Wine on Starchefs PRODUTTORI

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StarVintner Produttori del Barbaresco
By Jim Clarke

Produttori del Barbaresco's Logo On StarChefsLike classical music, Italian wine has its three “B”s: Brunello, Barolo, and Barbaresco – but they’re generally not your “go-to” wines for affordability.  There is, however, a happy exception (perhaps proving the rule): Produttori del Barbaresco makes wines in that third region that stand beside the area’s best at prices that make them one of the outstanding values in the American market.

The Produttori are not a new group of young Turks, using some new production paradigm that enables them to drop their prices.  Founded in the 1950s, they are a co-op; a term that, for some, has sometimes been considered one of the four-letter words of the viticultural world.  A cooperative is a group, often large, of winegrowers who pool their grapes and other resources to make and market their wine.  It’s an important, established model for winemaking not uncommon throughout Europe.

So how did “co-op” become a dirty word?  Unfortunately the resulting wines often suffer from “mediocrity by committee;” growers are rewarded for producing quantity and not quality and are reluctant to criticize their neighbors’ grapes and techniques.  Many co-ops produce indifferent beverages.  Produttori del Barbaresco broke through these barriers and have become a model for the wine cooperative in Italy.

Coming Together

Piedmont, Barbaresco’s home, lies in the northwest portion of Italy and changed hands between the French and the Italians several times before becoming definitively Italian during the Risorgimento in the 19th century.  The wine tradition today enshrined as Barolo and Barbaresco is also the result of a Franco-Italian mix: in the mid-1800s Camille Cavour, otherwise occupied as a leader in Italy’s struggle for unification, brought in French enologist Louis Oudart to improve Piedmont’s wines.  Oudart immediately recognized two things:  that the Nebbiolo grape indigenous to the region was capable of making great wine, and that winemaking procedures at the time were perpetrating a great injustice, yielding an incomplete fermentation and a sweet, unstructured wine.  By the 1850’s the changes Oudart had introduced were turning around and the Nebbiolo wines began to resemble the ones we know today; this was the start of Barolo, Barbaresco’s older sibling.

Barbaresco still had a few years of incubation before it, and cooperative winemaking was to be midwife to the birth.  In 1894 Domizio Cavazza, owner of the Barbaresco castle and director at the Enological school in Alba, brought together nine winegrowers to form the Cantine Sociali; they named the wine for the town of Barbaresco.  The co-op lasted into the 1930s, when Mussolini;s fascist government introduced new economic rules that shut them down.  The Barbaresco name stuck nonetheless, carried forward by other wineries following in the co-op’s footsteps. Meanwhile other wineries had taken up the Barbaresco name.  The legal definition of the name was still a long ways away; Italy’s appellation rules were not to be introduced until 1963.

After World War II Barbaresco’s village priest watched as local owners of small vineyard plots struggled to bring their wines to market.  He realized that these farmers had little hope to make and market their wines profitably on their own and brought them together to form a new cooperative, following in the footsteps of Domizio Cavazza.  The initial group of 19 farmers has now grown to include 56 members with 270 acres within the Barbaresco DOCG zone.  They started out making wine in the basement of the church and after their first three vintages they were able to move to a winery located across the square, where the Produttori’s wines are made today.

Growing One Grape

Most producers in Piedmont balance their portfolios by diversifying their grapes; Barbera and Dolcetto often grow well on parts of the hillsides that Nebbiolo doesn’t take to and can be sold earlier, while the Nebbiolos are aging (By law a Barbaresco must be aged for a minimum of two years, or four years for the Riservas).  The Produttori eschew this approach; they aim to heighten their quality by focusing exclusively on the potential and vagaries of Nebbiolo.  To expand the range of their offerings they instead redirect juice that doesn’t meet their standards for Barbaresco and bottle under a broader appellation, Nebbiolo Langhe DOC.  Regulations permit a Langhe to be released earlier; the wine is lighter and less complex than Barolo and Barbaresco, but at less than $20-a-bottle may be the only Nebbiolo around that makes a great everyday wine.  It’s a tremendous value.

