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Brilliance in Barbaresco

STEPHEN BROOK visits the Barbaresco producers who are busy rewriting the rule book

First I meet Papa, with his stubble and shy grin. Then Mama emerges, wiping her flour-dusted hands on her apron. There’s the kid sister, carrying bread into the tasting room. The dog yaps at my ankles, then I meet the chickens. There’s a pause while everyone argues about who had the car keys last. I’m ushered into the tasting room, such as it is. Brochures gather dust on a table, and cartons of Barbaresco wine are stacked along the wall. It doesn’t look promising.

The sister returns carrying enormous wine-glasses. The winemaker pours. I raise the glass with no great hopes. The wine, however, is tremendous. It’s deep-coloured, smells sexily of plums and violets, and its power is evident. What comes shining through is the fruit: hedonistic and complex, leaving me struggling to find words, especially in Italian, for its splendour.

This is the new Barbaresco, and my experience can be repeated throughout the region. It’s been this way in neighbouring Barolo for 20 years, but here it’s far more recent. Elderly growers were once content to sell off their grapes to négociants; but along comes the next generation, fresh from wine college and despite Papa’s reservations, he’s determined to produce his own wine. There’s not much of it, but the quality is excellent. All it takes is a glowing debut at Vinitaly, a positive review in Gambero Rosso, and he’s on his way, with foreign importers hammering at the door.

I’ve been following Barbaresco for some years, but the real eye opener was a blind tasting last May of 80 bottles from the 1999 vintage. There were some poor wines, but not that many. And the best were simply wonderful. After the tasting sessions I scurried over to the villages of Barbaresco, Treiso and Neive to visit the estates and meet the producers.

For decades Barbaresco was a backwater. After decades of official existence as a region, there were only three significant producers: Gaja, Bruno Giacosa and the small cooperative known as the Produttori di Barbaresco. Not until the late 1980s did the ranks of producers grow significantly. Annual production is around 2.5 million bottles, which isn’t a great deal of wine.

In the shadow of barolo?

It was Angelo Gaja who showed what could be done here. But Gaja is somehow apart, just as Yquem is apart from Sauternes. When, two years ago, he decided to bottle his single-vineyard wines as Langhe rather than Barbaresco, reserving the latter appellation for his blended version, there was fury in the land. This was not just because of suspicions regarding his motives, but also because the move might be perceived as devaluating the appellation. Yet Barbaresco’s growing reputation has not been dented.

There’s not a great deal to distinguish Barbaresco from Barolo. The soils are much the same, though Barbaresco’s are more fertile. The major difference is climatic: the Barbaresco vines are more precocious, which can make a difference in the uncertain autumns of the region.

Aldo Vacca, the director of the Produttori, explains: ‘We have a more open landscape than Barolo, which is more hemmed in by hills and ridges. Our vines ripen a bit earlier, and on average our wines have slightly less alcohol than Barolo.’ That makes them a touch more approachable when young, although tannin levels can be equally high. There are countless opinions about the different characteristics of the various Barbaresco villages, but they matter less than the difference between crus, not to mention differences in winemaking style. In a line-up of great Nebbiolos from the Langhe, tasted blind, few could distinguish a Treiso from a Neive or, for that matter, a Treiso from a La Morra in Barolo.


Tradition meets change

Much is written of the differences in winemaking styles, the supposed battles between traditionalists and modernists. The traditionalists retain the old casks (botti) for ageing their wines, often for three years. The modernists have thrown out the botti and use a high proportion of new barriques, but age the wines for a shorter period. But these differences are much exaggerated. Gaja is certainly a modernist, but uses far less new oak than many of his neighbours. Bruno Giacosa is a traditionalist, but who would dispute the quality of his wines?

