If you were inventing a wine village you would invent Barbaresco. Your most creative inspiration could scarcely set it more beautifully than in the Langhe hills overlooking the great River Tanaro, nor top it out more perfectly than with an ancient tower which shows just a hint of the romantic ravages of time. To make it the birthplace of a Roman Emperor might be a bit too fanciful - but then Publius Helvius Pertinax was only emperor for three months.
The finest vineyards must of course be arranged around the village close enough to form part of the same sympathetic scene, and the wine they give must be such that you can - without demonstrating too extravagant bias - declare it to be unsurpassed by any. Then place your model wine village in an exceptional gastronomic district, and populate it with sensitive and keenly industrious people. So it is.
Barbaresco has the vine, the geography, and the science to be exploited. It lies in the principal district of the great Nebbiolo grape. It has the climate to draw from that Nebbiolo a strength of 14%, while delicacy and balance remain its real strengths. It lies at a latitude that is central among the finest red wines of Europe, and its vineyards are rooted in a Miocene marl which is known to favour both fullness and delicacy. Neolithic remains of vitis vinifera have been found in this area, though its recorded viticultural history began with Greek-introduced vines in the fifth century BC. Barbaresco probably had the locally evolving Nebbiolo by the thirteenth century. For a hundred years there has been near at hand the Alba School of Enology and Viticulture; a piece of history whose science has had decisive influence upon the character of modern Barbaresco.
Today there are about three million bottles of Barbaresco produced each year. (Of Barolo there are eight million).
Domizio Cavazza, first Director of the same Scuola Enologica di Alba may be credited with virtually creating the Barbaresco of today. Although Guido Rocca had produced dry wine from the Nebbiolo at the Castle of Barbaresco, it was Prof. Cavazza who ensured that this was to be the recognized style of the wine called Barbaresco. It was in the same cellar - of the Castle - that in 1894 he organized a cooperative of growers to make wine solely from the Nebbiolo grape, fermented out, dry, and able to benefit from age in wood and bottle.
Wine may have been made here 7000 years ago; there is no doubt that it was 2500 years ago, or that the Nebbiolo has been here for 700 years. But Barbaresco as we know it is just over 100 years old.
Barbaresco, the place, is a village of 700 inhabitants on and around a hill overlooking the river Tanaro and, just beyond it, the Alba to Asti road. This places it about half way from Turin to the Ligurian coast at Savona, at a latitude of 44º43' north. The climate is also dictated by its height, and the surrounding Alps. The vines grow at between 200 and 400 metres above sea level. The Alps are 70 km away with the dramatic point of Mon Viso that is due west, and at twice that distance to the north, where Monte Rosa, the second highest Alp, can on occasions suddenly be seen. The growing zone for Barbaresco includes the adjacent comunes of Neive and Treiso with respective populations of 3000 and 800, and part of the frazione of Alba called San Rocco Seno d'Elvio which might be home for 200. The greatest concentration of vineyards is around Barbaresco itself, including perhaps three-quarters of the finest. It is arguably the greatest concentration of fine Nebbiolo vineyards anywhere, those in the Barolo zone being more scattered. In 1894 Barbaresco had the greatest Nebbiolo vineyard area of any comune. Today La Morra in the Barolo zone has more.
Barbaresco, the wine, has a positive character, well endowed with all the features which go to make up a fine red wine. It is high in extract, tannins, alcohol and (by some standards) acid. Yet equally striking in the mature wine are its flowery perfume and its overall complexity and delicacy. It is clearly a wine which can hold its own with a heavy strong-flavoured dish. It can equally make an impression on a heavy strong-constitutioned drinker. The Nebbiolo has several sub-varieties, including some of doubtful provenance. Under DOC regulations for Barbaresco and Barolo three are permitted; Michet, Lampia or Lamia, and Rosè which is little used. Vintage is taken from mid-October onwards, sometimes into November; part of the equation which balances one of the biggest strongest wines with a comparatively northern and high-altitude climate. From the late 1990s vintage has often been in September following hot summers.
The hills around Alba which include the Barbaresco and Barolo zones are called Le Langhe. The rock on this right bank of the Tanaro is of the middle Miocene period. In Barbaresco it is ‘Tortonian’, and the soil a marl - a chalky, non-sticky fine 'clay'. The vineyards are all on hillsides, which allows adequate drainage in this close grained soil. This is fortunate, apart from 'catching the sun', as the area is nearly all 'hillside'. The Tortonian structure is shared by La Morra in the Barolo zone, and, less than amazingly, by Tortona 40 km to the east. (There is no Miocene, so no Tortonian, to refer to in Britain). In and around Treiso the rock is 'Tortonian/Serravallian' which has a sandy component. It supports several prime Barbaresco vineyards. It is excellent for Dolcetto.