Under the Barbaresco DOCG proper the Produttori make both a regular bottling and a Riserva; current releases are 1999 and 1997, respectively: two superb vintages.  These wines use a blend of grapes from a number of different vineyards.  The regular bottling offers up many of the traditional delights of the Nebbiolo grape: a strongly floral nose of violets buttressed by raspberries and dark cherries, supplemented on the palate by cola and smoke.  The wine is full-bodied, with firm but not overbearing tannins.

Breaking It Down

“Piedmont” means “foot of the mountain,” and the slopes there are the confident first steps of the rollicking Alps to the north. As the hills roll and twist, each turn produces a change in the grapes as sun exposure, soils, and drainage change.  Barbaresco’s winegrowers have an eye for these details, and here, as in Burgundy, tradition has carved up the landscape into a multitude of crus – individual vineyards with their own character which is reflected in the wines.  The local term for such a vineyard is “sorí.”

The Produttori produce several single vineyard wines in a given vintage, all Riservas and all from sorí in the immediate vicinity to the village of Barbaresco.  The Moccagatta and Ovello wines from the 1997 vintage provide a good example of the differences a growing site can make.  Ovello is a large sorí to the northeast of town near the Tanaro River, with a broad slope, southwestern sun exposure, and limestone soils; Moccagatta has similar soils, but lies further away from the river and faces southeast.  These subtle distinctions create perceptible differences in the wines: the Ovello is the more powerful and full, with dark fruits, tar, earth, and truffles evolving into bitter chocolate and spice on the palate and a long finish tinged by a note of licorice.  Moccagatta, in contrast, is more refined: dusty earth and tar are topped by a mix of light spices, smoke, and violets.  While both wines are fuller-bodied, the Moccagatta is gentler and smoother, with less pronounced tannins.

Nebbiolo also carries a clear imprint of its vintage, and recent years have provided several great harvests to compare and contrast – 1996 through 2001 have all been rated highly by most observers.  ’96 and ’97 are a study in contrasts; the ’97 Ovello is a muscular wine, while the 1996 vintage yielded an elegant and supple expression of similar aromas: sour cherries and anise countered by truffles, white chocolate, and violet.  The vineyard and year both collaborate in creating the wine.

Produttori del Barbaresco make up to nine sorí wines in a given vintage: stretching southward between Ovello and Moccagatta lie the smaller sites Montefico, Montetestano, and Pajé, and a ridge south of town runs at a right angle to the river creating the Pora, Asili, and Rabajá sites, with Rio Sordo pointing south toward the town of Treiso. The 1996 Asili shows another face of Nebbiolo; aromas of tar, sour cherries, and candied fruit with an earthy palate of leather and tobbacco.  The 1999 Riserva cru wines are just coming onto the market as well, followed hard upon by the much-heralded 2000s.

The Tannins and the Table

Nebbiolo’s tannins often have an unusual character – Trojan Horse tannins, really.  You lift the glass and take a sip; at first, the tannins seem light or even non-existent.  But between the time the wine touches your front teeth and descends down your gullet the wine has unpacked its load of tannic warriors; if the wine is too young, they may conquer your palate.  Produttori del Barbaresco is careful to keep the tannins in their wines in balance; the wines are ready to drink upon release but will grow smoother and more complex as the tannins fade through aging – especially in the Riservas. 

All this is to say that the Produttori del Barbaresco make great food wines, pairing especially well with rich foods that match the tannins blow-for-blow.  The first principle of pairing wine with food from the same region certainly applies here, and Piedmont is the home of white truffles, rissotto, and mushrooms.  The blend of earthy and floral aromas in the wine add complexity to all these foods.  Piedmont is landlocked, so meats figure heavily in their cuisine and make another strong match.  The French influence helps – more butter and cream to bring fat to the dishes and soak up the tannins.

These intense and complex wines are made to share, and opening a bottle with friends at the table echoes the wines’ collaborative origins.  Almost sixty wine growers contribute to the Produttori stable; even the single vineyard wines use grapes from plots owned by several different members of the cooperative.  All Nebbiolo wines speak of their origins, but not all of them can honestly claim to reflect the spirit of the growers so well.

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 Published: October 2004