With the rising prices of Burgundy and Bordeaux, and perhaps the current “out of fashion” status of the latter, there has been a sudden explosion of articles about a so-called new investment opportunity, Barolo. It’s a region of mainly smaller independent producers and some older, larger firms, coupled with an increasingly well defined and mapped terroir in Barolo which makes Burgundy lovers wriggle with joy. Nevertheless, good Barolo is both expensive, and ageworthy, by which euphemism we mean that if you buy a good one you’d best leave it a decade, or maybe two.
But Barolo has a sister region…or is it a little brother? Really, I don’t think Barbaresco is either of these. Kerin O’Keefe, in her 2014 book on the two regions, calls them the “King and Queen of Italian Wine”, which sounds good to me. To place Barbaresco behind Barolo may be fair enough to some degree. The wines of Barbaresco are released a year earlier than Barolo, and they are often approachable earlier too. Except in a few well known cases, Barbaresco rarely commands the price of a Barolo of equivalent quality, despite the fact that the Barolo zone is well over twice the size, in hectares planted, than the smaller Barbaresco zone.
All of these things I see more as advantages, rather than negatives, to the wine lover looking for an excellent value Nebbiolo. And where better to find that value than one of Italy’s finest and best known wine co-operatives – The Produttori del Barbaresco, or as it is more affectionately known to those who hope to hide its identity, The Prod.
This week I opened a bottle of the Produttori’s generic Barbaresco. It was a 2004, an excellent vintage and, at just over a decade old, at a good age to sample it. Would it be over the hill, dried out and dead? Obviously not. Although characteristically brick red at the rim, the core was still a deep garnet red. The nose was certainly recognisable as Nebbiolo. There are many interpretations of this, from the classic “tar and roses” to the “black cherry and violets” of this one’s back label. Some find liquorice, coffee and spice as well. But there’s always a beautiful fragrant top note underpinned by a profound, deep bass. Here we had plenty of tannin still, but the fruit and texture wells up and comes through on the finish. Delicious.
The Produttori has around fifty members who farm just over 100ha of vines (more than one fifth of the DOCG), all Nebbiolo. They produce about half-a-million bottles of wine most years, under the watchful eye of the eminently experienced General Director and all round Nebbiolo expert, Aldo Vacca. However, it’s not really the generic Barbaresco bottling where this co-op scores highest, nor with its excellent Langhe Nebbiolo. Their secret lies in the range of single vineyard bottlings, the Barbaresco Riserva Crus, which represent possibly the finest values in the whole region. These are fine wines, capable of ageing like the top crus of Barolo, but they cost a fraction of the price.
Produced since 1967, the nine individual Crus are Asili, Montefico, Montestefano, Muncagota, Ovello, Pajè, Pora, Rabajà and Rio Sordo. They may not trip off the tongue like the famous Barolo crus, but I’ll bet a few ring a bell. It’s a roll call of some of the DOCG’s best sites.
These are wines for laying down. They are also wines which express their own individuality. It would be unfair to try to rank them, because each vintage has different conditions, so one year one site might win out, another year bringing a different winner…if you score wines out of 100. If, like me, you don’t, then you just enjoy comparing their differences. And you can reasonably hope to do this because they don’t cost the earth.
What do they cost? They are all reasonably easy to get hold of and you can find the Langhe Nebbiolo for around £15, the generic Barbaresco for around £25 and the Crus for around £45/bottle in the UK. If you are very keen you might be tempted to invest in one of the rare collector’s cases they produce. You get a bottle of each of the crus in a nice wooden box. There are currently a few cases from the 2009 vintage I’ve seen knocking around at £320. That’s a significant saving.
It’s worth noting that interest really seems to have begun to pick up again in Barbaresco, as Italy and her overseas markets recover from the international slump at the beginning of the decade, and as the word gets out about the quality and value of the wines being made in the shadow of Barolo. The mapping and delimitation of the individual sub-zones of the region has helped too, allowing the wine to appeal to serious wine lovers in a way that the generic blends of the larger bottles might not have. There are currently, I believe, 66 of these crus, dividing a production zone of less than 500ha. Yet one shouldn’t shun the wines blended from multiple sites. For starters, some of the delimited sites are much better than others. And one only has to look west to Barolo to see some lovely, successful blended wines. Unlike in Burgundy, and certainly in Alsace, it will be time and the market which will decide which are the Premier and Grand Crus of Barbaresco, as seems to be happening already in Barolo.
Of course, instead of buying bottles at home, you can always pay them a visit. The region of Piemonte is one of the most under rated in Italy, and only a devoted coterie of Nebbiolo fans seem to venture there. Wine tourism is pretty well developed for tasting visits (the Produttori is easy to find in Barbaresco, close to photo opportunities outside Gaja’s premises on the same street, and several decent restaurants). The scenery is lovely, whether the Langhe Hills around Barolo and her sister villages, with their wonderful vistas and vineyard walks, the impressive hills and villages of Barbaresco’s DOCG (centred on Treiso, Neive and Barbaresco itself), or the more compact, steep slopes of mainly Moscato and Barbera around Mango and Nizza Monferrato, in between. Alba is the centre of what is one of Italy’s finest regional cuisines, certainly not limited to the famous white truffles. As for accommodation, Piemonte is peppered with Agriturismos, offering bed and breakfast and, in many cases, an on-site restaurant as well. Many, if not most, of these are on wine properties, some belonging to famous names. Why more tourists from the UK don’t visit, I don’t know, other than for the attachment we have to Tuscany. Worth a detour, as they say.
The Produttori del Barbaresco is at Via Torino 54, 12050 Barbaresco CN. Call them on +39 0173635139. Or check out their web site (link in bold above).