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Barbera, along with Nebbiolo, has a hard time in Piedmont, but it is gaining more and more ground, also thanks to the slowly awakening DOC Barbera Monferrato and DOC Colli Tortonesi Barbera regions of origin, which are asserting themselves with considerable quality alongside the better-known DOC Barbera dAsti and DOC Barbera d'Alba and are making a name for themselves.

The Monferrato area in the province of Alessandria. (Map from Cantina Sociale Vinchio)

A star that was recovered poor

In the twenty years between 1975 and 1995 there was a turning point. Although many technicians and producers had always been convinced of the great potential of Barbera (in Piedmontese it is feminine: the Barbera), at least on some particular terroirs, until a few decades ago the image of this wine among the general public was that of cheap draught wine. Lush, with intense colour and accentuated acidity, it was the perfect accompaniment to a roll with salami or salty anchovies, but it was not welcome on elegant tables, almost as if it belonged to an inferior class. Barbera, or rather Barbera wines, since the grape variety is grown practically all over Piedmont and also in Oltrepò Pavese and around Piacenza, were foals: To ascend to the Olympus of great Italian wines, they had to be tamed. A group of producers, initially dubbed dreamers, embarked on this historic undertaking. Arturo Bersano, who sadly passed away, became the guiding light. His visionary enthusiasm, acumen and magnanimity accompanied the pioneer of the Barbera renaissance: Giacomo Bologna from Rocchetta Tanaro.

The Barbera tamers

The Castello di Camino Monferrato in the mist. You can almost feel the spirit% that still spews there today. (Photos Katrin Walter)

Barbera is a rather adaptable grape variety that only shuns cold climates because it needs a lot of warmth. But it only really makes great wine in a few places. The first to be recognised as great terroirs were some districts in the "magic triangle" of Barbera d'Asti, between Tanaro and Belbo. Nizza Monferrato, home to such famous wineries as Bersano, Scarpa, Agliano, Costigliole, Castelnuovo Calcea and Vinchio, is one of the places where the best entrepreneurs of the era tried their hand at "Barbera taming". And it is also here that they have succeeded in gaining recognition as the home of great wines under the DOC Barbera d'Asti. The "Barbera tamers" have begun to change the way wine is made. Once it was rare for wine to undergo lactic fermentation, people didn't even know what it was back then. Today, controlling this process allows us to better bring out the potential of the Barbera grape variety by rounding off the "angularity" due to the excess of malic acid. The introduction of the barrique, which was used in a somewhat clumsy manner at the beginning, also helped. Then the tamers turned their attention to the vineyards and understood that the game was played here if one wanted to gain even more quality. The changes in the market also required a fundamental rethink. It was necessary to minimise the natural generosity of the vine with short pruning and moderate fertilisation and to change the direction of genetic selection as well as the training of technicians, who were still oriented towards maximum productivity. Furthermore, they tried to let the grapes fully ripen, because the balance between sugar and acidity is only achieved with high gradation. The great wines from Barbera rarely have less than fourteen percent alcohol by volume.

A new home for a great Barbera

It takes decades to fully realise those inspirations and to extend them to the new territories, which are at the height of the challenge because of special conditions of climate and soil. For Barbera d'Alba it was rather easy, the territory and the producers were already committed to the philosophy of quality production. The problem was and still is the competition with Nebbiolo, which occupies the best and sunniest slopes, and all the more the Langhe area, where it rains a little more, is fresher and windier than in the "sancta sanctorum" of Barbera d'Asti.
But we want to talk here above all about the "discovery" of two territories in the province of Alessandria which, although Barbera has always been produced here, have only recently come to general prominence and now complete the series of great terroirs for the Barbera grape variety, making it more varied and stronger:

° the Monferrato Casalese (after the name of its main town, Casale Monferrato, already the capital of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance of the Marquisate of Monferrato, and more recently home to great wine scholars such as Giuseppe Antonio Ottavi) and

° the Colli Tortonesi (after the name of its main town, Tortona, the ancient Roman city of Derthona, gateway between the Po Valley and the sea).

Vineyards in winter at sunset in Tortonese. (Photo Katrin Walter)

Pure or with small proportions of other autochthonous grapes (Freisa in Monferrato, Croatina in the Tortonese area), these areas today produce some of the best Barbera wines absolutely. This has already been extensively attested, both by scientific vineyard studies and by market and critical preferences. At the last Barbera meeting organised by the Consorzio di Protezione in June 2006, the press enthusiastically embraced many of the wines from the Monferrato and Torton hills. And in the recent second edition of the "Concorso Internazionale del Barbera" competition, two wines from the Monferrato Casalese won in the main category: the gold medal went to Barbera d'Asti Superiore 2004 "Paion" from Tenuta Fiammenga in Moncalvo and bronze to Barbera del Monferrato Superiore 2003 "Schiavino" from Ca' San Carlo in Vignale. The silver medal, on the other hand, was awarded to the Barbera d'Asti Superiore "Vigna di Meriggio" from Azienda Agricola Baretta in Fontanile, in the south of Asti.

Casale Monferrato - Behind the Cathedral (Photo Katrin Walter)

The Monferrato Casalese with its beautiful landscapes, hills with medieval castles and excellent wine gastronomy stretches between the Po and Tanaro rivers, between Casale Monferrato and Moncalvo. The two original denominations of origin, Barbera d'Asti and Barbera del Monferrato, live together and overlap, as does the entire province of Asti. Unfortunately, this is often the cause of a splendid confusion, made even more confused by the fact that the DOC Barbera del Monferrato is often associated by the market with young and "lively", i.e. slightly sparkling wines. Apparently, there is a tendency to confuse the name of a territory with a typology of goods: with the wine which, although pleasant with certain dishes, certainly does not represent the best expression of the grape variety and does not have the appeal at international level. Although the DOC Barbera d'Asti generally enjoys a better reputation as a still wine with structure, many producers of the "new Barbera" from Monferrato opt for the denomination of origin, in which they feel they and their territory are better presented: Barbera del Monferrato. This also applies to the top wines of the wineries. A decision that seems bold at first, but the producers want to further enhance the image of Monferrato and step by step they are succeeding, also because the vocation of the territory is undoubtedly there: in Vignale, Rosignano, Cella Monte, Sala, Ottiglio, Serralunga di Crea and many others. The additional mention of "Superiore" on the label (Barbera del Monferrato Superiore) is reserved for the wines produced with stricter rules and obligatory ageing. A request for DOCG is made, as for the best wines of Italy.

Tortona - tower of the town hall (photo Alexala)

The Colli Tortonesi (Tortona Hills) rise to the south of the Po and to the west of the Scriva river, extending to the border of Lombardy (Oltrepò Pavese). We are talking about a zone of complex orography that rises from the plain into the mountains of the Apennine chain that separates Piedmont from Liguria. We are therefore dealing with different altitudes, orientations, climates and soil conditions. On the hillsides between 150 and 350 metres above sea level, Barbera has been planted and cultivated since time immemorial, with excellent results: These are wines that combine fruity character and freshness with an impressive body. As in Monferrato Casalese, there are also crus of particular prestige. Vho, Sarezzano and Monleale are some of the most called zones.

A selection of Barbera del Monferrato Superiore and Colli Tortonesi Barbera wines can be tasted at ProWein, presented by the Enoteca Regionale del Monferrato, at the stand of the Province of Alessandria.

Translation by Katrin Walter

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