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Drinking Out Loud

Belief in Barbera

How one of Italy’s top winemakers showed us how much great vineyards matter

Matt Kramer
Posted: May 18, 2010

It’s a function of the modern age, I’m sure, to associate wine with its maker. That this is a recent phenomenon is easily demonstrated. You only need go back 50 years, if that, to discover that previous generations of wine lovers had no idea about—and even less interest in—who made the wine.

Look at any wine book written prior to, say, 1970, and you will see exceedingly few mentions of a winemaker’s name. Rather, you’ll see the name of the estate. Maybe the estate owner’s name is also mentioned, but sometimes not even that. Vineyard names are cited, but usually only with Burgundies and German wines. The underlying philosophy was that winemakers come and go, while estates and vineyards are forever.

Today it’s different. Because of our contemporary obsession with personality, newcomers to wine are left with the impression that there are no great wines, only great winemakers and vintages. The modern emphasis on the “who” diminishes considerably what might be called the wonder of the “where.”

Yet the death on April 30 of 78-year-old Alfredo Currado of Vietti winery—in the Barolo district of what’s called the Langhe zone in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy—reminds us of the transience of winemakers and the constancy of vineyards.

Alfredo Currado’s legacy, apart from his family itself, is his belief in the greatness of Piedmont’s best vineyards and uniquely local grape varieties. This extended not merely to Nebbiolo, which everyone knew was great, but also to Arneis (a nearly extinct local white grape that Currado single-handedly revived).

While Currado was certainly a modernistic winemaker, employing stainless steel vats while many of his colleagues still preferred large, old wood botte, his most substantial involvements centered on vineyards.

Currado was among the earliest proponents of creating not only single-vineyard wines but of citing the vineyard name on the label. This was back in the early 1960s when he was one of just three producers that I’m aware of (the other two being Angelo Gaja and the late Renato Ratti) who saw why this was so desirable, even necessary.

This is worth mentioning if only because today so many Barolos, Barbarescos, Barberas and even Dolcettos sport vineyard names that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t always so. Yet except for the great Cannubi from the Barolo district, whose source vineyard was once owned entirely by a local aristocrat and consequently became renowned, no wine in the Langhe saw a vineyard name on its label until the early 1960s.

The depth of Currado’s belief in the importance of single-vineyard wines—and also his commitment to celebrating Piedmont’s unique grape heritage—was further demonstrated by his applying this celebration of site to the lowly Barbera grape.

There was one catch for all these Barbera believers: Nobody would pay anything like real money for a Barbera, no matter how good.

Here again, this might seem a bit odd to contemporary admirers of Italian wines. Today, Barbera is much liked, even beloved. But that wasn’t the case even 20 years ago, never mind back in 1960 when Alfredo Currado took over the winemaking of the Vietti winery after his father-in-law died.

It helps to know that, until very recently, Barbera was the peasant’s wine. As a grapevine it could grow successfully seemingly anywhere. In comparison, the noble Nebbiolo is famously finicky in requiring just the right exposure in order to ripen. What’s more, Barbera yields abundantly.

Knowing this, you will not be surprised to learn that after phylloxera devastated Piedmont’s vineyards in the 1880s, Barbera became by far the most widely planted grape variety. Consequently, to say “Barbera” was effectively to say “cheap, of no account and low-class.”

Currado knew all this, of course. Yet he also knew that if Barbera was grown in good sites and pruned for lower yields, it could create truly fine wine. Others knew it too. Giovanni Conterno (who inherited the Giacomo Conterno label) had long made a superb Barbera, as had his brother Aldo Conterno and a few others in the area who were devoted to Barbera.

But there was one catch for all these Barbera believers: Nobody would pay anything like real money for a Barbera, no matter how good.

