The Beauty of Barbaresco

One of Italy’s greatest wines is finally getting the attention it deserves. We take you through the vintages, the communes and the bottles you need to buy.
Photo by Meg Baggott

You’ve probably heard that Barbaresco is one of Italy’s top wines. Yet, for many years, it’s also been one of its most underappreciated gems. Many wine drinkers passed on it in favor of Barolo, its larger, more renowned neighbor.

But now Barbaresco is stepping up its game, thanks, in part, to a new generation of winemakers who are embracing more natural farming methods, leading to even higher quality. The region’s unique microclimate encourages freshness and balance in its Nebbiolo grapes, even in the hottest vintages.

The recent fascination with Nebbiolo and Piedmont has further shined a light on the denomination, as today’s wine lovers discover that Barbaresco is a world-class wine.

“Nebbiolo is a hot variety right now, and we’ve benefitted from all the attention,” says Aldo Vacca, managing director of the Produttori del Barbaresco winery, a leading producer just southeast of Turin and one of Italy’s best cooperative cellars.

“People used to go for Barbaresco only if they couldn’t get Barolo, but not anymore,” he says. “Especially in the U.S., consumers now realize that Barbaresco is on par with Barolo and not a second choice.”

Barbaresco bottles
Photo by Meg Baggott

Adriano Marco & Vittorio 2013 Sanadaive; $30, 94 points. Enticing scents of fragrant blue flower, ripe red berry, baking spice, menthol and new leather lead the way. Fresh and elegant, the palate delivers juicy red cherry, raspberry, cinnamon, white pepper and licorice. Firm, polished tannins lend structure and a smooth mouthfeel. Drink 2018–2023. Monsieur Touton Selection. Editors’ Choice.

Albino Rocca 2013 Ovello; $60, 94 points. Violet, menthol, red berry and dark spice aromas lift from the glass along with a hint of toast. The delicious, chewy palate doles out juicy black cherry, vanilla and star anise alongside firm, polished tannins, which impart a soothing, velvety texture, but also give the wine structure. Hold for even more complexity. Drink 2018–2023. de Grazia Imports. Cellar Selection.

Produttori del Barbaresco 2011 Asili Riserva; $58, 94 points. Lovely scents of rose, iris, wild berry, vineyard dust, baking spice and a hint of new leather come together on this fragrant red. The structured, elegant palate delivers juicy black cherry, licorice, clove and mineral alongside supple tannins that give it a polished, silky texture. Drink 2018–2026. Vias Imports.

Poderi Colla 2013 Roncaglie; $80, 93 points. Here’s a classic Nebbiolo that opens with aromas of ripe black-skinned fruit, baking spice, truffle and underbrush. The juicy, expressive palate doles out ripe Morello cherry, crushed raspberry, clove, white pepper and roasted herb. Firm but refined tannins provide the backbone. Drink through 2023. Montcalm Wine Importers.

Ceretto 2013 Asili; $150, 93 points. Enticing floral scents of rose and iris mingle with red fruit and aromatic herb on this stunning wine. The elegant, structured palate doles out crushed strawberry, sour cherry, clove and white pepper alongside bright acidity, while noble, refined tannins provide the backbone. Give this a few more years to fully develop. Drink 2020–2028. Leonardo LoCascio Selections–The Winebow Group. Cellar Selection.

Musso 2013 Pora; $38, 93 points. Initially closed, this eventually offers alluring aromas of toasted hazelnut, exotic spice, steeped plum and nutmeg. The chewy palate offers juicy Marasca cherry, baking spice, vanilla and a hint of coffee. Velvety tannins lend polished support and a smooth mouthfeel. Drink through 2023. Panebianco. Editors’ Choice.

The Village All Barolo Fans Should Check Out

Looking to the North

Jamie Wolf, founding partner of New York City’s Chambers Street Wines, a shop that specializes in naturally made wines from artisanal producers, offers a strong Piedmont selection.

“Over the last few years, our customers have become more widely knowledgeable about Piedmont and Nebbiolo, and I’m definitely seeing more interest in Barbaresco,” he says.

Grown in the rolling hills of Piedmont’s Langhe area and separated from the Barolo growing zone by the city of Alba, Barbaresco boasts enticing scents of violet, red berry and earthy sensations like leather and underbrush. Full-bodied and intense, the wine is more about complexity and elegance and less about sheer muscle.

While Barbaresco can have austere, Barolo-like structure, it typically doesn’t have the same tannic force as its cousin. And, while ageworthy, it tends to be approachable sooner. It makes Barbaresco a perfect fit for wine lovers looking for terroir-driven wines that possess energy and finesse.

It’s also surprisingly food friendly. Barbaresco works with traditional Piedmont cuisine like brasato al Barolo (beef braised in Barolo) or tajarin (egg noodles) topped with butter sauce and the region’s white truffles. It also pairs brilliantly with a variety of other dishes, including pasta dishes topped with dense, savory tomato sauces and four-cheese gnocchi.

Producers such as Angelo Gaja and Bruno Giacosa have been making excellent Barbaresco for decades, but quality is now the norm for the multitude of small grower-producers that form the backbone of the denomination.

