BARBARESCO, THE UNIVERSAL WINE
In this hilly land, the Nebbiolo grape's allies are the marly earth and the skies of a cold temperate climate. The outcome? A red wine rich in fragrances and flavour that endures over time
As Prof. Domizio Cavazza said in the early 1900s, the Nebbiolo produced on the hills of Barbaresco and surrounding area has a universal nature. He didn't beat around the bush. Cavazza sang its praises in his "Ode to Barbaresco” listing some of its best properties, drawing a close link to many of the leading wines of the "World of Bacchus".
Prof. Cavazza wasn't biased, since he wasn't born in these hills and had no family roots here. The land of his birth was elsewhere, in Concordia on the Secchia in the Modena area. He ended up in Barbaresco by pure coincidence, with a helping hand from Fate and with a bit of intuition when, still very young, the Ministry of Agriculture appointed him Director of the newly opened Royal School of Oenology in Alba. He lived and worked in the important town of Alba, but managed to make time to go around the surrounding farms, and that's how he got to Barbaresco.
A Fascinating Story
In the early 1880s he reached that long hill south-east of Alba where the houses of the town of Barbaresco nestled up against the gorge and all the way up to the top, where a medieval tower rose imposingly. He soon realised that the surrounding hills made a perfect home for the Nebbiolo grape variety — the same grape that was already used in another area of the Langa to produce Barolo. Despite his young age, he had a deep knowledge of the secrets of viticulture and fruticulture, having studied in Bologna, Milan and in Montpelier, France. His youth, his boldness and his professional role empowered him to make a very daring offer: he asked the then producers of Barolo to set aside their local pride to come together and create a global production area and wine. He knew he was asking a lot, but he felt he saw far-sightedness and a pragmatic nature in those souls. The Barolo producers categorically refused, so Prof. Cavazza decided to launch his project in Barbaresco together with eight other small local vineyard owners. In 1894, the Barbaresco Cooperative Winery was founded, one of the first cooperative wineries in Piedmont.
It was an important year, 1894, considered the birth of Barbaresco, when its production became organised and "modern". Even before this date, there were signs of something special in grape and wine production on the hills of Barbaresco, but it was often isolated, spontaneous, without a broader strategy capable of yielding results that would last. Many may recall the Roman History of Tito Livio and the “Barbarica Silva” in which the Liguri Stazielli hid while they were being pursued by the Romans. Or the magnificent grape basket that overlooks the town of Barbaresco in the choir stalls of carved wood of the Duomo di Alba. Or even the anecdote about Austrian General De Melas who, in 1799, having defeated the French in battle, ordered that various barrels of “Nebiolo di Barbaresco” be brought to him at his camp to properly celebrate his victory.
All these are fascinating details. But the concrete substance of Domizio Cavazza's initiative is a whole other story. In no time his undertaking — which sprang from the ideas of just a few enterprising men — spread like wildfire to involve the entire area. In just a few years, between the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds, the Barbaresco Cooperative Winery carved out an important niche for itself in the wine-making world, and its wines received praise from all over Italy and around the world. Together with his technical and scientific expertise, Prof. Cavazza's greatest gifts were his far-sightedness and dynamic nature, and this is what brought him to create the first list of Barbaresco crus in the early nineteen hundreds: many of the names of vineyards and areas which were recorded at that time on the hills of Barbaresco, are today found on the best Barbaresco wine labels .
Prof. Domizio Cavazza died in Barbaresco on August 9, 1913. He was only 57. Who knows how many good things he could still have done for Barbaresco had he lived longer. The Barbaresco Cooperative Winery remained active even after his passing, thanks to the work carried out by his son, Luigi, who was also an agronomist. In the mid-1920s, the Cooperative Winery was set to close: it was the beginning of the fascist era, whichwould lead to great desolation on this and many other farms in Italy.
The lands of Barbaresco fell into poverty and uncertainty. A survey by the Cuneo Chamber of Commerce from the late 1920s records Barbaresco and its people as being the poorest in the entire province of Cuneo. The days of the DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) and the DOCG (Guaranteed and Controlled Designation of Origin) were still far in the future. However, despite all this, “the die was cast” and progress was inevitable. The example that Domizio Cavazza so generously set did not fall on barren land and soon bore fruit. The founding of the Barbaresco Producers Cooperative in 1958 — which many see as the continuation of Cavazza's Cooperative Winery — and the Controlled Designation of Origin obtained on April 23, 1966, as well as the final approval of the DOCG (October 3, 1980), were all signs of a comeback. This together with the gradual and continual formation of many small companies, starting in the 1960s, which today are the pride and fortune of Barbaresco and the surrounding area.
