About the region
Although it’s easy to make generalisations about Barbaresco’s more elegant versus Barolo's more structured wines, this is a complex and varied wine region. As with Barolo, the style of the wine varies according to where it is from – ranging from highly structured and tannin to featherlight and elegant.
Barbaresco is much smaller than Barolo – only a third of the size, but has grown significantly over the last 30 years. There were less than 500 hectares under vine in the 1990s, but today are almost 700 hectares. Barbaresco is warmer than Barolo, with a shorter ripening season that means the wines tend to be less impacted by the vagaries of vintage.
The history of Barbaresco
The region’s history is dominated by the rise of two different wine producers during the late 1800s: Gaja and Produttori del Barbaresco. Growers in the region had traditionally sold their grapes, with the fruit often blended with that of Barolo. The Gaja family, however, changed all this. They owned a small tavern in the town of Barbaresco and bottled their own wine in 1859. As the town was a centre of commerce, the Gaja family would serve their wine to passing tradespeople. It wasn’t until 1894 that other growers in Barbaresco also started to bottle wine themselves, thanks to the establishment of the co-operative, Produttori del Barbaresco.
The co-operative was created by Dominizio Cavazza, a professor at the Oenological School in Alba, and believed in the potential of the region. While he had no land, he knew if he could persuade the local growers to combine the fruit of their small holdings, 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 five farmers and two land-owners to contribute their grapes and the co-operative was formed. Cavazza became known as the “father of Barbaresco”.
The renaissance of Barbaresco
While the cooperative was 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 demise of Produttori del Barbaresco. It wasn’t until 1954 that the co-operative project was reborn under a 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 re-establishment of the cooperative was essential to the survival of the local community. 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 co-operative, promising any landowners that joined him that they would be given fair and reliable income if they stayed and worked the land.
The Gaja effect
Although Gaja had been producing wine since the 1850s, the arrival of Angelo Gaja in 1961 saw the business transformed. His revolution, introducing modern viticultural and winemaking techniques, and scrupulous approach to quality, proved the potential of the region. He also started bottling single-vineyard, or single Cru, wines – the first of which was produced in 1967 (Sorí San Lorenzo) – highlighting the differences between terroirs. Since then, the region has become as well respected as its southern neighbour, Barolo.
Barbaresco wines have to be aged for a minimum 26 months, with at least nine months in oak. Barbaresco Riserva wines have to be aged for a minimum 50 months, with at least nine months in oak. Traditionally the wines are aged in larger, old oak – “botti”, often made with Slovanian oak, but French barriques have become more common and are used as well. Generally Barbaresco is released around three years after harvest, with the Riserva wines not until five years after harvest.
As with Gaja, the strict qualitative approach has meant that Produttori del Barbaresco is arguably the finest co-operative winery anywhere in the world, consistently producing some of Italy’s finest wines. Other top Barbaresco producers include Roagna, Bruno Giacosa, La Spinetta and Bruno Rocca.