Barbaresco bottles
Photo by Meg Baggott

Cascina delle Rose 2013 Tre Stelle; $60, 93 points. Ripe black-skinned berry, violet, leather and baking spice aromas emerge in the glass. The polished, juicy palate delivers ripe black cherry, raspberry compote, mint and pipe tobacco alongside lithe tannins. Drink through 2023. Polaner Selections.

Rizzi 2013 Nervo; $55, 93 points. Leather, ripe berry, clove, baking spice and a whiff of menthol lift out of the glass. The firm, succulent palate offers black cherry, clove and star anise. Youthfully assertive but refined tannins and fresh acidity provide structure and balance. Drink through 2025. Rizzi USA.

Sottimano 2013 Cottà; $50, 92 points. Black-skinned berry, baking spice, violet, a hint of leather and a balsamic note mark the nose. The chewy palate shows dense black cherry, raspberry compote, licorice, clove and pipe tobacco, velvety tannins and fresh acidity. Drink through 2023. Skurnik Wines.

Keeping Natural

Vineyard management is key, and over the last several years, many of Barbaresco’s family-owned estates and growers have shunned harsh chemicals and industrial fertilizers to embrace more natural options. A number of firms have started the lengthy organic certification process.

“Many of us have been practicing organic farming for over 10 years, but only decided to apply for certification a few years ago, due to consumer request,” says Andrea Sottimano, one of the denomination’s rising stars.

The number of certified organic Barbaresco producers is set to skyrocket in two to three years, he says, once the mandatory conversion period is over.

“Organic isn’t just about which treatments to use, it’s an entirely different approach to every aspect of vineyard management and follows through to the cellar,” says Sottimano.

After eliminating systemic chemicals in the vineyard, Sottimano can now ferment with wild yeasts, something he couldn’t do before.

“You need about seven to 10 years before you see a difference in the grapes, and then the berries improve dramatically,” he says. “Before going organic, we had to overripen grapes to achieve polyphenolic maturation, but this led to high alcohol and lower acidity levels. Now, my grapes reach ideal ripening, but acidity remains fresh and alcohol levels restrained.”

Climate change has also helped Barbaresco. If the scorching 2003 season caught growers off guard (those who completely defoliated the vines to help ripening ended up with withered grapes), producers in both Barolo and Barbaresco were better prepared for the string of extremely warm vintages that started in 2007. With the exception of 2013 and 2014, those conditions have become the norm.

If Nebbiolo’s problem used to be reaching ideal ripening, torrid years like 2007, 2009 and 2011 have proved the opposite true. In Barolo, many of the wines contain more than 15 percent alcohol and have evolved precociously, showing cooked fruit sensations and modest acidity.

Barbaresco fares better during hot vintages, thanks to changes in vineyard management and the denomination’s proximity to the Tanaro River.

“During the crucial growing season, the river generates warmer morning temperatures, accelerating grape maturation,” says Vacca. “This means that, on average, we harvest at least a week earlier than in Barolo, when our grapes have hit ideal maturation, but still retain freshness. As a result, we can make wines with balance and freshness even in very hot years like 2011.”

In Barolo, away from the river’s influence, that extra week of hang time needed to reach ideal phenolic maturation is often at the expense of acidity, which can plummet quickly at this critical phase.

Barbaresco’s growing zone is small, totaling just 1,823 acres, which produce an average of 4.5 million bottles per year. The area encompasses three townships: Barbaresco, Neive and Treiso, while a sliver of the denomination lies in Alba’s hamlet of San Rocco Seno d’Elvio.

The whole area is somewhat uniform, with the best vineyards situated 656–1,148 feet above sea level. Subtle differences exist, however, between the villages and among the denomination’s 66 officially delimited vineyard areas, known as geographic mentions.

Barbaresco bottles
Photo by Meg Baggott

Ugo Lequio 2013 Gallina; $45, 92 points. Classic aromas of rose, leather, forest floor and ripe berry lead into a chewy palate of Morello cherry, raspberry, white pepper, truffle, mocha and a hint of toast. Fine-grained tannins support the firm finish. Drink 2018–2028. Vino Direct. Cellar Selection.

Giuseppe Cortese 2013 Rabajà; $55, 92 points. Aromas of underbrush, menthol, dark fruit, violet and exotic spice give way to a chewy palate that delivers ripe cherry, pomegranate, white pepper, herb and a truffle note. Fine-grained tannins provide support. Leonardo LoCascio Selections–The Winebow Group.

Bersano 2013 Mantico; $50, 91 points. Subtle aromas of leafy underbrush, leather, truffle and red berry come together, while the full-bodied palate delivers juicy red cherry, raspberry compote, baking spice and grilled herb. Chewy tannins provide the framework, and a note of star anise closes the finish. 8 Vini Inc.

A Matter of Style

Barbaresco comes in several styles, depending not only on location and vineyard management (namely yield reduction to increase ripening and concentration), but also on a producer’s winemaking and aging methods.