A Terroir of Hills and Valleys
Barbaresco is produced in a land of hills and valleys in the southern part of Piedmont, south-east of Alba and next to the province of Asti. It's a small area of just three towns (Barbaresco, Neive and Treiso) and a hamlet (San Rocco Seno d’Elvio) of Alba. Seen from above, some say that it resembles a horse's head, others a bunch of Nebbiolo grapes.
Dominating the landscape are a large chain of steep, tapered hills alternating with deep, fairly wide valleys. Often, the sides facing north are abruptly cut off by cliffs. The most striking example — the most spectacular of all the Langhe — is right here: at the Rocche dei Sette Fratelli, in the southern part of the town of Treiso. Even the altitude is ideal for cultivating vines — between 150 and 450 m above sea level, with most of the area between 250 and 400 m, the ideal height for the Nebbiolo grape variety. From a geological viewpoint, the Barbaresco area originated in the Cenozoic Era. The exceptions are the alluvial areas not suitable for vineyards, which are from the Quaternary Period.
This area is from the Miocene Period during the Cenozoic Era, which was one of the most ancient, dating back to 23 to 5.3 million years ago. The soil in the Barbaresco area is fairly uniform, although two sub-areas may be identified within it:
A. The part which includes Treiso, S. Rocco Seno d’Elvio and Neive to the south of the town is composed of "Lequio formations" (Tortoniano-Serravalliano), characterised by grey, compact marls alternating with layers of sand. It is these less compact soils that produce elegant and refined wines, generally less structured and with a shorter shelf life.
B. The part that includes Barbaresco and the Neive area that borders Barbaresco is comprised of the bluish limestone marls of Sant’Agata Fossili (Tortoniano). Here the soil is very compact and produces complex, structured wines that endure over time.
The soils of the Barbaresco area are rich in macronutrients (N, P, K) with a great deal of mineral nutrients as well (B, Fe, Mg, Zn, and Mn). As for the pH, the soil is subalkaline, ranging from 7.8 to 8. The climate in the Barbaresco area is influenced by the "cold and temperate" continental climate, with cold winters and hot, sunny summers. The average temperatures are around +2°C in winter, +10°C in spring, +20°C in summer and +10°C in autumn. Concentrated mainly between autumn, summer and spring, precipitation brings an average of 800-900 millimetres of rain a year. Usually there isn't much wind, since these hills are protected by the south-west barrier of the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Appennines. There are sometimes breezes, which bring relief from the heat in the summer months. There is often fog, especially on the westernmost side of the area where the Tanaro River's influence is strongest.
Elegant, Aristocratic, Nebbiolo
Nebbiolo can't be grown just anywhere. The aristocratic and demanding properties of this grape variety require meticulous, assiduous care. Plus, it doesn't adapt to all environments. Indeed, its cultivation in Italy is limited to few, small areas.
Up until just a few years ago, it was said that the Nebbiolo grape thrived in the vineyards of the Barbaresco area in three subvarieties: Lampia, the most widespread and distinguished, with consistently good yields; Michèt, much less common, highly distinguished, but with lower yields; and Rosè, extremely rare. Recent research has improved our knowledge. Specifically, the analysis of DNA through molecular markers has reduced the genetic variability of Nebbiolo to two genotypes, the Lampia and the Rosé. The morphological differences of the Michèt appears to be the consequence of the GFLV (Grapevine Fanleaf Virus), present in specimens of this "subvariety" which are still infected.
As for the Lampia, its main phenotype characteristics are:
- large leaf, trilobate;
- well-developed cluster, with tapered pyramid shape, often with lateral wing;
- round berry, dark purple, with lots of bloom.
It is an extremely vigorous vine, which generally calls for a "long" pruning on the bud stick in a variation of the traditional Guyot training system: the arched cane system. It has one of the longest known growth cycles: it starts to bud early, in late April/early May, its fruit reaches maturity late (early October) and leaves fall in late November.
Since 2007, the Additional Geographical Indications Are Also in the Protocol
Official Newsletter No. 51, dated March 2, 2007 published the Ministerial Decree of Agricultural Policies dated February 21, 2007, which modified the Barbaresco DOCG Production Protocol.
