the future of Barbera Wine

March 13, 2011

The future of Barbera wine
The future of Barbera wine: the Barbera Meeting revisited

The future of Barbera wine: the Barbera Meeting revisited
In my article of 17 March 2010 where I described the events of the Barbera Meeting 2010, I did not go into much detail as to the reasons why Piedmontese producers want to change the intrinsic qualities of the Barbera grape. There are several reasons for advocating change and many could only be explained via economic theory. The basic reasons are as follows. First, Piedmontese wine producers claim that the Italian domestic consumption of Barbera wine has decreased in recent years, therefore they need to concentrate heavily on exportation to foreign markets to sell their wines. And second, the taste of the wine needs to appeal to a mass market of consumers (foreign markets) who desire and want to drink Barbera wine. I will begin with the second point.
The rise of wine consumption in certain markets, particularly the United States, influences producers of Barbera wine to modify the wine, in order to make it an important wine. In the United States Barbera must compete among other fine wines, not only those produced in the States but as well as those imported from other countries. The concept of ‘important’ for the Piedmontese producers seems to mean a distinctive good quality DOCG wine product originating in Piedmont. The modification begins with the grape itself and is achieved through a new pruning method; the research results of the new pruning emthod were presented on Tuesday, March 9th in Nizza Monferrato (see earlier article). Some producers, but certainly not all, want to change the Barbera grape. The wine has a high acidic nature and some people are not so keen for the taste. Therefore, to appeal to the masses and to achieve success in foreign markets in the midst of competing against other types of wines, the producers aim to soften-up the acidity. The initial result is a softened Barbera wine but then it is aged in heavy or light toasted oak barrels. The final result is a wine that is not a true traditional Barbera wine. Yes, the acidity has been softened-up, but then the aging in the oak barrels adds something to the wine’s taste which is not typical of Barbera. These wines had dominant tanins, strong spice and chocolate tones, which did not appeal to many tasters. And, my opinion is that this is not Barbera in the true traditional Piemontese sense. It is an example of where oak seems to be used as an ingredient to the wine, rather than being a mere instrument. Also, some Barberas are not aged in oak, rather only in stainless steel tanks and this seems to be favored by many. The dominance of tannins (the oak) was a serious point of critique among all the journalists and bloggers who participated in the official blind tasting of the Barbera wines. What you end up with is an international-version of Barbera wine which is so homogenized in its character that one really could not distinguish it from many other red wines on the market. The distinctive acidic quality that Barbera is known for is not apparent. In this sense the Barbera would mingle well among other wines on the store shelves. But of course, we also did taste some Barbera wines following the international style that were well made and tasted good, however they were not Barberas. Ultimately though it depends on the consumer.
Returning to the main point about traditional quality….During the tasting procedures, time and time again, I tasted wines which did not meet the traditional Barbera standard. This experience, along with those of the other tasters, was a significant point of contention between journalists and bloggers and the producers on Tuesday afternoon, March 9, at the Nizza Monferrato venue of the Barbera Meeting 2010. Basically, if someone wants to be assured they are drinking a traditional Barbera wine, then they either need to buy and/or drink it in Piedmont, or if they live in the United States or elsewhere, hopefully they are able to buy it at a reputable wine shop. The international wine markets are influencing the way grapes are produced for wine and the Barbera varietal is one of these.
Now to return to the first point: Why has the domestic Italian market for Barbera wine decreased? According to the 2006 statistical data (for periods 2002-2006) from the OIV — Situation of the world viticulture sector in 2006, the Italian domestic consumption decreased by 1.48 percent. This does not tell me very much even if the statistics were more recent. What is of interest is why the rate has decreased. Given the current economic climate due to the international financial crisis of 2008, that could be one significant factor. Wine is considered after all a luxury item as opposed to a necessary daily staple. The economy in Italy will slowly recover and hopefully wine consumption will not decrease further. In the meantime hopefully Piedmontese producers will continue to promote their wines not only abroad, but at home as well.

Don’t worry though, many Piedmontese producers are very intent on adhering to traditional winemaking methods. Moreover, buyers from around the world who tasted the wines at the Barbera Meeting were discrimminating and sought out the best of traditional Barbera wines. These wines will certainly be imported into their countries.
I love Barbera wine. It has a distinct taste. I have been drinking it for two decades. Yes, there is a notable acidity, but that is typical Barbera. The acidity in one sense also gives the wine its inherent liveliness. I could not imagine it another way. If the wine is well made, that is, aged well and if the oak achieves a balanced harmony with the acidity, it will then develop into a beautiful unique wine. But to change the Barbera’s soul, which it is so famous for, is to destroy a something that is very Italian, very Piedmontese.

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