The Barbera d'Asti and Barbera del Monferrato DOCs have both shown explosive growth over the last decade. RICHARD BAUDAINS introduces the new and far more drinkable 'Super-Barberas'

The Barbera d’Asti and Barbera del Monferrato DOCs have both shown explosive growth over the last decade. RICHARD BAUDAINS introduces the new and far more drinkable ‘Super-Barberas’

IN 1992, Gambero Rosso’s Vini d’Italia listed a combined total of 31 wines from the Barbera d’Asti and Barbera del Monferrato DOCs. The current edition has 233 wines from the same denominations. Ten years ago Asti/Monferrato Barbera was scraping together an average 1.25 score on the Gambero’s 0–3 point scale. This year, between them, the two DOCs picked up five of the guide’s top tre bicchieri or three-glass awards. (For the record, the rival Veronelli Guide lists 205 Asti/Monferrato Barberas, including 21 in the ‘best tastes of the year’ category). At the beginning of the 1990s the 7,000 or so hectares of Barbera in the Monferrato hills were barely paying their way. Today the trendy new generation of ‘Super-Barberas’ fetches prices on a par with the Nebbiolo wines of the neighbouring Langhe.

The explanation for this dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of Piedmont’s most planted variety lies in an exponential leap in the general quality – helped by a string of favourable vintages from 1996 to 2001 – and a revolution in style. Barbera used to give you black teeth and gum-shrinking acidity. Nowadays, you get fruit, body and classy drinkability. Barbera has entered the modern commercial winemaking realm and, although you might be nostalgic for the old-fashioned, taut and minerally style, you have to admit that it tastes much better now than it used to.

Barbera is not an easy grape to work with. It is big on colour and potentially big on alcohol, but it also has high acidity, not much tannin and not particularly showy aromas. Producers agree, however, that Barbera is worth the trouble. Highly versatile, it delivers the goods in a range of styles, from the spritzy Monferrato frizzante to the upmarket, barrique-aged, single vineyard selections which the Italian press dubs ‘Super-Barberas’.

Improved techniques

As every producer will tell you, step one in educating the variety is a drastic reduction in yields. Michele Chiarlo remembers that when he first introduced green-harvesting he was harangued by the local priest for committing an affront to nature. Nowadays, it is routine procedure to thin out the crop at least twice.

If necessary, Giorgio Rivetti at La Spinetta goes as far as cutting off the bottom half of the bunch to ensure even ripening. Experience suggests that the lower the yields, the better the results. Chiarlo reckons that basic quality starts at 2kg of fruit per vine, but for his top La Court selection he harvests less than half that amount. Ermanno Accornero calculates that he makes one bottle per vine of his superb Cima. Low yields are not only the result of massive crop reduction, they are also a natural feature of old vines. At the very top end of the Barbera revolution, one of the other keys to the quality leap has been cru selection and, in particular, the recovery of plots of old vineyard.

On the winemaking side, the traditional problem was always acidity. Barbera used to be very unaccommodating when it came to the secondary fermentation, which softens the sour-tasting malic acid in wine grapes. ‘The single biggest step in creating a modern style of Barbera,’ says veteran oenologist Giuliano Noé, ‘was getting the malolactic fermentation to work. It used to be literally impossible to induce the malo because the musts were so full of sulphites and had such low pH [in other words, strong acidity]. These days, starting out with ripe fruit and cutting back on the sulphites, the problem no longer exists.’

Having cracked that one, the next piece in the jigsaw was ageing. Here the experience of the last ten years seems to show that, when it is handled well, barrel maturing really does lift Barbera into a different class. There is no single formula for wood ageing. Bava commissioned a larger version of the traditional Piedmontese barrel in French oak for its impressive single vineyard, Piano Alto. Accornero adopted 500l Burgundy-style tonneaux. On the other hand, Mario Olivero from Marchesi Alfieri and Giorgio Rivetti at La Spinetta use all-new barriques for their top selections which, incidentally, come out smelling of fruit not oak.

Clearer regulations

The next frontier is – you guessed it – terroir. The pressing issue here is a revision of the DOCs governing Barbera production in the Monferrato. Roughly 75% of the vineyards in question qualify for both the Barbera d’Asti and Barbera del Monferrato DOCs. The other 25%, from a generally less interesting area, can only be called Barbera del Monferrato. Independent of where it is grown, Barbera del Monferrato is traditionally associated with lighter, everyday wines, including the fizzy frizzante versions, and d’Asti with more serious styles. However, d’Asti can also be made in a vivace version which is indistinguishable from Monferrato’s frizzante. Both DOCs have a riserva-style superiore category with identical production norms, and there are plenty of examples of very good, fuller bodied wines with the Monferrato label.

Discussions about a DOCG to resolve the muddle are underway. Meanwhile, the producers’ consortium has sponsored changes to the existing DOC for Barbera d’Asti that introduce new sub-zones in the superiore category. The wines from the first of these, Nizza, are out this year.