Keep in mind that well into the 1970s the ceiling price for a bottle of Barolo—the most prestigious wine of Piedmont—was just 1,000 lire, a nominal sum even then. Barbera, in comparison, never topped a few hundred lire. (To put this in perspective, the cost of a loaf of bread in Italy in 1973 was about 120 lire.)

Nevertheless, Currado persisted in growing Barbera in exceptional sites, as well as buying Barbera grapes from others who did the same. It was the proverbial labor of love. The returns assuredly were not financial. For proof, I looked at some of my old newspaper clips and found that in 1986 I was recommending 1983 Vietti Barbera d’Alba Bussia for—brace yourself—$4.95 a bottle retail. Barolo, meanwhile, commanded much higher prices. In 1987, I recommended 1982 Vietti Barolo Bussia for $16.50, and Vietti’s great 1982 Barolo Rocche for $22.50.

For myself, I have always been a great lover of Barbera, and still am to this day. I can fairly say that I know Barbera unusually well, as I’ve been cellaring it for decades and have spent as much time talking about it with Piedmont’s growers as I have Barolo, Barbaresco or Gattinara.

When I was living in Piedmont in 1992 and ’93, researching my now long out-of-print cookbook (A Passion for Piedmont—Italy’s Most Glorious Regional Table), I always insisted in Piedmont’s best restaurants on being served Barbera in the same (big) glasses that usually were reserved for Barolo and Barbaresco. The restaurateurs thought I was nuts, but they liked a foreigner’s then-unusual admiration for what they affectionately called “la Barbera.” (Every other Piedmontese grape name has the masculine article; only Barbera is graced with the feminine.)

At that time I also had some involvement in urging the Currado family to create what is now one of Piedmont’s most acclaimed and expensive Barberas, the old-vine, single-vineyard wine called Barbera d’Alba Scarrone Vigna Vecchia.

It was in the fall of 1992. The vintage that autumn in Piedmont was simply dreadful thanks to torrential rains that seemingly would never end. Rivers flooded; roads were washed away. It was easily one of the worst vintages in living memory.

Still, the growers harvested their grapes, the better producers hoping that through rigorous elimination of rotted bunches they might make at least palatable wines. (In fact, the best producers sold off most of their wine in bulk and issued few, if any, wines under their own labels that year.)

There was no sense in staying indoors waiting for this near-Biblical deluge to end, so I slogged over to see the Currados. (Also, Luciana Vietti Currado, Alfredo’s wife, is a stupendously good cook so I was guaranteed a terrific lunch.)

When I arrived, I found Alfredo Currado and his son, Luca—now long since the winemaker at Vietti—fretting about what to do with the Barbera grapes from their Scarrone vineyard.

I was already a longtime admirer of their Scarrone vineyard Barbera. Not only does the site enjoy a good exposure, it’s also situated on a rare outcropping of blue tufo, a type of chalky clay that is different than the more commonly seen white tufo. This soil seems to create an exceptionally austere, long-lived, minerally wine.

The proof of this, by the way, is to compare Vietti’s Barbera Scarrone side by side with its Barolo Rocche, the vineyard for which is contiguous with Scarrone. Despite the difference in flavors—Rocche is Nebbiolo—the two wines show an unmistakable commonality of structure and minerality. Both share that same blue tufo soil. Scarrone is, effectively, an extension of Rocche. Rocche has Nebbiolo planted because of a superior exposure, while Scarrone, with less-perfect exposure, gets Barbera.

Anyway, a small part (about 1.5 acres) of the Scarrone vineyard had vines that, at the time, were about 50 years old. Both father and son confirmed that these grapes had withstood the deluge better than those from the younger vines.

“Why don’t you segregate the grapes into a separate vigna vecchia (old vine) bottling?” I suggested. “Of course, it will cost consumers more, but they’ll pay,” I added rather grandly.

The Currados had never before done such a thing. The market for high-end Barbera was so tiny as to be inconsequential. Only the late Giacomo Bologna had the temerity to ask a then-astronomical price of $45 for his groundbreaking Barbera d’Asti Bricco dell’Uccellone.

