What do they mean by Superiore?

The question has been bothering me for some time now: what on earth do winemakers in Asti really mean when they call their wines superiore or superior? The official definition is wine “made from grapes with a natural minimum alcohol volume of 12% and released for consumption with a minimum alcohol of 12.5% after a mandatory aging period of no less then one year, beginning on January 1 of the year following harvest, including at least 6 months in oak or chestnut casks.”

But judging from the overwhelming majority of roughly twenty bottles of 2005 Barbera d’Asti I tasted recently with the Decanter editorial staff in the futuristic Blue Fin Building in London, it would seem that there is some confusion among Piedmontese producers.

On the flight back to Italy, it occurred to me that superiore is no longer a synonym for higher quality nor does it mean wines with greater complexity or wines with greater devotion to the grape variety and terroir. Alas, superiore is now a synonym for concentration, super-extraction (especially when it comes to green tannins), and a quest for improbable power and massive fruit.

By “de-varietalizing” their wines, these producers turn their wines into Merlot and Super Tuscan style wines (judging from the color alone), concentrated, impenetrable, sad wines with eggplant notes. The fruit is concentrated to the point of jamminess and overripeness and the acidity – the backbone of any truly superior wine and Barbera in particular – has been neutralized. The wines I tasted were flabby and lacked élan, distinction, and appeal. They were boring and predictable and I was hard-pressed to think of a food pairing. In fact, although they might be good as stand-alone wines, they were entirely un-food-friendly – the opposite of what good juicy, round, irresistible Barbera should be.

Italian wine should be itself and it should not be afraid to reveal its identity. Despite the superiore on their labels, to my great disappointment, the wines I tasted that day were a caricature of Barbera, meaningless jokes told on a windy and cloudy day in London.

Franco Ziliani

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4 thoughts on “What do they mean by Superiore?

  1. Craig, thanks for the comment. Originally, superiore did denote a higher alcohol content — hard to achieve in a time before modernization in Piedmont. Today, producers have no trouble surpassing the 12.5% required to label the wine as superiore.

  2. When I was at Vinitaly, one producer from the Langhe explained the Superiore label as being more like a cru designation, one where only hand-selected grapes were crushed, fermented and vinted separately, hence the special name.
    Or maybe my Italian is worse than I thought.

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