THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE OF PIEDMONT’S MOST EXPORTED RED WINE
The first barrel of Barbera was shipped to Brazil in 1820 as a present for a noble woman. Nowadays, almost 50% of production is exported, due to the fact that Barbera d’Asti is a highly drinkable wine, accessible even to newbies thanks to its fragrant fruity bouquet and low tannin content. Once known as the people’s wine, this everyday affordable smasher has been focusing more and more on its identity as evidenced by its zoning project and the creation of the Nizza Docg in 2014.
Barbera d’Asti is produced in 169 localities around Asti and Alessandria using at least 90% of Barbera grapes plus non-aromatic red varieties permitted in the region. To understand how the image of Barbera has changed over time, we need to go back to 1512, when it was first mentioned in a land register document linked to the village of Chieri, near Turin. Over the
following centuries, the variety spread across the area, ultimately being recognized as typical of Piedmont in 1798.
FOR A LONG TIME A DOMESTIC WINE
By 1970 Barbera was so popular that it featured in one of the greatest hits of the time, “Barbera and Champagne” by Giorgio Gaber. It symbolized the working classes to whom it was a loyal dining companion, especially in Northern Italy. These were the years of the economic boom and cities such as Turin – hometown of Fiat – and the financial centre of Milan were just around the corner. Barbera remained a central player in the domestic market for all of the 1980s. In 1986, it became involved in a major scandal that completely transformed the national wine industry, turning Italy into one of the safest producers in the world in terms of quality control, not only for fine wines but also entry level products for everyday drinking.
A SYMBOL OF THE TRANSFORMATION OF ITALIAN WINE
In a way, Barbera can be considered a symbol of how Italian wine has changed. It went from being a homemade wine produced by households for domestic consumption – wine was a staple of the local diet – to a product bottled by small wineries with basic technology and sold as table wine to the local middleclasses, and ultimately a top-level denomination, or Docg, securing renown in foreign markets. “With 10 out of 20 million bottles sold abroad every year, Barbera d’Asti is the most exported red wine from Piedmont”, points out Filippo Mobrici, chairman of the Consorzio Barbera d’Asti and Monferrato.
Exports jumped from 44% in 2008 to 49.50% in 2014 as shown by a survey of 100 wineries. Traditional markets such as the US and Germany, which for years was the main market with almost 20% of exports, have been sidelined by the UK, Scandinavia and Canada.
PIEDMONT, THE LAND OF PERFECTION
The reasons for its present popularity include drinkability and indigenous grape appeal, along with wine tourism promotion and UNESCO recognition of the vineyard landscape of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato areas. UNESCO acknowledgment was not a minor issue, claims Filippo Mobrici: “Sales of Monferrato Doc have increased from 20% to 30% as people become familiar with the name”. The tendency by outsiders to consider the three areas as a single unit has further persuaded producers that teamwork is a winning strategy. Piedmont Land of Perfection, a second level consortium which has been coordinating the region’s wine communication abroad since 2011, typifies this approach.
THE ZONING PROJECT
The broader scope of public relations has been counterbalanced by a closer focus on the vineyards. Zoning will not only allow consumers to better appreciate the different characters of Barbera d’Asti stemming from the wide variety of soils but will also become a fundamental tool for producers. Last July, the Collisioni event offered the opportunity of a preview, showing how the fine textural, limestone-rich soil that is typical, for example, of Vignale Monferrato, should result in a more structured Barbera with richer tannins, whereas the coarse textured, limestonepoor soil occurring, amongst others, in Castagnole Monferrato, typically produces a softer Barbera.
NIZZA, DON’T CALL IT BARBERA
In 2000, three subzones were included in Barbera d’Asti production specifications: Nizza, Tinella and Colli Astigiani. In 2014, Nizza, which can be produced Head Sommelier Bhatia Djeerai with Chef Shikha Khandelwal tasting Paolo Berta’s wines of ViniBerta. In the background Paolo Lovisolo of Cantina Bersano Tasting Barbera d’Asti by terroir From left Jinglin Zhang, Irene Graziotto and Anton Moiseekno speaking with Ksenia Berta of Berta Vini During the Nizza tasting. From the left: Michele Longo, Michaela Morris, Gianni Bertolino, chairman of the Association of Nizza Producers, and consultant Claudio Dacasto. Montalbera winery at Barbera d’Asti stand-up tasting The panel of journalists tasting Nizza 2014 vintage Tasting Barbera d’Asti by terroir Tessa Donnadieu, export manager at Vinchio Vaglio Serra talking about some old vintages in 18 localities around Nizza Monferrato, became a stand-alone Docg. It is made from 100% Barbera, has lower yields (7 t/ha) and minimum ageing of 18 months – 30 for a Riserva – including one third in wood. At the moment there are 47 producers but the potential is about 4.5 million bottles. The aim is clear, as Gianni Bertolino, chairman of the Association of Nizza Producers explains: “We want to restore the denomination’s prestige. Therefore, in order to prevent any confusion with low-cost Barbera, the name has been removed”.
A tasting of the first vintage created an impression of cohesion and consistency: quality was high for both small family wineries and co-operatives and definitely higher than you would expect from such a difficult vintage as 2014. Nizza producers are a close-knit group with a few tricks up their sleeves: a symbol; a short, simple name; over 50% of vines over fifty years old; and mid- to high-end positioning with 50% of production exported to key markets such as Japan.