Andrea Sottimano, a modernist, told me: ‘I don’t like these distinctions. The so-called traditionalists made wonderful wines in 1997, when the opulence of the vintage suited their methods. But perhaps barrique-ageing was preferable in the more tannic 1996 vintage. It’s hard to say. Bruno Giacosa and Giorgio Rivetti are completely different in their approach, but they’re both great winemakers. Some producers like very short macerations and make beautiful wines. I like around 12 days, but you still find producers who keep wines on the skins for a month or more. It’s a matter of personal choice, not a formula. ‘Great Nebbiolo should mirror its origins. That’s why I make four different crus. The secret here has little do with barriques. It has to do with low yields. That’s the big difference between now and 20 years ago, and it shows in the wines.’

When I visit the unassuming Renato Cigliuti, the first thing he does is show me his vineyards on both sides of a vine-covered ridge called Serraboella. He explains every inch of them, every nuance they contribute to the varieties planted on each patch. Like many other Barbaresco growers, he green-harvests severely during the summer, removing up to half the crop. This painstaking care, and the effort to understand his terroirs, is what makes Cigliuti typical of the best of Barbaresco. As a winemaker, he ages half his Barbaresco in barriques, the rest in botti. The results speak for themselves. His 1999 ‘Serraboella’ is magnificent, with its aromas of ripe plums and chocolate, and immense concentration and power on the palate.

Giorgio Rivetti of La Spinetta is a modernist par excellence. He produces three Barbaresco crus (Satrderi, Gallina and Valeirano), aged in new barriques. All are highly concentrated, yet have an underlying elegance. I tasted the 2000s just before bottling and although I rate the wines very highly, they did, at this stage, taste very similar. They eventually develop individual characters, but need at least five years in bottle for their personalities to emerge. Rivetti is a controversial figure. The rich, extracted styles of his wines have found favour with some influential journalists, so they are expensive. There is a certain sameness to them, but I find their quality hard to fault. But for Rivetti, ageing wine in small barrels has little to do with oaky flavours: ‘I want my wines to have the perfume you get from botti and the structure you get from barriques. This is something you can only achieve by practicing low yields and by picking at the right moment.’

Much of the change in Barbaresco is attributable to the passing of the baton from one generation to the next. I remember the Pelissero of 10 years ago: good but not remarkable. Then in 1994 Pelissero senior handed the reins to his son. Everything changed. A well-equipped modern winery has been built, and the top wines are aged in barriques. In 1990 the cru Vanotu was aged in 10% new oak; today it’s 100%. It’s at the dinner table that you realise how the mentality has changed. As well as Pelissero’s own wines, we sampled a fine Gevrey and a bizarre Priorato. This generation knows what’s going on in the other great wine regions.


More names to watch

I shall pass in silence over the many mediocre wines that are still produced, and mention a few other top estates. Giuseppe Cortese favours a traditional style, and his wines show mocha as well as fruit aromas, and well-structured fruit. The Minuto family at Luisin are traditionalists, too, and their two crus are distinguished by fine acidity and elegance. Aldo Pola can make great modern Barbaresco at Fontanabianca, as in 1998, though I was disappointed by the 1999. I found the same to be true at Moccagatta, an estate I normally admire greatly. Fontanafredda’s ‘Coste Rubin’ is a bargain among Barbarescos, and its sweet fruit and svelte texture make it enjoyable young. Ceretto’s Barbarescos are intense and stylish, but also extremely expensive.

The wines of the Marchesi di Gresy, especially his ‘Martinenga’, are sometimes under-estimated because of their seeming lightness. The emphasis is on elegance rather than power, because that is what the grapes deliver. The best cru is the chewy, cherry-scented ‘Camp Gros’, from within the celebrated Rabajà vineyard. More exuberant Barbarescos are made by Bruno Rocca, especially from Rabajà; the fruit is tremendous but they demand patience as the tannins are powerful. Andrea Sottimano is a new star, releasing four crus with very different characters, which emerge strongly despite the use of almost 50% new barriques.

As well as the traditional Produttori, where the rather formidable riservas, all from different sites, spend up to four years in botti, there is a private coop, the Vignaioli ‘Elvio Pertinace’, where some crus are partially aged in barriques, less out of conviction, says director Cesare Barbero, than to satisfy an American clientele. This swift emergence of Barbaresco from the shadow of Barolo has, of course, been aided by a succession of very fine vintages from 1995 onwards.

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