10 March 2010

An escalation of Astilities

[audience question]The Piedmont has, on more than one occasion, been a battleground. They myriad hilltop fortresses and fortified churches will tell that tale, even if one’s own historical assemblage does not. But it has probably not often been the venue for a wine war. Disagreements, debates…yes. But overt hostility?

Full details of yesterday’s happenings in Asti, Canelli, and Nizza Monferrato are far, far, too involved for what must – written, as this is, at 2 a.m. after an exceedingly long day – be a brief, bloggy take on the situation. That longer, and more important, narrative will come in time from my ever-loquacious virtual pen, though the tale will undoubtedly be told in shorter bursts by others in the interim. But suffice it to say that there was an open revolt against the current state of Piedmontese barbera. I don’t know that anyone other than those manning the barricades were quite prepared for it, but now it’s a crucial chapter in this week’s story, and must be told to its conclusion.

To say that it has cast a pall over the proceedings of Barbera Meeting 2010 would be an overreach. No, neither the producers nor the tirelessly-engaged public relations folk that represent them (and shepherd we journalists from site to site) could be said to have exhibited pleasure at this turn of events. But there’s local and national attention focused on the matter, based on coverage both existent and pending, and now it’s too late to wish or program it away.

The issue, succinctly distilled to the same fiery edge as the local grappas, is essentially that few tasters appear to like, or even appreciate, the modernistic path that has been chosen for barbera by ever so many. Tannin, oak, extraction, weighty seriousness, ordinance-level fruit, the wholesale abandonment of barbera’s intrinsic acid and brightness…all play a role, though they differ in importance from taster to taster. But the message is simple: this is neither identifiable as barbera nor is it good. Those are two quite different objections, of course, and I promise that a full exploration of each will come in time. But in answer to question after question, criticism after criticism, producers returned only evasions, contradictions, and…far too often…outright hostility. None were a good choice, but more importantly none were an effective choice. The word “insulting,” in response to a stylistic observation, passed nearly a half-dozen Asti producers’ lips today. This is no way to win over a skeptical audience.

[chiarlo head in hand]The day’s multiple confrontations – before and over lunch, and then again before and during dinner – can be roughly summed up in an exchange between a Belgian writer and a collection of producers of barbera d’Asti Nizza Superiore, a newly-created subzone (the need for which is yet another question worth addressing…but, again, another time). I’ve edited it for clarity, and there are nuances I’ve elided here, but it captures the tenor of yesterday’s tête-à-tête. Here’s our Belgian objector:

“Why so much oak? Why so many uninteresting tannins? My quest is to find a wine with fruit, freshness, tannins that are interesting and not dry, and…if it is necessary…a little oak. If you think that putting oaky barberas on the market is a good idea, you only join the rest of the world in making big, oaky wine.”

I will here skip over the Nizza producer who, apparently enraged, barked in response, “Do you have any concept of wine? Do you have any idea what you are talking about?” (NB: this response was translated from Italian to English) and get to a meatier and more engaged answer from yet another producer…this time delivered in fluent English:

“The two questions from the gentleman from Belgium are on the border of being offensive, because the wines we’re trying to make are important and distinctive.”

“Distinctive,” in my opinion, they are not. I may have tasted the exact same wine 60 or 70 times over the last two days (dark berry and chocolate milkshake rent by hard tannin, with an explosively fruity midpalate and a vanilla-laden, pinched-off finish). No distinctiveness there, within or outside the Piedmont. “Important?” That is the root, heart, and body of the problem: the overwhelming, overpowering, massively destructive craving for “importance” from a grape and a terroir that do not appear to support these goals without a deformative price.

A provocative opinion? Sure. But broadly held, I guarantee, and repeatedly expressed in yesterday’s frequently-hostile engagements. Honestly, I can’t wait to write about them in detail.

The rest of the conference should be quite a ride.


Hoke Harden said...

Ooo. I think the hand that fed you (all) is smarting a bit. Little do they know of the extended effects of your time-delayed prosody they will experience. But they will; they will...

Nerval said...

A great post. I regret not participating in the event: the action has apparently been more than excitnig (also judging by other bloggers' views).
I 100% agree on your points about style and misplaced ambition, and about overextraction and drying tannins being the biggest problem of Barbera today. Oak, IMHO, is less of a problem, seeing how well it can be digested in those wines that are made deftly.
And I do agree about distinctiveness, though I think you're a little harsh on the 'important' front. A terroir- and tradition-respectful Barbera, aged for a year or two in large oak, with its bright acidity and pure fruit, can be a truly important wine. (Giacomo Conterno is one example, and there are a few more in Asti too). The problem as you rightly pointed out is avalanche of increasingly absurd winemaking practices that has brought Barbera to a total deformation.

thor iverson said...

Hoke: I think they're handling it as well as could be expected, and the fact that they're getting more (actual, and local) press than they otherwise might as a result probably factors into that. I think the actual tale will be told by the invitation list for the next event.

Nerval: it would have been fun to meet you after all these years. Regarding oak, while I probably think the aromas are more of a problem than you do, don't forget that it has a major role to play in the abrasiveness of the tannins afflicting so many of these wines.

The "importance" thing needs fleshing out, which I'm working on, but note that producers like G. Conterno, Brovia, Giacosa, and the like weren't showing at this event, and I can't see any benefit to them to have chosen otherwise; they don't sell on the strength of their barberas, they sell on the overall reputation of their portfolios, a reputation founded on other grapes. I certainly tasted a number of powerful, modernistic wines that, while I may not have liked them, were well-made in their idiom. As always with such wines, the quality of the fruit going into the barrels (barriques or botte) has a lot to do with what comes out.

The Wine Mule said...

This is probably a stretch, but do you suppose Piemontese winemakers might be upset because they're not getting the same reaction to their significant investment in oak as their brothers and sisters in Tuscany once did? I can imagine them saying to each other, "Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Tignorello...they were all oaked, and everybody loved them! We do it, and we get the back of the hand! What's wrong with these people?"

thor iverson said...

I think they spend a lot more time coveting and being resentful/jealous than I would ever have guessed or is healthy for them (I could tell you such stories, but they're all gossipy and off-topic here), so it's entirely possible. I don't think Tuscany is the target of most of the angst, though. It's the Langhe. It's nebbiolo. And you can see and feel the difference once you cross the Asti/Alba border.

I do think that an unfortunate percentage see the path forward to be filled with Bordeaux-like wines and, sometimes, Bordeaux grapes. But even those who don't are afflicted by the "importance" bug. To make the example a little more extreme, it's like someone saying, "you know, I need to make an important Bugey Cerdon." Um, good luck with that. It's not that I can't conceive of the possibility. It's just that I think such efforts are better applied elsewhere.

Maybe the solution is more Latin cuvée names. It worked for Tuscany, didn't it?