The history of Piedmont as a fine wine region and the
establishment of Nebbiolo as a single varietal wine predates the unification of
Italy. Yet the region’s rise to international fame as Italy’s finest wine was
intrinsically linked to the political role that the Piedmont Kingdom played in
the unification of Italy.
We look back at the rise of Barolo as the “King of Wines” as
its neighbouring sibling Barbaresco had a less fortunate and rocky road to
Nebbiolo as Italy’s first single varietal wine
The decision to move away from the generic field blends more
typical of wine production in Italy at the time, to a single varietal Nebbiolo,
was the first step towards Barolo gaining prominence. This decision also came
about through aristocratic influence by the Piedmont nobility at the height of
its power, prior to the unification of Italy in 1861.
In the 1830s the Marchesi de Barolo married a French
aristocrat who as part of her entourage brought with her a talented French
oenologist, who after experimenting with many French varietals in the region
quickly identified the potential of the indigenous Nebbiolo as a potential single
This French oenologist started to produce single varietal
Nebbiolo on the Marchesi de Barolo’s vineyards and it wasn’t long before the
wines gained a reputation amongst the aristocratic classes. The King of
Piedmont contacted the Marchesi requesting to taste this wine made from just
Nebbiolo that everyone was talking about. The King became a huge fan of the
wines and it wasn’t long before the Marchesi was sending 365 barrels of Nebbiolo
to the King for him and his courts to enjoy throughout the year. From then on
Nebbiolo as a single varietal had begun to secure its place in fine wine history.
The town of Monteforte d'Alba on the edge of the Barolo wine growing region
The Establishment of Barolo
It wasn’t long before the King purchased his own wine estate
in Barolo, which now exists under the ownership of Frescabaldi.
The Piedmont kingdom was the conquering force in the
unification of Italy along with the help of the French army that finally
conquered the Spanish rule of Sicily and southern Italy and eventually Rome
leaving just the Vatican and the Pope isolated from the rest of the newly
declared unified state of Italy in 1861. Amazingly there were no diplomatic
relationship between the Vatican state and the Italian government until
Mussolini reached out to them in 1932.
The power of the Piedmont kingdom and its role in the
unification of Italy meant that Barolo retained its status with the aristocratic
elites of Italy and beyond and became known as the premium wine producing
region of the newly declared country. Its prominence and reputation remained
The Barolo region became renowned throughout the country and
Nebbiolo took its crown as the king of Italian wine. Barolo following the
unification became more and more established with merchants moving in to seize
the opportunity of this prestigious and unique Italian wine. At this time,
apart from the noble families (Marchesi Di Barolo, Rinaldi, Bourgogno) all the
rest of the Barolo wines were bottled in Alba under merchant’s labels. Alba,
much like Bordeaux, became a thriving merchants hub and the wine began to be
Barbaresco - the unfortunate struggling sibling to
History is full of cruel twists and the development of Barbaresco
for much of the 19th and 20th century was a struggle for survival, unlike their
more established neighbour Barolo - with its royal seal of approval. Today Barbaresco
is being seen very much as Barolo’s equal but its survival is in no doubt down
to two central figures of the region Gaja and the Produttori Di Barbaresco.
The History of Gaja of Barbaresco
The history of Gaja is extraordinary and singular in its
rise to fame in the region and is testament to the foresight of Giovanni Gaja
and his son and French wife Clothide Rey. The Gaja family were not nobility but
farmers, yet they became the first to bottle their own wine in Barbaresco in
1859. This became possible because the family owned a small tavern in the town
which catered for the merchants that passed through Barbaresco as it was an
active Port, distributing goods. At the tavern the Gaja family used to make
their wine and serve them from jars at the restaurant. At that time all other
growers would sell their grapes to merchants in Alba to make wine.
