With the other tasters I got a very good overview of current Barbera styles and winemaking in Piemonte. Before arrival at a snowy Torino Caselle airport my hopes were high for a week of good quality, characterful wines that would drink superbly with suitable food. At least that was my memory of Barbera from northeast Italy.
Many friends sometimes express envy at my lifestyle (they haven’t seen my overdraft!). I can assure them that getting up at 3am on a Sunday morning to go to Stansted Airport is no fun at all. Nor is tasting 68 brutally acidic and tannic red wines at 9am on Monday morning all that enjoyable. By the end of that the Barbera 7 tasters were as drowsy as a sunflower in the evening, our teeth as black as Queen Elizabeth’s.
The Barbera d’Asti wines tasted that Monday were hugely disappointing. The overall quality was poor, with far too many egregious wines that were faulty and completely unacceptable. Some were as botoxed and unattractive as Donatella Versace. Surely no conscientious wine merchant in the USA or UK (or indeed anywhere) would touch these, which beggars the question as to why they are made at all. Who is buying these wines? There is a thirsty domestic market, admittedly, but not so thirsty as to drink Barbera that tastes and looks more like balsamic vinegar than wine.
Most of the wines were as soaked in oak as the Piemonte landscape was covered in snow. They were awful, with rebarbative tannins as thick as ragù sauce. It was disingenuous of winemakers to claim that the wines were “young” and needed some ageing: Tannic young wines become tannic old wines. (Vieux Château Certan 1948 was still tannic when I drank it a couple of years ago!). And the best Barberas, even with all that acidity, do not seem to endure more than four or five years.
The Monferrato wines were marginally better, showing more concentration and structure than those of Asti, but the Nizza subzone did not seem to have strong enough an identity to venture into the world by itself. There are already enough DOC(G)s in Italy to confuse overseas markets. Piemontese wine might become as tangled as a bowl of spaghetti if yet more names emerge.
I guessed that Barbera d’Alba would prove to be the best of the wines we would taste. Happily I was proved right, though even in that tasting of 30 wines there were at least five that were unacceptable due to excessive levels of brett or oxidation. Barbera d’Alba is something of a mixed blessing: It is planted on the most privileged terroir of Piemonte – of Italy! – but in the Barolo and Barbaresco villages it will always be second best to the mighty Nebbiolo, treated as Gina Lollobrigida rather than Sophia Loren. A pity but understandably necessary.
Barbera is not a very pliable grape but it is low in tannin, high in acidity and high in anthocyanin, all of which supposedly make it eminently suitable for barrique aging. That so many of the wines showed excess oak is probably down to ham-fisted winemaking rather than any intrinsic fault with Barbera or the Asti terroir.
There are four ways of ageing Barbera: In steel tanks; in barrique; in botte; or a mix of steel and wood, either barrique or botte. Ageing in bottle can then follow any of these. Hardly anybody seems capable of making it work in barrique. Botte is the “traditional” method and often gives good results. The tank-only versions can give much pleasure but lack the structure of wines that have been buttressed by time in wood.
After the first morning’s tasting of Barbera d’Asti wines I wrote on this blog, “So diverse were the colours, aromas and textures of these wines that it stretched credence to credit them all as Barbera d’Asti. Britain has few laws but on the whole they are obeyed. Italy has so many laws that they are totally ignored. It has been near impossible thus far to find a Platonic ideal – a Francesca, if you will – of Barbera.” (I have since decided that Monica Bellucci is my ideal). The Barbera DOC(G)s are typically Italian in their entropy.
Although some controversy was caused by the largely negative comments, my fellow bloggers and I would like to extend a large grazie to Wellcom for so capably organising the event and for inviting us to attend.
Thanks also to all the producers that hosted us during a very busy – sometimes too busy – week in Piemonte.
Finally, thank you to the other members of the Barbera 7 for being such likeable and amusing companions: The not unpulchritudinous Whitney Adams; the Long Haired Lover from Liverpool Jon Erickson; the God of Thunder Thor Iverson; the, like, really American (to my English eyes and ears) Cory Cartwright; the surprisingly potty-mouthed Fredric Koeppel; and, most of all, the uxorious Jeremy Parzen.
If you judge a man by the company he keeps, Jeremy would leave a very favourable impression. If you judge him by the woman he marries, Dr Parzen must be quite special…