked, “traditional” versions they seem to be hiding in their cellars as shameful, deformed cousins. Given this evidential set? Nizza means very close to nothing.

Of course, even if we can’t discern a terroir-based similarity, that’s not all an appellation can mean. Is there at least a typicity? No, decidedly not, outside a vague uptick in structure…though much of one structural element likely derives from the wood. How about a marketing advantage? Possibly, though of course it’s far too early to tell. The whole “d’Asti” designation is soon to be dropped on these wines, leaving just “Nizza” on the bottle; whether or not that will be a help remains to be seen, but certainly shortening label verbiage and simplifying wine identification is rarely a bad thing. (Are you listening, Germany?) Aside from the place name, there’s some tightening of standards: 100% barbera rather than Asti’s required 85%, for example. Excluding other, and especially international, grapes is at least a step in the right direction, if the goal is to produce something with an identifiable, individual character. And it’s still very early in the game. Ten years from now, such a tasting might provide a surprisingly uniformity of purpose. And maybe even terroir.

But really, the only arguments that can and will ever be made for this subzone are the wines themselves. And neither collectively nor qualitatively do they support the petition under consideration. I can’t go to the other extreme and call this a “vanity appellation” (even though Michele Chiarlo will say some things later that make me wonder), because there’s no way I can be in these producers’ heads. Still, this remains: if there’s an argument for Nizza, it hasn’t been made today…and any wines that are making the argument have been lost in the fog of techno-oenological war.

The order and outcome of that battle? Coming soon. Don’t miss the exciting conclusion!

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.

Hastae pudding club

[hastae logo] “Why all this technology? Don’t you like the wines you made before? Why are you changing everything…modifying, intervening?”

While it may not be the question that defines the day, it’s the question that sets the day on its inexorable path.

Up until now, we’ve been doing what one does at large-scale tasting events: sniffing, swirling, sipping, spitting, and scribbling. Some of us with pen in hand, others with space bar under thumb. But today’s a little different. We’ve been bused to an underground space that’s both wine/food showcase and assembly hall, and we’re now being treated – if that’s the word – to a PowerPoint presentation on some viticultural research aimed at improving the quality of barbera grapes in the Piedmont.

The research itself is pretty fundamental: Guyot vs. spurred cordon vine training. The former is traditional to the region, and the latter is being explored as an alternative (or, it might be more accurate to say, a replacement). Three years of research have been applied to this question, and we are here to both listen to and taste the results.

Now, it’s true that non-farmers are going to have an inherently limited enthusiasm for this sort of material. And while it’s as clearly-presented as it can be, there’s every reason for many of the assembled to feel like tuning out…especially after yet another morning of palate-numbing tasting. But those who don’t hear some interesting things along the way. And those who do? Well, by the time we get to the end of that leadoff question, I think pretty much everyone’s awake.

Why fool around with training methods? Curiosity, certainly. But there are specific goals in mind, and several are mentioned right from the beginning. The first is no surprise, given the mumblings from producers we’ve already met: a reduction in either total or the malic portion of barbera’s acidity. The second is a greater concentration of anthocyanins, which brings along with it a parallel concentration of tannins…and if there’s one thing these new-styled wines probably don’t need, especially if they’re going to be raised in barrique, it’s more tannin. (Incredibly, the wines taste-tested during these trials had both grape seed and oak tannins added. Yes, added.) In any case, it’s the third that causes more than a few eyebrows to crest: better preservation of color while the wine ages.

Is this really an important goal? “Color needs to remain permanent as wine ages,” we’re told. Well, why? To distinguish barbera from its notoriously pale-hued neighbor nebbiolo? Because the worldwide market for well-aged barbera has been shying away in recent years for insufficient purpleosity? Because the ultimate goal of any wine should be opacity to the end of its days?

There’s no answer forthcoming. And here’s another goal they have in mind, though it’s relegated to the accompanying text and not mentioned in the presentation:

The Guyot pruning used in most parts of the […] Piedmont does not enable the operation to be mechanized […]. Its substitution with a spurred cordon training system, easier to perform and partially or totally workable mechanically, can lead to a reduction in management costs […].

Finally, there’s the maraschino cherry on this modernizing sundae:

[B]arbera, in environments of average fertility and if pruned with the spurred cordon method, can take advantage of a number of buds slightly higher than the one obtained with the Guyot method.

So: lower acidity, long-term color stability, higher yields, more tannin, and lower-cost mechanical harvesting…this is all just terrific news, and really focused on the key qualitative differentiators that will bring barbera to the next level. (The “natural” set will like this, though: the higher antioxidant levels that also result mean a lessened need for preservational members of the sulfur family.)

