Thu 11 Mar 2010
If readers have been following these posts from Asti and Barbera 2010, you know that we have been at the limits of despair and patience over the quality of the Barbera d’Asti wines, many of which we have found to be stridently oaked and punishingly tannic. Not that we doubt for an instant the sincerity of the producers and winemakers; these are honest and hard-working people. What we question is the misguided nature of the techniques in the winery and the errant vision these winemakers and producers have for their wines and their region.
Yesterday (Wednesday) morning we tasted blind about 40 Barbera d’Asti wines from the sub-region of Monferrato. My previous entry was posted while we went through these Monferrato wines, and as I mentioned, they seemed not so tannic and woody though, as I have asserted during the past few days, there were problems of consistency. Still, one felt a glimmer of hope.
After the tasting we headed out, as we had done on Monday and Tuesday, to the countryside — now picturesquely buried in snow — to visit a few producers from the region featured in the morning’s tasting. Naturally, yesterday was devoted to several wineries in the Monferrato area.
Let me describe two of those visits.
At Danilo Spinoglio, Cascina Narzo, near the village of Sala Monferrato, we gathered in the comfortable tasting room where a welcome fire burned on the hearth. A rustic table held platters of local cheeses and salamis — one does not often apply the adjective “sublime” to salami — and bread sticks so fresh and crisp that Adam and Eve probably snacked on them in Paradise. Spinoglio does not make profound wines and apparently has no desire to do so, and therein lie their real and, to me, irresistible virtues. Wines of delight and satisfaction are completely as legitimate as wines of supposed profundity, and since the attempts at profound wines so far this week had us beating our heads futilely against walls of wood and tannin, it felt like a respite to sip Spinoglio’s direct, authentic efforts.
From his 33 hectares of vines, Spinoglio makes a crisp, fresh, lively Cortese 2008, that carries the general Piemonte designation, and a refreshing Grignolino di Monferrato Casalese 2008 that features lovely dried cherry and cherry pit notes. His Monferrato 2008, made from freisa grapes, offers a hint of spritz, along with dried cherries and red currants, with a surprisingly dense tannic structure and a trace of bracing bitterness of the finish. Both the Monferrato Dolcetto 2008 and the Piemonte Barbera 2008 are clean, flavorful and charming, with the sort of lively acidity that keeps us coming back for another sip. Spinoglio’s Barbera del Monferrato 2008 is uncomplicated, nicely balanced and integrated and downright tasty with flavors of spiced and macerated black cherry, red currant and plum.
Spinoglio’s most serious wine is his Barbera d’Asti Superiori 2007, made every other year. The wine is “raised” in barriques, small barrels of French oak, but Spinoglio cycles the barrels through three-year sequences, so only about 25 percent of the oak is new with each designated vintage. This B. d’A. S. ’07 is all dried spice and flowers, an amalgam of red fruit both dried and fresh, a little sweet ripeness balanced by a little bitterness and the swingeing acidity necessary to the grape. Tannins are fairly dense yet kept to the background, where subtle oak lends the wine shape and a bit of woody spice. This is not the most serious or profound Barbera d’Asti Superiori, but it delivers lovely tone and character, and unlike many examples we have tried this week, it’s pleasingly drinkable.
Our next visit, and the longest of the day, was to La Casaccia, in the village of Cella Monte, where the lively and engaging Giovanni Rava happily showed us around the vaulted 18th Century cellars dug into the sandy, crumbly tufa soil that characterizes the region. Befitting his technical or engineering background — Rava told me later at dinner that he spent 15 years “cooped up behind factory walls” — he explained the history of brick-making 200 years ago, the composition of the soil, the uses of obsolete winemaking equipment and more things than are dreamt in your philosophy. We tasted La Casaccia’s wines in the dining room above the cellars, a room made homey with old family portraits, antique furniture and shelves of books. Giovanni’s wife Elena, as quiet as he is voluble, had prepared a simple yet delicious lunch — especially the kale and leek quiche and the polenta with tomato sauce and sausage — to match the wines.
For someone who started making wine less than a decade ago, Rava shows the instinct combined with craft of a great winemaker. His red wines epitomize the nature of detail and dimension that we require of interesting and complex wines as well as the combination of power and elegance that makes the best impression on the palate. We tried six vintages of Rava’s Vigna San Pietro Barbera d’Asti Superiori, from 2003 to 2008 and were struck by the consistency of the wine, even accounting for vintage variations, and not just the consistency across the curve of development but the remarkable sense of expansiveness and generosity, of balance and integration that these wines evince, qualities we have not see much this week. We also tried three vintages of the Caliché B. d’A. S. — 2001, ’03 and ’04 — aged in French barriques yet smooth and harmonious and all delivering wonderful weight, tone and presence.
The vines of La Casaccia are cultivated along organic principles; 2008 was the first year that the labels were allowed to carry the organic designation.
Later that evening, at a tasting of wines by many producers in Monferrato, we encountered other wines that were equally impressive. I’ll mention those when I can get to them in a few days, but pay attention when I write about an incredible pinot nero (pinot noir) from Cantina Iuli, the Nino 2007, that aged — get this — 27 months in one-year old barriques and yet manages to capture the essential delicacy and purity of the grape. You have to love that sense of integrity married to individuality.