Buoyed by the income of selling their own wines at their
tavern Giovanni Gaja in 1859 then decided to bottle his best barrels in bottle
(at this time this was often a blend of vintages). But these became the first
Barbarescos ever to be bottled as Barbaresco. The family became further
governed by quality when Angelo Gaja and his wife Clothide Rey took over from
his father. Their qualitative approach philosophy in a region that at the time
was so underdeveloped is extraordinary. The family’s motto – fair, savoir faire, savoir faire faire et faire saviour (Work,
knowledge, motivating others to work and passing on knowledge) has not faltered
right up until today.
1958 was an important date for the Gaja family because this
was recognised in Barolo as a fantastic vintage and it became the first vintage
of Barolo to sell for over a 1000 lira a bottle. The average price at the time
for the best producers (such as Renato Ratti) was closer to 300 lira. This 1000
lira price tag therefore became a big deal and was the beginning of Barolo
becoming recognised internationally as one of the world’s finest and most
expensive wines. Yet despite this high price tag of Barolo, Giovanni Gaja was
selling his current Barbaresco release at this time for 1200 lira! This just
showed the Barbaresco from Gaja even in those early days was outpricing the
best wines of Barolo.
The Gaja Family - Summer 2019
The History of the Produttori del Barberesco
The history of Barbaresco outside of the extraordinary
success of Gaja was a lot less smooth. Through this period the region remained
largely unknown for wine production despite successfully growing Nebbiolo like
its neighbour Barolo and being home to the region’s best producer Gaja.
However, there is another unique and profound development
that took place in Barbaresco that also has shaped the region as one of Italy’s
finest wine producing regions for single varietal Nebbiolo that unlike Barolo
did not rely on the aristocratic influence for its rise to fame. If anything,
Barbaresco’s rise to fame, including Gaja’s development was the success of the
workers of the land rather than nobility. This came in the form of the
socialist collective that started to bottle its own wine in Barbaresco under
the Produttori Di Barberesco label.
Speaking with Aldo Vacca, today’s chief winemaker at the
co-op it was a man called Dominizio Cavazza who was become known as the Father
of Barbaresco. He moved to the region when he got a job working as the Director
of the Wine School of Alba in 1890. He immediately saw the potential of
Barbaresco as a fine wine region and whilst he had no land, he knew if he could
persuade the small landowners to compile their crops, he could make a fine wine
that they could bottle and sell themselves rather than selling their crop to
the Alba merchants. By 1894 he had managed to persuade 5 farmers and 2
landowners to contribute the crop and the cooperative was formed.
At this time socialism was taking hold in many parts of
Europe enabling small landowners to work together to enable them to manage
their own produce without relying on the aristocratic landowners. Prior to the
Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917, these socialist projects in Western
Europe were seen as a very positive social development and was transforming the
social structure across the region.
The town of Barbaresco
Initially Cavazza believed that Barbaresco should be
incorporated as part of the Barolo District but as Barolo by this time was
already well established, thanks to its aristocratic ties, the Barolo producers
had no interest in extending their boundaries. This decision in itself was to
have a devastating impact on Barbaresco for the next fifty years.
Whilst the cooperative became very successful in the early
years, the First World War followed by economic hardship and the rise of
fascism in Italy which actively shut down cooperatives in Europe, saw the
Produttori cease to exist. It wasn’t until 1954 that the Co operative project
was reborn by the local priest – Don Fiorino, who on moving to the region heard
about the early success of Cavazza and wanted to rekindle this success. For the
priest the cooperative was essential in the survival of the local community
that unlike Barolo was decimated by poverty and hardship through the first half
of the 20th century.
The 1950s saw the industrial boom in Italian cities which
saw huge swathes of the countryside deserted as young men and women flocked to
the cities for better wages in the automobile and other industries. To
encourage people to stay in Barbaresco, Don Fiorino reopened the cooperative
promising any landowners that joined him that they would be given fair and
reliable income if they stayed and worked the land.
Dom Fiorino’s foresight was to be commended as ever since it
opened the co-op has gone from strength to strength. And similar to Gaja, it is
due to a strict qualitative approach that has meant this co-op is today producing
arguably the world’s finished wines from a cooperative. These days, thanks to
Gaja and Produttori, Barbaresco is producing some of Italy’s finest wines.