Most of the rest of the presentation is devoted to charts and graphs that demonstrate the conclusions of the study…conclusions which, in the minds of those funding the research, do indeed lead to higher-quality barbera. Others, with different goalposts, might reach opposite (or at least less definitive) conclusions even before tasting the wines. I write with my biases already on display, but of course this – as with so many other such debates – will very much revolve around matters of preference. Those who think barbera is not big, dark, dense, tannic, or lush enough will embrace these results with enthusiasm. Whereas we lonely few contrarians can only look on with dismay.

[cheese & confiture]Except it turns out we’re not so lonely after all.

Today’s research is being promoted by Hastae, a group of wineries that won’t be viewed with enthusiasm by anyone of a traditionalist bent: Berta, Braida, Chiarlo, Coppo, Prunotto, and Vietti. Michele Chiarlo, certainly Piedmontese eminence personified, is himself in attendance, and will be presenting tangible evidence of the research’s conclusions to the assembled, as well as answering any questions the group might have. And it turns out that we have some.

It’s Charles Scicolone who offers the confrontation that starts this report. The answer he receives is unhelpful, though it too will set a tone for the day’s discussions and debates: a disagreement with the base assumptions of the question (though the details of this disagreement are elided), followed by a complaint that the question itself is “a little insulting.” But while the barbera brain trust doesn’t offer an actual answer to his question, I think I can provide one.

A near-immediate follow-up to Scicolone’s question that wonders if too many grapes might now be on non-ideal sites, since the better wines of the past seemed perfectly quality-oriented, brings another evasion (“it’s impossible to comment on that”), and then this: until now, growers have apparently not had “incentives” to improve their grapes, and thus were “forced” to make the older, more traditional styles of wines because their production and yields were too high.

The current answer is brought to a coda with, “our research is intended to make bad wines better.” And so, there’s the answer that wasn’t made explicit: they didn’t like the wines that they made before.

An aside…while this little contretemps has been escalating, I’ve moved from my seat in the middle of the room to a standing position against a post, nearer the back. From here, I am more an observer of than a participant in the proceedings – at least visually – and while I do not want to over-dramaticize the scene around the room’s perimeter as a “panic,” it’s clear that tensions among the organizers are high. There’s excited whispering, there’s a lot of agitated frowning and gesturing, and there’s rapid movement to and fro. Onstage, Michele Chiarlo – who is seated – spends much of his non-speaking time with head down and a hand on his forehead, projecting a certain angst, if not actual pain. But while the profoundly negative turn to what was intended to be a purely informational event seems to have the organizers on edge, it’s not clear what they can do. Cut off discussion? That would be transparent and counter-productive. So, they’re forced to wait and watch, like the rest of us. And I think that, if they knew this would be the less confrontational of today’s two interactive fora, they might be breathing a little easier.

Or not.

There’s not a lot of time to muse on this, though, because we move immediately on to the third confrontational comment in a row. (That’s out of three, by the way.) Our third interlocutor notes that even if one accepts that the modern wines we’ve been tasting are more “balanced,” it is at the cost of “recognizability” and the defining character of barbera.

We get two answers to this. The first is from Michele Chiarlo, and it is declarative: “wine is a good wine when it sells.”

The potential problems with this statement have been the subject of innumerable philosophical works, so I feel neither the need nor the desire to delve into them here. From a certain mercantile perspective, of course, it’s “true,” even though it gets us quickly to a state in which Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is the best white wine of Italy, because it sells more than all the others. As a guiding philosophy behind winemaking decisions, I admit I find it profoundly depressing. But that’s a personal reaction. Certainly I don’t find it difficult to understand; starving for one’s vocation is no more inherently noble than starving for one’s art. But I’m also glad that not everyone sees it Chiarlo’s way.

Chiarlo will double down on his assertion a little later: “Now we export to sixty countries. Before, we could only sell in Piedmont.”

It’s left to Professor Vincenzo Gerbi, one of the project’s researchers, an oenologist from the University of Turin, and the speaker who has been covering most of the day’s technical bases, to attempt a less overtly commercial response.

“Barbera, more than any other grape variety, owes its character to acidity. In the past, people have boasted – for not the right reasons – about this acidity. […] We can produce balanced and great-tasting barbera, [and w]e can do so while maintaining the defining character of barbera.”

Here is another a clear refutation of the barbera of the past. That barbera – the crisp, light, red-fruited, acidic-food-requiring wine described in pretty much every wine compendium – is to be dismissed as a necessary failing of the past. Barbera must be sold in ever-increasing quantities, and the new methods and styles are the mechanism by which that will be accomplished, and this new paradigm is here to stay.

Then, Gerbi lobs this little bomblet into the proceedings: “some producers used barriques; this was a mistake.” This with Michele Chiarlo just a meter or so to his left.