The best vineyards have been known by name for generations, but the deliberate policy of vinifying them separately has gained favour quite recently, mainly in the mid-seventies. The term used in normal conversation is 'cru', but never in official writings or on labels. The term is not precise even in French usage, but it is neat compared to the alternative of 'menzione geografica aggiuntiva'. As for what to look for on a label, surely for anyone who knows his Asili from his Ovello it will be just the plain vineyard name.
The biggest grouping of superior crus is due south of the village, towards Treiso, in a great half-bowl facing broadly south of west. It includes Asili, Pora and Rabajà, round to Rio Sordo to the south west. Across the ridge carrying the road (Via Rabajà) and facing somewhat east of south are Montestefano and Montefico of renown equal to the foregoing. Rombone of Treiso, several kilometres to the south is also among the finest, as are Pajorè and Marcarini. Neive has the large and famous Gallina vineyard on the hillside facing Barbaresco, and Cotta right at Barbaresco's boundary. These are a few of the most frequently seen. It is not a recommendation as to what is invariably the best.
Barbaresco, or Barbaresch, takes its name from Barbarica Silva, which was a name applied by the advancing Romans to this refuge for some of the local Liguri tribe. An alternative theory is that the term 'barbareschi' was used of Saracens during their incursions around 900 AD. It always had some strategic importance, and thoughts of its history are bound to start with the tower which dominates the area from the very peak of the hill and the village. Its origins are unknown. It used to be called the Torre Romana, but the adjective is usually just 'antica'. It was certainly there before the 11th century, and the finding of a Roman spoon in its base in 1897 revived the Roman idea. For many decades it had a distinctly tatty top, that had at least one tree growing from it. The Tower is by no means fragile, as it may have appeared with its 36 metre height. It is also 36 m in circumference, with walls 3m thick near the base. It was tidied up, but not too much, after ownership finally came to the comune of Barbaresco itself and work was completed in 1992. Some old prints show a wooden roof, said to have been burned off when it was used as a beacon to greet King Victor Emmanuel of Savoy visiting Govone across the valley in 1821. Notwithstanding that story, the Barbareschesi had been Republican, even Jacobin, by tradition. They had petitioned for Piedmont to become part of France after striking up such a good relationship with Buonaparte's occupying troops; cemented in all the best accounts by the wine of course.
Contemporary accounts of the wine at that time indicate that most of it was made from a mixture of grape varieties. Moscatello and Passeretto were mixed with Nebbiolo to produce a sweetish frothy brew. Of course, little of it ever met a bottle. Nebbiolo from the finest sites deserved better.
The way Domizio Cavazza found to spread this truth was to bring together a number of leading producers in a cooperative. This was not following any example of mass-producing 'cantine-sociale'; there were none. Certainly not in Piedmont, perhaps just one earlier cooperative in Italy. This organization lasted until the 1930s when certain 'political difficulties' assisted its demise. But the die was cast, and Barbaresco was established in name and character. Barbaresco's boundaries then laid down were confirmed in law in 1933. The zone was simply the comunes of Barbaresco and Neive. The line on map and ground has remained, but comune boundaries have changed.
The zone in which Barbaresco, and Barolo, may be vinified has been most generous; certainly when compared to the related Piedmontese Nebbiolos Carema and Gattinara, which could barely be vinified outside the growing zone. This, as in principle all DOC rules, reflects the tradition of the wine. Cellars out of the growing zones have always vinified Barbaresco and Barolo, and there was no reason to stop them; less reason when they are twenty minutes away by lorry than when half a day behind an ox. The big Asti Spumante and Vermouth houses around Canelli in the past were prominent in Barolo and Barbaresco production and marketing. It is not now so easy - or cheap - however to start from new to vinify a DOC wines outside its production zone, as official approval has to be obtained.
However outside Barbaresco's growing zone the most significant location of producers today is the Barolo zone. Here, again particularly in the past, if a major cellar offered a Barbaresco it was often as a second string to their Barolo. The predominant position of these firms is probably responsible for the impression that Barbaresco is somehow a minor relative of Barolo. Such a generalization, even if it had any validity, would be of no help in choosing between an unfamiliar bottle of each wine. Nor, frequently, it must be admitted, in distinguishing which is which.
©2006 john wheaver (who?)
Producers whose cellars are in the Barbaresco growing area (non-barrique users) are:
Boffa Carlo & Figli; La Ca Nova; Cantina del Pino; Cascina delle Rose; Cortese Giuseppe;
Giordano Luigi; Musso Az. Agr.; Produttori del Barbaresco; Roagna Az. Agr.; La Spinona.
In Neive: Giacosa Bruno; Paitin; Lequio Ugo.
In S.Rocco S d'Elvio: Poderi Colla; Piazzo Armando. ; Adriano, Marco e Vittorio
In Treiso: Il Cravé; Vignaioli Elvio Pertinace; Rizzi Az. Agr.
These are repeated in the 'V da U' index
Home Barolo intro.
Home Barolo intro.