Only a one-hour drive south from the city of Turin (Torino) in Italy and an equal distance from the Mediterranean and the Western Alps is the wine sub-region of Barbaresco.The greater region is called the Piedmont and her famous wines are the Barolo and Barbaresco.
Like Barolo, Barbaresco is made from a noble grape called Nebbiolo, which has been cultivated in Northern Italy since the 14th century. Thanks to the microclimate, Barbaresco’s grapes are picked earlier. The laws require Barbaresco to have a lower alcohol requirement – 12.5% compared with Barolo’s 13% – and Barbaresco is aged for a shorter period than Barolo.
As a result, the wine tastes a little less tannic, is less structured and comes across more elegant than Barolo. Hence, Barbaresco wines have been described as the smaller sibling to Barolo – or the yin of the yang
Barbaresco’s unique personality is also due to terroir. Lying next to the Tanaro river, the microclimate is moderated by the influence of the river – this allows the Nebbiolo to ripen here a little earlier than it does in the Barolo region. Most of the soil of Barbaresco is calcareous marl and, in parts, calcium rich soils are mixed with fertile alluvial soils (altogether sandier than soils in Barolo).
Because Barbaresco’s ripening period is shorter than Barolo’s, the resulting wine contains less tannins, acidity and fruit structure. This explains why Barbaresco wines tend to be lighter in body than the wines of Barolo; and are usually fruitier, more perfumed and more accessible in their youth compared to Barolos.
Why then do we hear so much about Barolo and so little about Barbaresco?
There are several reasons. Barbaresco producers are mostly small growers turned winemakers and production is about a third that of Barolo. The larger companies running estates in Barolo find it easier to promote and distribute their wines overseas. As such, Barbaresco has always been in the shadow of Barolo – often mentioned in conjunction with Barolo.
If Barolo consists of 11 villages, Barbaresco’s villages are small and number only four. They are Barbaresco, Nieve, Treiso and San Rocco (Alba). However, the vineyard names to remember (if you are a diehard aficionado) are just as numerous!
·BARBARESCO – Wines can be described as elegant, perfumed and complex; grapes are grown at an elevation of 270m.
The Grandi Vigne or cru vineyards are Asili, Bricco o Bricco Lemondo, Casotto-Loreto, Cavanna, Cole, Faset, Martinenga, Moccagatta, Montaribaldi, Montefico; Montestefano, Morassino, Ovello, Pagliuzzi, Paje, Pora, Rabaja, Rio Sordo, Roccalini, Roncaglie, Roncagliette, Ronchi, Secondine and Vitalotti.
·TREISO – To the south of Barbaresco, grapes are grown here at an elevation of 410m. Wines are lighter in texture with sticky tannins.
The Grandi Vigne or cru vineyards are Bernardot o Bernardotti, Bordino, Bricco, Casot, Castellizzano, Manzola, Marcarini, Montersino, Nervo, Pajore, Rizzi, Rombone and Valeirano.
·NIEVE – Lies in the hills north-east of Barbaresco around the Neive township; grapes are grrown at 320m. Wines are full-bodied with medium-full tannins.
The Grandi Vigne or cru vineyards are Albesani, Basarin, Bordini, Bricco, Bricco Mondino, Canova, Cotta, Curra, Fausoni, Gaia Principe, Gallina, Marcorino, Messoirano, San Giuliano, Santo Stefano, Serraboella, Serracapelli and Starderi.
·San Rocco, Seno d’Elvio – Part of Alba, this tiny strip lies west and at an 180m elevation alongside the Treiso commune. It produces easy to drink wines, with stronger tannins balanced by sweet ripe black fruit flavours.
Note that all wines are called Barbaresco, although the commune may be named, similar to the case of Barolo. Note that almost 95% of Barbaresco is produced in the first three areas – Barbaresco, Treiso and Neive.
The Barbaresco appellation is a quarter of Barolo’s, and soils are more even, so differences amongst the various commune wines of Barbaresco are subtle.
Reading the label
Many wines can be identified by the name of the vineyard and some are better than others. Producers may share vineyards and some make better wines than their neighbours. Labels are easy to read but the information is difficult to process. If you think Barolo is difficult to understand, Barbaresco is even more complex.
Many producers own vineyards in different communes. Some make wine the old fashioned way, others offer modern wines. Occasionally you will find two styles from a producer as well as crus (single vineyards) and blends. Some of the best wines are those that combine both tradition and modernity – for example, the ageing of wines in new barriques for a period, to round out tannins and to pick up sweet spicy notes, and then in traditional large oak (botti) to draw out the amplitude and develop finesse in the wine.
Terms such as Bricco and Sori may appear on the label. They mean “ridge/hill peak’’ and “slope’’ respectively and producers might use these terms to indicate that wines produced from grapes grown on the vineyards on these ridges and slopes could be better than the normal.