[grappa]No matter the institutional desire for an end to the confrontation, we do have a schedule to keep, and so matters come to a natural end as we proceed to a pair of very long tables for a comparative tasting. A very manageable four wines this time, produced by the Hastae group as part of the research trials described above. They are presented to demonstrate a point. And they do.

Hastae 2007 Barbera d’Asti (Guyot) (Piedmont) – Deep purple, plum, black cherry. A large-boned and firmly structured wine with good palate intensity. Fruit-dominated, but balanced and solid.

Hastae 2007 Barbera d’Asti (spurred cordon) (Piedmont) – More obvious alcohol, more “present” fruit. Graphite-textured tannin. Packs a wallop.

Hastae 2008 Barbera d’Asti (Guyot) (Piedmont) – Strong acidity and chewy, reddish-tinged fruit. A little frayed.

Hastae 2008 Barbera d’Asti (spurred cordon) (Piedmont) – Many shades darker than the Guyot-trained wine…in fact, nearly opaque. Purple milk chocolate shake.

Conclusions, then? From this grand sample of four: I certainly, as might be predicted from every vintage generalization I’ve yet heard from the producers here in the Piedmont, prefer the 2007s to the 2008s, for reasons of better balance, fullness, and structure. But that’s not what I’m here to taste. I’m here to taste training methods. And I’m afraid that within each couplet, I prefer the old school Guyot wine to that made from spurred cordon vines. What I can’t go on to say is that I can clearly identify the reasons for that preference from the research conclusions presented earlier. In both cases the spurred cordon wines reflect the qualities and flaws more common to modern, internationalized wines, but this must be caveated by noting that the ’07 Guyot bottling is no ultra-traditional throwback…not that would one expect otherwise from this collection of producers.

After talk and backtalk, there is lunch. A fine one, in which there’s salad in a Zorb, some excellent local delicacies, and a pair of interesting verticals.

Chiarlo “Cuvée Pietro Chiarlo” Metodo Classico Brut (Piedmont) – 50% cortese and 50% chardonnay. Oxidized and sulfurous…a nice trick. Coppery. Ripe, ripe, ripe fruit. Clumsy and goofy; Chevy Chase doing Gerald Ford.

Hastae 2005 Barbera d’Asti “Quorum” (Piedmont) – Big, ripe, but balanced. There’s a light chocolate sheen, but good – no, make that great – acidity. Very good in the New World style, albeit with the pinched finish so common to the genre.

Hastae 2004 Barbera d’Asti “Quorum” (Piedmont) – Sweaty. Brittle tannin hardens the wine, yet the midpalate is mushy; a weird counterpoint. It’s pretty good, to be honest, but in no way could it be called stylish. Perhaps it’s entering a closed stage.

Hastae 2001 Barbera d’Asti “Quorum” (Piedmont) – Softening, obviously and dramatically, with leafy soil, black pepper, and spiky acidity. Lots of character, but at the expense of quality.

Hastae 1999 Barbera d’Asti “Quorum” (Piedmont) – Graphite tannin, succulent red fruit, and style. Great acidity. Hearkens back to an older style, with a little more verve.

Tasting these wines, with and without food, several things occur. First, Hastae makes good wines, whatever one thinks of their style and their understandability as barbera d’Asti. Second, their style is either veering precipitously towards the modernistic or age shifts their wines into an older, more traditional mode; I suspect the former more than the latter. Third, these are definitely wines that reward age with change, even if they don’t always get better. And fourth, I have not once wished that the wines had held on to a darker, more youthful color. Who cares?

The second vertical is spirituous – the only time this trip in which we’ll actually be asked to consume grappa, rather than engaging in our own late-night volunteerism – and it’s only a vertical because I request one. Everyone before me gets a glass and a choice, while I ask if a small vertical might be arranged. This seems to please the waitstaff, and the idea spreads. Trendsetting is not my usual mode, but in the spirit of spirits, I won’t cavil.

[grappa]Hastae 2003 “Quorum” Grappa (Piedmont) – Round and very vintage-marked. Extremely sweet. More like a dessert wine than a grappa, frankly.

Hastae 1999 “Quorum” Grappa (Piedmont) – Feet. This smells like feet. Also, spices (nutmeg, mostly) and baked caramel apple. Why is there so much overt sucrosity?

Hastae 2005 “Quorum” Grappa (Piedmont) – Waxy and weird with spice and sweet brown sugar.

Hastae 2004 “Quorum” Grappa (Piedmont) – Ripe apple and spiced honey, with a lactic finish.

OK, these aren’t good at all. Were they labeled “barbera liqueur,” I’d probably be fine with them. But as it is, they’re high fructose grappa syrup. No thanks.

Lunched, wined, and spirited, we prepare to board the bus to our next destination. Snow is falling, and our transport grinds into a lower gear. We’ve somewhere to go, but getting there is going to be harder than anyone knows.

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.