Editorial: Barbera and barrique, talk about the contents not the container

The following translation is an excerpt from Italian wine writer Alessandro Franceschini’s “Pillole di Barbera,” published earlier this week by LaVINIum.com. Translation by VinoWire.

During the four days devoted to tastings blind and otherwise, the favorite sport of nearly everyone who attended Barbera Meeting — journalists, bloggers, and buyers — was that of mercilessly searching out and mocking public enemy number one: barrique. Until not so long ago, if you dared to challenge the trilogy of new wood, black tar color, and sweet, overflowing super fruit, they would call you crazy. Today, if you don’t dare to question its wisdom, they’ll tell you that you don’t know a thing about wine. The thought of pondering the wine, attempting to move beyond the wood to understand whether or not the overall architecture of the wine makes sense, seems to have become a futile exercise.

Barbera is out of style, at least in Italy. And it’s been this way for a few years now. And my impression is that this is the case even more so, after tasting nearly 200 wines at Barbera Meeting and pretending that such a number is sufficient to evaluate three enormous appellations as large as the townships they cover. Over the course of four days of tasting, there were plenty of dark, tight, and (we might as well say it) woody wines. Sometimes the wines were simply boring. But in many cases, luckily, the wines were reasonable and some were genuinely good. There was once a time, not so long ago, when people looked for wines you could spread on toast. Today, it appears that everything has changed. Barbera, the color of tar, with vanilla flavors and powerful alcohol, seems to be out, outdated, and passé. As a result, Barbera continues to fall behind the times. Pretty much everywhere, something has changed and continues to change but they don’t seem to have figure this out around here, at least not in significant numbers as in other Italian appellations recently sampled. An analysis of the reasons behind this swerve will surely fill thick volumes on the subject of marketing and will be the subject of intense debate. But we’ll just have to wait to understand what has happened.

But there is also the risk of falling into extremism here. I heard some of my colleagues ask, angered to the point that you’d think their questions were a matter of personal injury, why is that certain Barberas had 14% alcohol? Such questions are senseless. There’s no point in underlining the fact that alcohol is simply one component of wine, a fundamental element, no doubt, but not the only one. There are wines with 15% alcohol but when they are well balanced they can be just as stunning. At the same rate, wines with 11% alcohol can be annoyingly pungent on the nose. Certain colleagues of mine asked, but why are you aging this wine for two years in barrique? This is another senseless question. Why? Just try the wines of Iuli, a young producer form Monferrato. Many of his Barberas are aged for more than two years in small cask. But they show no pointless toasty notes on the nose? Nada, zip. Why is this? How do we explain this? The answer lies in the fact that we are talking about the container and not the contents. Such conversations are as boring as wines devastated by wood.

—Alessandro Franceschini

Volume grew by 6% for Italian exports in 2009 but with a 11% decrease in value

According to a report published this week by FocusWine.it, Italy’s wine industry saw a 6% increase in exports in 2009 (with 19.5 million hectoliters exported) but a decrease in value, with a total of Euro 3.4 billion, with an average price of Euro 1.77 per liter, an 11% decrease with respect to 2008.

Sparkling Italian wines were the hardest hit in 2009, with a decrease of 18% in sales, even as the amount of sparkling wine exported by Italy grew by 2%. Bulk wine experienced significant growth, thanks to the Russian market, with 14% growth in sales and a remarkable 364% growth in volume.

The international financial crisis weighed heavily on Italian wine exports, according to the report, with disappointing results in the United Kingdom (-10%), in the U.S. (-7%), and Canada (-5%). The German market remained relatively stable, with a 0.2% decrease in sales but 14% growth in volume, while the Swiss market saw 14% growth in volume and 1% growth in sales.

Live wine blogging at Barbera Meeting 2010 represents a point of no return

Even though I’m not the biggest fan of this grape and the wines it is used to make, I’m almost sad that I missed Barbera Meeting 2010, which took place over the course of four days in Asti. It simply wasn’t possible for me to get into the game this time around.

Four days devoted to tastings of Barbera, from Asti, Monferrato, and Alba. I must confess that the thought doesn’t exactly thrill me. But in the light of the organizers’s professionalism and their hard work, their interaction with the press, and above all, the innovation they have introduced — the “Barbera blog” — I’m sure that it would have been fun to be there, not to mention professionally interesting. For those of us who had to stay home, it was possible to follow what was happening in real-time thanks to the blog.

And it also would have been to contribute, inasmuch as I am a journalist who also blogs. And I could have involved of my Italian friends who were there as well, Carlo Macchi and Alessandro Franceschini, who are not true bloggers but still publish on the web. They could have posted comments, impressions, photographs, and tasting notes of the many wines tasted, just a group of winebloggers from the U.S. and the United Kingdom did, coordinated by Jeremy Parzen author of Do Bianchi.

Their presence and their “outside-the-box” contributions were possible to the speed of the web. And others took note, as is evidenced by articles devoted to this novelty, like that published by Sergio Miravalle in La Stampa (see Parzen’s translation here).

One of the most interesting posts was published by American wineblogger Saignée, who wrote about the phenomenon of the so-called “Super Barberas,” in others words, Barbera d’Asti with special characteristics inspired by the Super Tuscan model. Powerful wines, very concentrated, dark in color, and rich with wood.

After reading the American wineblogger’s post, it doesn’t seem that this choice curried favor with the tasters and commentators in Asti. And he wasn’t the only one who repudiated the excess of wood in the wines, their lacking of balance and drinkability.

Had it only been possible for me to be there, I would have liked to participate in the discussions with producers, which took place during the afternoon sessions and in the evenings, in order to understand the director of this most popular of Piedmont wines. A great deal of Barbera is produced: I’d like to know where the producers are heading and how they intend to win over the various markets, especially foreign markets, with their wines.

But as an observer who followed the event from afar, I know that one thing is for certain: the innovation and novelty introduced at Barbera Meeting marks a point of no return.

And it will difficult — impossible, in my opinion — to organize similar events, in Piedmont or elsewhere, without taking into account the sounding board of talented bloggers, in other words, ones who write seriously and with authority, tastemaker bloggers (and there are plenty of them, here in Italy and abroad).

To not invite them along with journalists who publish in the print media and guides and to maintain that “they’re just bloggers” would not only be stupid. It would show that organizers of such events haven’t understood that times are a changing. The wine-loving public that surfs the web knows the difference between wheat and weeds. They are more likely to believe writers who publish unhindered than conventional information, often immobilized and mitigated, like that found in magazines and wine guides. They are more likely to trust in immovable winebloggers who freely express their ideas, tastes, and distastes.

That’s why this year’s Barbera Meeting, sung in the key of wineblogging for the first time, with live blogging provided by seven well-coordinated wine bloggers (perhaps next time there will be fifteen) constitutes a memorable event in the chronicles and discourse of wine writing. And it merits serious consideration in future.

—Franco Ziliani