Then the Protocol was amended again, with the Ministerial Decree of April 16, 2010. Today, after these changes, Barbaresco has an effective, up-to-date Protocol. The most important change was the addition of 66 indications of origin to the Protocol, including Rabajà, Asili, Ovello, Gallina, Paioré, which for some time had appeared on many Barbaresco labels.
Thanks to the work by the municipalities of the area of origin and the Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe and Dogliani Consortium, the new Protocol took a bold step forward and cleared up an issue that had been dragging on for almost 30 years and had jeopardized the legitimacy of the producers that used these indications. Six MeGAs (Additional Geographic Indications) were not added to the Protocol, even though the municipalities had defined them. They were never claimed, and so are temporarily "frozen".
The 66 Additional Geographic Indications circumscribed and assimilated by the Protocol are:
Albesani, Asili, Ausario, Balluri, Basarin, Bernardot, Bordini, Bricco di Neive, Bricco di Treiso, Bric-Micca, Ca’ Grossa, Canova, Cars, Casot, Castellizzano, Cavanna, Cole, Cottà, Currà, Faset, Fausoni, Ferrere, Gaia-Principe, Gallina, Garassino, Giacone, Giacosa, Manzola, Marcarini, Marcorino, Martinenga, Meruzzano, Montaribaldi, Montefico, Montersino, Montestefano, Muncagota, Nervo, Ovello, Pajè, Pajorè, Pora, Rabajà, Rabajà-Bass, Rio Sordo, Rivetti, Rizzi, Roccalini, Rocche Massalupo, Rombone, Roncaglie, Roncagliette, Ronchi, San Cristoforo, San Giuliano, San Stunet, Secondine, Serraboella, Serracapelli, Serragrilli, Starderi, Tre Stelle, Trifolera, Valeirano, Vallegrande and Vicenziana.
The 6 MeGAs not included are: Bungioan, Canta, Casasse, Cortini, Niccolini and Sant’Alessandro.
The Character in the Wine Glass
It is in the wine glass that emotion translates into a wave of pleasurable sensations.
The colour alone is a wondrous sight, with that bright and pleasant garnet red revealing delicate hints of ruby red when still young, to then meld its tones with the bright orange highlights that slowly start to prevail. But the most exciting part is undoubtedly its fragrance: an uncontrollable surge of scents. Its complex, ethereal fragrance transforms the fruitiness of the first months into more composed and captivating expressions, which range from flowers and fruits to spices and essences. Ultimately, it is its harmony that stands out above all, and only the most discerning taste buds can detect hints of violet, wild rose, geranium, apple, cherry, fresh dried peach, vanilla and cinnamon, green peppercorn, and sometimes, truffle. Its flavour expresses a strong, decided structure — full, at times even austere — and then it mellows into a special harmony. This powerful wine draws the taster in, partly thanks to its innate full body, which fascinates without intimidating.
The ID Card
The recognition of the Controlled Designation of Origin dates back to April 23, 1966, and that of the DOCG to October 3, 1980. The area of origin is comprised of the entire territory of the municipalities of Barbaresco, Treiso and Neive, and a part of the hamlet of San Rocco Seno d’Elvio of Alba, all in the province of Cuneo.
In the vineyards, the Nebbiolo grape variety is that star, no doubt about it. By law, the minimum ageing period is 26 months, calculated from the 1st of November of the year of harvest. At least 9 of the 26 months must be spent in wood barrels. A note on the term reserve wine: the term can be put on the label when the wine has spent at least 50 months in the company, always calculated from November 1st of the year of harvest. The maximum grape-to-wine ratio is 70% upon first racking and 68% at the end of the ageing period. The maximum production yield per hectare is 8,000 kg of grapes, 5,440 litres and 7,253 0.75-litre bottles of wine. The minimum alcohol by volume is set at 12.5% and total minimum acidity at 4.5%.
Some Economic Data
Counting the first (1966) and the last (2014), 49 Barbaresco vintage wines have been produced — some more sought after, others less prestigious. Production of this wine had to be skipped just once, in 1972, when viticulturists and winemakers agreed on declassing the entire harvest.
In 2012, the last vintage on the market, Barbaresco was able to count on a wine production potential of 679 ha and the actual production reached 4,257,163 bottles. The sector is governed and managed by the Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe and Dogliani Protection Consortium, which brings together over 500 producer-members, from viticulturists to winemakers to bottlers.