IN THE EARLY 18TH CENTURY, Britain and France were at war. French wines were out of fashion and alternatives were sought out by the merchants to slate thethirst of their clients. Transport costs, duties and taxes were prohibitive and the Barolo and Barbaresco regions remained a secret – except for those in the know. Today they are still a fascinating discovery for wine explorers.
The Nebbiolo grape is planted in a few other regions of the world including both North and South America and plantings in Australia, but it continues to show its most haunting beauty from the fogs that blanket the hills of Piedmont. Nebbia in Italian translates to fog, and it is believed that the grape is named after the September and October fogs that often occur during the late harvesting period in the region.
Nebbiolo vines need to be planted in warmer sites, as they ripen late and are somewhat fussy about where they are grown. The variety is an old one and quite susceptible to clonal mutation. There are around 40 identiﬁed variations, which account for some of the differences in style, along with winemaking, soils and DOCG regulations. The ﬁrst written record of it was found in the 13th century. In the 15th century, cutting down a Nebbiolo vine could result in the perpetrator having their hand cut off or being hanged.
Classic descriptors for Nebbiolo include tar and roses, black cherries, mulberries, herbs, spice, aniseed, dried fruits and leather. The nose, especially with age, is complex, exotic and aromatic. The colour is quite light compared to the strength and there is a somewhat surprising forcefulness of the tannins when young. It is this tannin structure, hand in hand with naturally high acidity, that enables the wines to age so well in Barolo and Barbaresco. It can take many years for the best to soften and tame. Lighter, fruity and fragrant styles are available for earlier drinking from Carema, Roero or the Langhe.
Historically, a little residual sugar was left in the wines and Barolo was very fashionable with the House of Savoy. In the late 1800s, the style became dry and after World War II, the reputation of the wines started to grow.
Barbaresco is produced from the Nebbiolo grape and located in the Piedmont region to the east of Alba. The area was granted DOC status in 1966 and DOCG status in 1980. The wines of Barolo and Barbaresco have often been compared, but there are some distinct differences between them.
The production zone is smaller for Barbaresco than Barolo and the wine needs to be produced from the townships of Barbaresco, Neive, Treiso and a small part of Alba.
Barbaresco was never as popular as Barolo and was less widely known. Prior to 1894 most grapes went into Barolo or were sold as Nebbiolo di Barbaresco.
Recognising the differences in the wines of the two towns, the ﬁrst co-operative, Cantine Sociali, was created by Domizio Cavazza, headmaster of the wine school in Alba. This closed in the 1920s but was reinvigorated by a group of small growers in the late 1950s as Produttori del Barbaresco. The group has been recognised as setting the highest standards for any co-operative in the world and now has around 56 members and 250 acres of vines in the region.
Each member controls the growing of their own grapes and the winery produces over 35,000 cases a year including nine single vineyard wines in the best vintages, from classic premium sites.
High proﬁle producers such as Gaja and Bruno Giacosa began to successfully market Barbaresco wines internationally in the 1960s and have added to the prestige of the region.
SOIL AND CLIMATE
The soils are mainly limestone rich clay and the grapes ripen a little earlier in this region, most probably due to the proximity of the river Tanaro and the marginal, maritime inﬂuence, as well as the underlying geology. Altitude plays an important part, with vineyards around 200 to 400 metres above sea level on steep slopes. With hot summers, moderate springs and autumns, along with very cold winters, it is necessary to ensure that Nebbiolo gets the best south facing sites to ripen properly. Dolcetto and Barbera are also grown in the region and are usually planted on lesser sites.
HARVEST AND WINEMAKING
The grapes are harvested from late September through to October, a little earlier than the Barolo district. Grapes are always handpicked and usually harvested in small baskets. The must is fermented at around 28°C for two to three weeks, often in stainless steel vats, where it remains until the following year. It is then barrel aged for a year or so, then bottle aged before release.
The lighter body of the wine is complemented by the minimum aging time of around two years, instead of the three years required under DOCG regulations for a Barolo. Barbaresco Riserva must have three years and eight months total aging, with Barolo needing an extra year. By regulation, Barbaresco is required to have 12.5 per cent minimum alcohol (Barolo has to reach at least 13 per cent).
There are some vineyard sites, especially around Neive, where the wines do resemble a Barolo style and can age for much longer. There have been signiﬁcant changes in style over time and most wineries fall into either traditional or modern camps. The modern style is fruitier and rounder with shorter periods of aging in cask, shorter fermentation times and use of more new oak barrels. Traditionally winemakers in the region used extended maceration and longer oak aging in large botti for ﬁve years or more, but unlike Barolo there have been fewer converts to Barrique aging. Some new oak is used, giving the wines spicy, aromatic qualities.
Barbaresco has always been considered the bambino to Barolo’s size, power and prestige, but it has an elegance and aromatic intensity along with a lighter body that makes it easier to approach at an earlier age. The high tannins are still in place but it usually matures and softens earlier and is probably best drunk from ﬁve to ten years.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Barbaresco is a perfect match for game, cured meats, polenta, ragù and of course the local speciality, trufﬂes.