Many producers make classic, terroir-driven wines aged in large Slavonian or French casks. Offering bright berry fruit, these may be a bit austere when first released. However, they soften after a few years and age magnificently for a decade or more. Other producers use French barriques or tonneaux for aging, which gives the wines more widely recognizable sensations of toast, coffee and vanilla and accelerates maturation, making them approachable earlier.

The majority of producers have cut down substantially on new oak to avoid muffling Nebbiolo’s unique aromas and flavors. Most producers use an in-between approach that combines different kinds of oak and different sized barrels. The aim for most is to make wines that are approachable upon release, but still reflect their unique terroirs and age for 10 to 20 years, depending on the vintage.

The Communes of Barbaresco

Barbaresco

The village that lent its name to the wine, this is the historical heart of the denomination and the center of production. Thanks to complex soils (a combination of bluish marls and calcareous clays interspersed with sandy veins) and its position directly above the Tanaro, Barbaresco produces the most complex and ageworthy wines in the denomination, uniting structure and elegance.

It’s home to some of the most celebrated vineyards, including Asili and Rabajà, and some of the most storied producers, including Gaja and Produttori del Barbaresco.

Reflecting producer experience, quality tends to be more consistent from this village.

As a sign of the times, Angelo Gaja’s children—Gaia, Rossana and Giovanni—recently announced that starting with the 2013 vintage, they’re bringing the firm’s coveted single-vineyard bottlings (which their father declassified to Langhe Nebbiolo DOC starting with the 1996 vintage) back into the Barbaresco fold. The wines will now be entirely Nebbiolo.

Neive

This is the most varied village, producing wine ranging from full-bodied and tannic to graceful and accessible. Vineyards that border on Barbaresco share many attributes with its neighbor, producing structured, ageworthy wines that boast elegance. Vineyards further east have more sand and yield less structured wines.

Top producers include Bruno Giacosa and Sottimano, while the town’s top vineyards include Santo Stefano and Gallina.

Treiso

Possessing many of the highest altitude vineyards in the denomination, Treiso enjoys constant breezes and sharp day-night temperature changes, leading to some of the most elegant and perfumed Barbarescos in the denomination.

“Barbaresco from Treiso generally has more tension and higher acidity, and vineyards here have benefitted from the warmer temperatures,” says Enrico Dellapiana, who runs the leading Rizzi estate along with his family. “Even in the hottest years, we’re able to maintain good acidity and freshness.”Top vineyard sites include Pajorè and Nervo.

San Rocco Seno d’Elvio

This tiny hamlet has steep slopes and cool temperatures, producing Barbarescos with intense floral scents and finesse. Look for those by Adriano Marco e Vittorio.

Recent Vintages of Barbaresco

2001

An outstanding vintage that produced classic wines that are bold, structured and well balanced. Initially closed, they’re drinking beautifully now. Drink or hold.

2002

A terrible vintage, marred by torrential rain at harvest. Drink now.

2003

One of the hottest, driest vintages ever recorded in Italy. Even in Barbaresco, many wines show cooked fruit and high alcohol levels. Drink now.

2004

A fantastic vintage. Wines boast rich black-cherry flavors, fine tannins and bright acidity that lend balance and elegance. Drink or hold.

2005

Rain during the harvest made for a difficult vintage. The best have bright fruit and silky tannins. Drink now.

2006

A classic vintage with great aging potential. These show bright red fruit, depth and gripping tannins along with ample acidity. Drink through 2026.

2007

An exceedingly hot, dry vintage that yielded forward wines with dense fruit and chewy tannins. Drink now.

2008

Cool, wet conditions through July pushed the harvest to October, creating classic wines with firm tannins, bright acidity and intensity. Drink or hold.

2009

The extremely hot, dry summer created wines with rich, chewy fruit, but rather low acidity. Drink now.

2010

A long, cool growing season created classic, precise Barbarescos boasting lovely perfumes, crunchy red-fruit notes, vibrant acidity and firm but refined tannins. Hold.

2011

An uneven vintage in terms of climate, including extreme heat in the last half of August, created powerfully structured wines with ripe, dense fruit. Hold.

2012

Intense heat in late August and sharp day-night temperature changes in September produced well-balanced wines with juicy fruit and refined tannins. Hold.

2013

A cool, wet vintage that should have produced classic, vibrant wines with ample longevity. Some producers nailed it, but there’s a surprising number of selections that show approachable, jammy notes suggestive of overripe fruit.

2014

Barbaresco is set to shine in what was one of the wettest, most difficult vintages ever in Italy. The denomination received one-third less rain than the rest of Piedmont, half the rainfall of Barolo, and no precipitation from mid-August until the harvest’s end in the third week of October. Wines should be fragrant, vibrant and elegant. To be released in 2017.

Published on September 15, 2016
Topics: Wine Guide
About the Author
Kerin O’Keefe
Italian Editor

Reviews wines from Italy

Italian Editor Kerin O’Keefe reviews all Italian wines for Wine Enthusiast. Previously she wrote regularly on Italian wine for Wine News, World of Fine Wine and Decanter. She is the author of Franco Biondi Santi: The Gentleman of Brunello (2005), Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy's Greatest Wines (2012) and Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine (2014).

Email: kokeefe@wineenthusiast.net.



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