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barbera meeting 2010

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.

Nizza man’s world, but it wouldn’t mean nothin’…

[empty journal]More Asti barbera, this time in the subzone of Nizza. Is there a difference? Read on. And see this post for important disclaimers.

Avezza 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Sotto la Muda” (Piedmont) – Heat and chocolate-covered strawberry candy bar…the cheap kind you’d find in a supermarket or drugstore.

Bava 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Pianoalto” (Piedmont) – All possible forms of brett, moving through the full range of effluvia to Band-Aid, etc., etc., etc. It’s like one of those demonstration wines for “find the flaw” tastings they put sommeliers and MWs through.

Bersano 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Concentrated, dark, jammy fruit, chocolate, tannin, and some welcome minerality. But then there’s lactic and stale butter notes, followed by cocoa butter and a lotiony texture. Tannic lotion…what a concept!

Isolabella della Croce 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Augusta” (Piedmont) – Eucalyptus lozenge, fake cherry, and pink peppercorns. Huh?

La Barbatella 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza La Vigna dell’Angelo (Piedmont) – Zinfandel-like jam, and an olallieberry fruit soup. After this dalliance with character, the milk and dark chocolates clamp down hard, with gallons of vanilla pouring into the void. Finishes with a lacquer-like residue that’s difficult to extricate from my mouth.

Lana 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Freshly-tanned leather, dark cherries, and a bit of something that feels like spritz (though it could just be unusually fresh acidity; my palate’s a little damaged by this stage) that adds some vibrancy.

Dacapo 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Vinga Dacapo (Piedmont) – Incisive dark berries. Clean and clear. That spritzy feeling returns. There’s a little dark chocolate, but this has both persistence and a certain measure of style.

La Gironda di Galandrino 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Le Nicchie” (Piedmont) – A tickle of volatile acidity hovers over chocolate sludge infused with malt powder, barley, and hops. It’s chocobeer!

l’Armangia 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry…all with the slowly-hardening texture of cement. An impenetrable pudding of a wine. Where’s the Lactaid?

Chiarlo 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “La Court” (Piedmont) – Stink. Stank. Stunk. Weeds, the most brackish coffee, vegetables…and then, for good measure, a drizzle of chocolate syrup.

Nocento Michelotti 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Montecanta (Piedmont) – Old socks soaked in fruit residue. In case it’s unclear, I did not care for this.

Pescaja 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Solneri (Piedmont) – Smells like freisa, which at this point is better than the many alternatives, I guess. Strawberry, celery salt, fresh fruit slices. I kinda like it. I don’t know what it is, but I’d drink it.

Prunotto 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Costamiole (Piedmont) – A fruit bomb, friendly and approachable, with milk and vanilla doing battle on the finish. Just, you know, in case there was any doubt that the wine could be made from anything or be from anywhere.

Tre Secoli 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Herbal oak, vanilla-scented oak, coconutty oak, oak, oak, oak, oak grappa, and stewed garbage fermented in oak. Mmmmmm.

Vietti 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza La Crena (Piedmont) – Ghirardelli chocolate (that’s not praise, by the way), the salty tang of the ocean, then more chocolate. Textured like half & half.

Villa Giada 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Dani (Piedmont) – Stinky vegetables, brett, weeds, black cherry, and cassis. Finishes with Band-Aids on Styrofoam.

Garitina 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Neuvsent” (Piedmont) – Roasted tomato dusted with peppercorns, celery salt, and carrying the unmistakable aroma of pork. Just bizarre.

Giovinale 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Anssema (Piedmont) – Banana Froot™, black cherry, and a soapy sludge of vanillin (yes, I mean the fake stuff) with layers of cemented tannin.

Guido Berta 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Canto di Luna (Piedmont) – Jam residue, vanilla, tannin, oak, and heat. As boring as an overworked wine can possibly get.

Gazzi 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Praiot (Piedmont) – Big, shouldery fruit with dark chocolate and tannin that dries out the wine rather quickly. I can’t say I’m disappointed that it does so, either.

Guasti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Barcarato (Piedmont) – Fresh plum marred by a horrid soy milk texture and clover pollen.

Malgrà 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Mora di Sassi (Piedmont) – Huge, plummy, and supple. Actually stands up to the vanilla and chocolate shakes that are threatening to dominate it. Well, it does for a while, and then the finish goes completely to hell in a syrupy, fake-fruited handbasket.

Poderi dei Bricchi Astigiani 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Preje (Piedmont) – Vanilla, coconut, strawberry, and plum…but, remarkably, the fruit and oak here are well-integrated. Pretty good in its internationalized style.

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.

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 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 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 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 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 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.

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