Friday, June 18, 2010

Secrets to Making Great Barbera

Last Sunday I attended the subject seminar which highlighted the philosophy underlying the Vietti Family Winery Barberas.  The seminar, a part of B-21s Annual Italian Grand Tasting and Sale, was led by Aldo Zaninotto of Vietti Family Winery.

According to Aldo, Piedmont is in the northwest corner of Italy and, being only 20 minutes travel from the Alps, the food and language of the region is heavily influenced by France.  In pointing out the heavy regionality of Italian wines, Aldo laughingly said that the country had only been united since 1871 and was "one country with 30 different states."

After Phylloxera had ravaged the Italian wine industry in the mid-1850s, the grape that was replanted was Barbera. This grape varietal was used to make an everyday drinking wine.  There are three Barbera zones: Alba, Asti, and Monferrato.  Alba has very complex soils, resulting from erosion of old mountains, and tends to produce powerful wines.  Asti wines tend to be more "feminine" and elegant.  Monferrato has soil that is comprised of clay, sand and rock and the wines are not as complex as the wines from Asti and Alba.

The Vietti family name goes back to the 600s but the family produced its first wine in 1876.  In 1890, the eldest son was given control of the estate and the youngest son came to America.  The oldest brother was killed in World War I and the younger brother was recalled to run the estate.  He was successful and re-invested by buying land in the region and, today, the company is a patchwork of sites totaling 87 hectares.

Unlike wineries who engage "fly-in" consultants, the Vietti's touch the wine.  The owner works in the vineyard and then goes to the cellar to make the wine.  The wine-making philosophy is to use the least amount of grapes possible to get the best quality wine.  This philosophy begins in the vineyard where high-density planting is employed. The Vietti's feel that the high density, plus no irrigation, forces competition for resources and causes the vines to penetrate deep into the subsoil.  As the vines go deeper, they tap into more complex minerals and this complexity is funneled up to the grapes.  They begin with 8 clusters per vine but green harvest in August to get rid of the three to four of the largest clusters.  The discarded clusters are left on the ground as fertilizer.  A second green harvest clips the elongated part of the cluster leaving only the "heart" of the cluster for harvesting.

We tasted four Vietta wines as a part of the seminar:  2007 Vietti Barbera d'Asti TreVigne ($15.99); 2007 Vietti Barbera d' Alba TreVigne ($19.99); 2007 Vietti Barbera d'Asti la Crema ($39.99); and 2006 Vietti Barbera d'Alba Scarrone ($39.99).  According to Aldo, the company puts a lot of effort into its entry-level wines because if the consumer likes these wines, they will try the higher-end wines (The winery also makes Barolos).  The TreVigne is made from grapes grown on three estate-owned vineyards.  In the case of the Asti, we get red cherries with good structure and mouthfeel.  The wine has been aged for 6 months in neutral oak and an additional 2 months in Barriques.  The Alba also shows red fruit but is more concentrated than the Asti.  Both of these wines should be drunk within 4 years.  The Scarrone and la Crema are single-vineyard offerings with greater ageability.   Scarrone is one of the oldest Barbera vineyards in that it dates back to 1918.  Both of these wines exhibit great complexity (soil characteristics) and concentration (vineyard practices, harvest time, skin contact).   I purchased both of the single-vineyard wines.

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