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Barbaresco Makes the Right Move

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: February 3, 2000

Barbaresco Makes the Right Move
By Per-Henrik Mansson, senior editor

A shrink's couch isn't the only place for catharsis. In Italy, it can occur publicly, and sometimes it takes the form of angry debate, slanderous remarks, bruised egos and raucous meetings that nearly end in fistfights.

Just ask the winemakers of Barbaresco. They have recently come through such a crisis. Faced with a global village inexorably moving toward international sameness, the Barbaresco winemakers plumbed the depths of their identity. I applaud the outcome of their brassy therapy.

Barbaresco is a small, beautiful, hilly appellation of Piedmont, in Italy's northwest. But, like nearby Barolo, Barbaresco has a dilemma. For generations, the producers have been stuck making Barbaresco with just one grape variety--Nebbiolo--and that's one of the most difficult challenges in the wine world.

With Nebbiolo, you never know from one year to another if it'll make great or terrible wine. That's because Nebbiolo is harshly acidic and tannic in poor vintages, but fabulously ripe, complex and age-worthy in outstanding ones. Problem is, the great vintages come around only about two or three times a decade.

Now, check out this bombshell: A few commercially astute and modern-thinking Barbaresco producers, among them Angelo Gaja, felt that the time had come to consider making Barbaresco with ... a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon (or Merlot and other "international" varietals). The wine would still be labelled "Barbaresco," as the Cabernet would only come from vines planted within the Barbaresco appellation.

Cabernet in a bottle of Barbaresco? To some piemontesi, this was like making a pact with the devil. OK, the wines might improve with a boost of Cabernet, but the area might lose its soul in the process, they argued.

The local consorzio, or trade organization, wrote a memo urging the winemakers to show flexibility. The addition of Cabernet would be optional and meant to be used mostly in bad years.

This is tempting stuff. While Nebbiolo might match the ripeness and opulence of Cabernet in top vintages, in bad vintages it's a different story. In such difficult years, Cab can improve Nebbiolo's light color and aggressive, inelegant tannins.

Then there is Cabernet as an economic panacea. Buyers tend to shun Barbaresco in poor vintages. Cabernet could make Barbaresco more attractive and thus brighten the wineries' economy. Not to mention the winemakers' lingering suspicion that the critics would probably give higher points to a Cab-Nebbiolo blend than to a pure Nebbiolo, at least in lesser vintages. And higher points can translate to more lucrative sales.

Despite the strong arguments for allowing Cabernet in Barbaresco, it didn't happen. First, the Barolo producers, when asked to join their Barbaresco neighbors, flatly said "No" to the concept. Then the Italian media pilloried the idea. Finally, the Barbaresco producers themselves came to their senses.

Part of the reason was paura, or fear. Many people have paura that the tastes of the world's great wines are becoming too international and too standardized, the consorzio's memo says.

Once you allow 10 percent or 15 percent (the maximum amounts discussed) of other grapes in Barbaresco, who could guarantee that the producers wouldn't add 50 percent? Where would the pure Barbaresco go?

Barolo and Barbaresco make only about 750,000 cases a year, a small amount by global standards. The piemontesi understand that their wines are famous because they are unique--irreplaceable, like a Michelangelo masterpiece--and not some Cab clone.

So instead of doping their Barbaresco with Cabernet, the locals have begun discussing a commitment to old-fashioned ways of improving quality: lower yields, better clones and improved techniques in the cellar. More wineries are also using a new Denominazione di Origine Controllata, the Langhe appellation, to sell Nebbiolos from lesser years, instead of marketing the wine as Barbaresco.

A unique wine was in danger. To their credit, the folks in Piedmont refused the path of least resistance and fought against turning into a Cabernet colony. It took collective courage to establish who they should be in the 21st century.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson, in a column also appearing in the Nov. 30 Wine Spectator. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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