But the 1992 vintage was so extreme that the Currados figured they had nothing to lose. So they made two Scarrone Barberas: an old-vine version and one from younger vines. The old-vine Scarrone very quickly revealed itself as dramatically and indisputably superior, even in a vintage as challenged as 1992. (If you ever want proof of the desirability of old vines, here it is.)

The rest of the story is an example of courage and rigor rewarded. Today, the Barbera d’Alba Scarrone Vigna Vecchia fetches $80 a bottle and has praise regularly heaped upon it.

Until very recently, I had never revealed to anyone my (peripheral) involvement in helping bring this wine into existence. So you can imagine my amusement some years ago when my colleague and friend Per-Henrik Mansson, who in the late 1990s reviewed Piedmontese wines for Wine Spectator, gave Vietti’s 1997 Barbera d’Alba Scarrone Vigna Vecchia a whacking 95 points, exclaiming in his commentary, “Who knew Barbera produced this quality?”

Alfredo Currado, that’s who.

Mr John Dagres
Seattle, WA —  May 18, 2010 3:05pm ET
What a great story Matt! I've had these wines based on your recommendation in the past and will appreciate them even more now.
John Brody
Montreal Canada —  May 20, 2010 10:28pm ET
Thanks for the great story. I love Vietti wines. I have tried and own the 2004 scarone vigna vecchia and it is amazing. The 2004 Barberra d'asti la crena is one of my go to wines with its creamy texture and mineral finish. The langhe perbacco is a great deal at under $30 and is made from the nebbiolo that does not make it to the two top barolos,brunate and rocche. I just found a bottle of the 2005 barberesco masseria and can't wait to try it,but I will. The 2007 vigna vecchia should be on te market soon. It can only be good. Did I mention I love Vietti wines.
Go Azuri!
Christopher Cribb
Kansas City, MIssouri - USA —  July 21, 2010 8:31pm ET
Matt - We recently began importing the wines of Castello Di Gabiano focusing on their Barbera D'Asti and I asked the winemaker during his recent visit to the US to explain why his winery concentrated on this "bourgeoisie varietal" and I thought your readers would love to hear his response...

The Full range of the Castello Di Gabiano Reserve Wines…

“Wow!”, is what most people first uttered as they came to the Marquee booth and got to try the best of the best in Barbera and the other artisan wines from Castello Di Gabiano, followed quickly by “Is that really Barbera, I did not think that Barbera could be that intense and taste that good!” I had the chance to talk one on one with Giacomo Cattaneo about this exact quandary and I was delighted to hear his straightforward response.

“In our region of Piedmont, we are bound to the DOC and DOCG restrictions to only produce certain grape varietals that are of the authorized selection whereas other neighboring areas in the North of Italy have a bit more flexibility. The estate vineyards at Gabiano cannot plant Nebbiolo to make Barolo and Barbaresco in our vineyards like other regions, Alba for example, and therefore we plant the best parts of our vineyards to Barbera grape. In looking side by side at $20.00 Barbera D’Asti from Quattro Leoni / Castello Di Gabiano and one from the Barbera D’Alba region we show more bright fruit with increased depth of flavor because these wines come from the best part of the Gabiano vineyards whereas the Barbera D’Alba has the best part of the vineyards planted to the more profitable and expensive Barolo and Barberesco productions.” Explained Dr. Cattaneo.

The light bulb went off in my head and I understood exactly where they were coming from in their philosophy! A simple idea that Jack Welch would have been proud of (I still love his business mantra’s – be #1 of #2 in your industry applies here) as Castello Di Gabiano has set out to be the best worldwide producer of Barbera! During this year’s VinItaly 2010, Castello Di Gabiano was given a special recognition - Diploma Di Grand Menzion for the Best Barbera at VinItaly on their Adornes Barbera D’Asti Superiore, congratuations! !

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