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 Barbera, the color of tar, with vanilla flavors and powerful alcohol, seems to be out, outdated, and passé.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

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6 thoughts on “Editorial: Barbera and barrique, talk about the contents not the container

  1. Pingback: Barbera and barrique, talk about the contents not the container « Barbera Meeting 2010

  2. Mr. Franceschini seems to be trying to silence the discussion, calling it “boring” and stating that we are at the risk of “falling into extremism”. Don’t these very wines epitomize extremism? It is a philosophical point to call into question their typcité of terroir, particularly in areas such as Piemonte where the same calloused hands that prune the vines man the press. The economics of the market and the wine press force producers toward these styles to survive. Should an Italian restaurant in London overcook its pasta, add more sugar, garlic and tomatoes to survive? That is an individual economic choice but such cuisine should not be praised or exalted and certainly its authenticity should be questioned. Should such restaurants be awarded Michelin stars for their efforts to please the press and the international palate while betraying their roots?

    The question is would these growers produce such wines if it weren’t such a driving economic imperative to do so. Is this really the kind of Barbera they would like produce? Do they really appreciate thick, soft Allier-infused Barbera? If the answer is yes, they have every right to continue but don’t expect automatic awards, praise and inventory turnover. If on the other hand, they wouldn’t produce such wines but for the wine press, market and economics of non-compliance, the debate should continue. Let the bloggers and conscientious journalist champion Piemonte terroir to the point that the economics shift, where disowning acidity, vanillifying your wine and betraying terroir become as risky as making a traditional Barbera is for a Monferrato grower today.

    Recently, Angelo Ferrio of Cascina Ca’Rossa brought me his 2007 Barbera Mulassa, an ethereal wine deftly expressing Piemonte and the vintage. He has ceased using barrique on this previously Tre Bicchieri award-winning wine. Such a choice forfeits future awards but respects the grape, Piemonte and his conscience. Let’s not silence the voices.

  3. Nice analysis. Wine fashions come and go, like a pendulum, and critics should always question the dominant trend. Forza Barbera (especially the fruity ones)…

  4. i completely agree with Eric. i fear that many, the public, will still empower the press. hence wine styles that will fall in and out of favor, just like bell bottom jeans…
    the producers should just make the wine that they want to make, whether it shows terroir or not. let the customers decide. ultimately they will chage fashion/taste…just like those bell bottom jeans.

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