Jim Clarke: Cooperatives the world over are often accused of producing lower quality wines, either because of a failure to insist on quality work in members’ vineyards, or from compromised winemaking – a kind of mediocrity by committee. How has Produttori del Barbaresco managed to avoid these problems?
Aldo Vacca: Since the foundation, in 1958, the Produttori set very strict quality rules and they took two crucial decisions: a) producing only Barbaresco and no other wine and b) paying grapes accordingly to their quality level and not just quantity. The second is now common sense for almost all cooperatives, but it was a revolutionary concept back in the 50s. The first decision was a tough one commercially because Barbaresco was not as known as it is now but it was not an every day wine as well: to limit your production to only one wine (even nowadays we are the only winery in Piemonte doing so) and such a wine was a tough decision, but set the growers mind towards quality rather than quantity… and built the reputation of the Produttori as a leading Barbaresco winery.
JC: Presumably some of the cooperative’s growers own plots of other grapes common to the region such as Barbera and Dolcetto. Wine from these grapes can be released with less aging than Barbarescos and Barolos, providing an income for producers while their DOCG wines are aging. Why has the cooperative not pursued this approach, preferring to release a less-aged Nebbiolo under the Langhe DOC?
AV: This winery was founded by the priest of the village and 19 young growers with the goal of helping the community of Barbaresco to get a better living. It was founded looking back to 1894 when Domizio Cavazza founded the first cooperative in the castle of Barbaresco and “invented” Barbaresco as a real wine. There is a legacy between the village, the wine, and the people that we felt was important to maintain. Also concentrating on Barbaresco helped the winery establish a fine reputation. Finally, I have a motto for cooperatives that want to succeed in the fine wine world: “keep it simple”.
JC: What do you feel are the differences in terroir that give Barbaresco a different character than Barolo?
AV: The soil is quite similar in its general texture, but Barbaresco as a slightly higher fertility and a microclimate more influenced by the river and the valley floor (warmer summer mornings, foggier winters…). These results in Barbaresco being more elegant and refined, and Barolo more imposing.
JC: Nebbiolo-based wines from other Italian regions such as Valtellina and Gattinara have been on the rise of late, both in terms of quality and popularity; are these wines competition for Barbaresco, or do they help raise the profile of Nebbiolo more generally?
AV: I believe the second is the proper answer. Of course there is always competition, but Nebbiolo is so little known and Barbaresco so small that more exposure to the grapes is always beneficial. The more people feel comfortable with the variety the more they can enjoy its incredible diversity of flavors.
JC: Even difficult grapes like Pinot Noir have found homes abroad, away from their birthplace. Why has Nebbiolo never successfully emigrated to California or other wine regions in the New World?
AV: Nebbiolo is just as difficult as Pinot Noir to grow with the difference that Pinot Noir is… French and therefore more famous (…noblesse oblige). Nebbiolo needs very specific soil and climate conditions to show its beauty and it is either great or plain, never halfway. Winemakers that try to grow it around the world are great ambassadors for us and great friends, but they do not do it for the money: for them it is still a love-affair!
JC: Producers around the world have become more and more concerned about extracting lots of dark color from their red grapes, largely in response to a perceived consumer preference. Nebbiolo’s skin tends to give little color, with a distinctive orange tint. Has Produttori del Barbaresco made any changes in their winemaking to accommodate this trend?
AV: The University of Torino has been selecting better clones in the last 20 years and some of them give more color: we work with them and our growers are improving their vineyards year after year. Lower yields and more careful winemaking have been helping as well. We do not try too hard, though; especially we are not changing the taste of the wine in order to have darker color. People that love Nebbiolo love the color, too.