Apart from identifying sites with homogeneous soils and microclimates, the idea of the new denomination is to introduce new, stricter norms of vineyard management and winemaking. Only south-facing hill vineyards are admitted to the register of the new sub-zone, which also defines the training system (guyot) and pruning (ten buds per vine). To add a little spice to relations with the neighbouring Langhe, the regulations fix yields at 70 quintals/ha (hectare), ten quintals below those of Barolo. The style of the wine is dictated by the requirement for 18 months’ ageing. No fewer than 64 producers claimed the DOC for the 2001 vintage. Within the next five years production is expected to grow to 650,000 bottles.

Barbera clearly dominates the scene, but it does not have a total monopoly. Roberto Bava, for one, is a great believer in the future of Monferrato Rosso, an open house DOC which many producers use for exclusive estate wines. These tend to have an international flavour, whether in monovarietals, such as Alfieri’s very authentic tasting Pinot Nero, San Germano, or in blends. Braida’s Bacialé goes for the elegance of a Barbera-Pinot Nero cuvée, while Accornero’s Centenario and Martinetti’s Sul Bric have the muscle of a Barbera-Cabernet cépage. Angelo Sonvico from La Barbatella backed both horses for his Monferrato Rosso Mystère by assembling equal parts of what he describes as ‘the three greatest varieties in the world: Barbera, Cabernet and Pinot Noir’.

Nobody would dispute the quality of these or any of the other new-wave wines from the top producers, all made on the no-expense-spared principle, but could there be a risk of losing identity just when Barbera has begun to regain credibility?

There is a back-to-the-roots alternative to the international varieties in the form of the traditional Barbera-Nebbiolo blend. La Spinetta uses it in its Pin, so does Bertelli in its Mon Major, and it also features in Chiarlo’s very beefy Countacc! Don’t even whisper it to the producers of the Langhe, but these wines suggest that the potential for Nebbiolo in the Monferrato is, quite frankly, enormous.

Richard Baudains is a freelance writer and expert on Italian wines.

RECOMMENDED BARBERA PRODUCERS AND WINES

Accornero

Long-established family estate which has moved into the top league since the mid-1990s. Outstanding quality and value across the range, from the fruit of the 14% Giulin to the prize-winning Bricco Battista and richly textured, late harvested Cima.

Bava

Bava makes no fewer than four selections of Barbera. Latest additions are the gritty, intensely flavoured Piano Alto Superiore and the feminine, violet-scented Libera.

Braida

New this year is the deliciously supple, berry-flavoured first vintage (2001) of the Montebruna vineyard. Among the other wines, the superb Uccellone and Bigotta 1999 exemplify the elegance of the house style and single cru selections that are the hallmarks of this pioneering estate.

Coppo

Eclectic winery with classy Chardonnay as well as top-class Barbera. The impressive, concentrated fruit Pomorosso is a classic of the modern barrique-aged style. Camp du Rouss is slightly more austere and earthy. Alterego is a solid Barbera-Cabernet blend. The 2000 vintages need at least three years.

Franco Martinetti

Martinetti’s beautifully refined Montruc comes from old vines planted on sandy, calcareous soils. Sul Bric is a rich, fleshy Cabernet-Barbera blend from the same site. The excellent 2000s need at least three years in bottle. Bricco dei Banditi is in the quaffable joie de vivre style.

La Barbatella

Angelo Sonvico is one of the founding fathers of modern Barbera. The monovarietal Vigna dell’Angelo and Barbera-Cabernet Sonvico are Piedmontese classics. The latest addition is the original Monferrato Rosso Mystère. Mini-productions of high quality.

La Spinetta

Dynamic, new-wave producer making fleshy wines with exuberant fruit and extract. Barbera d’Asti Ca’ di Pian 2001 is for drinking now. Save La Spinetta Superiore 2000, which comes in part from pre-phylloxera vines, and the Nebbiolo-Cab-Barbera blend Monferrato Rosso Pin 2000.

Marchesi Alfieri

Ex-Col d’Orcia winemaker Mario Olivero has revitalised this historic estate since his arrival four years ago. Superb vineyard, highly refined winemaking and total belief in Barbera are the keynotes. Alfiera is the splendid top wine. Look also for the super-value Barbera La Tota and a serious Pinot Nero called San Germano.

Michele Chiarlo

This leading winery has a wide range but its roots are in Monferrato, and Barbera remains the most represented variety. The showcase wines are the dense Nebbiolo-Barbera-Cabernet Countacc and a superbly intense and perfumed monovarietal from the all-Barbera estate of La Court.

Poderi Bertelli

Serious old-fashioned Barbera with bags of depth from ripe concentrated fruit. Giarone is the epitome of dry, plummy Barbera. San Antonio Vieilles Vignes is mature, dense and savoury with an earthy terroir character that is pure Piedmont.

Tenuta La Tenaglia

Barbera specialist with the highest vineyards in the Monferrato. The classic Giorgio Tenaglia expresses the intense, minerally estate style. La Tenaglia E (new this year) is softer and rounder. The impressive Emozioni 1999 has length and substance, berry fruit and sweet, lightly toasted oak. Give it two years at least.

Written by Richard Baudains