Rethinking Wine Enthusiast’s No 1 wine

In one of his NY Times wine columns, Eric Asimov makes a case for rethinking wine criticism. He sees the retirement of Robert Parker as an opportunity for wine critics to quit producing “dreary scores and tasting notes”. He argues that one of the core goals of any good wine writer should be to give consumers the tools to educate themselves. “The most valuable thing wine writers can do is to help consumers develop confidence enough to think for themselves. This can best be achieved by helping consumers gain enough knowledge to make their own buying decisions without the crutch of the bottle review.”

This article convinced me to write an article I was already brooding on for a while, but of which I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to write it. I’m talking about my experience with the number 1 wine of Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 of 2018. If you haven’t seen that list yet, just try and imagine which kind of wine you would expect on the number one spot. I assume many will think of a top Bordeaux or Burgundy, a Barolo perhaps, or a Californian cabernet? Plenty of options, but I’m sure you didn’t think of a Barbera, did you? Yes, Wine Enthusiast’s Wine of the Year is a Barbera, or to be more accurate a Nizza, a former sub-zone of Barbera d’Asti which became a DOCG in its own right a few years ago. The Cipressi 2015 of Michele Chiarlo received 95 points and was described as follows :

“Elegantly structured, delicious and loaded with personality, this benchmark Nizza offers earthy aromas of truffle, leather, game, pressed violet and ripe black-skinned fruit. The aromas carry over to the savory palate, along with star anise, black cherry, mature plum and crushed mint. It’s balanced by polished tannins and fresh acidity.” 

This wine happens to be available in a supermarket here, and I had drunk the 2014 of the Cipressi a while ago. I recommended it even in a blog post I wrote about Barbera. Not knowing that the 2015 had meanwhile been ranked No 1 by Wine Enthusiast, I ordered a bottle to taste this new vintage. When the bottle came out the box, it was impossible to ignore the big label on the bottle that showed that the wine was voted No 1 by Wine Enthusiast. I was very surprised to see it, and for a moment I even thought it might refer to a best buy ranking. But no, it tops the general list with wines that Wine Enthusiast calls : “the best of the best”.

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How about that?! I bought “the best of the best” for around 15€. Hard to believe, isn’t it?But I am a firm believer that wines do not have to be expensive to be really good, so it was not without certain expectations that I popped the bottle. This is my tasting note (a lot less elaborate than Wine Enthuasiast’s) :

Attractive nose, dark cherries, cedar wood and a touch of barnyard. On the palate it’s pretty straight forward, fruit driven and supported by the typical barbera acidity.

I was disappointed. I’m not sure what I expected, but anything that is chosen as the wine of 2018, should have more complexity, depth, length, something out of the ordinary, something that makes you silent and conclude that life is good…

It was obvious that this wine was not in that league.

Surprising? Well, it shouldn’t be. This is what I wrote about a year go : “Barbera’s ripe but juicy black cherries, its freshness and virtual absence of tannins make barbera worth investigating. On top of that, barberas are normally not too expensive and can be enjoyed while young.”

And here’s a description by Ian D’Agata, author of Italy’s wine grapes, of how barbera wines should be: “bright, fresh, vinous, loaded with brambly fruit…”.

If you look at the Cipressi like that, it’s actually a good example of what a barbera should be. Loaded with fruit, fresh, attractive. Above average even. And definitely a good value. The kind of wine that I would normally enjoy. If… I approached it as barbera. What happened here was that I let myself be led by a ranking that created unrealistic expectations, instead of relying on what I know about barbera.

Or as Asimov puts it : “By subjecting seemingly every bottle to evaluation, year in and year out, these reviews convey the sense that the quality of a wine is random. With nothing else to go on but these reviews, consumers are not liberated by knowledge; instead they are bound to reviewers, dependent on the direction of the critical thumb.”

Funny detail : Wine Enthusiast’s website also shows user reviews. This is how one user described the same wine :

Smooth finish, great bouquet, excellent value. A great wine to go with a wide variety of food for the everyday table.”

 He nailed it…

 

 

 

A few Taste Bud-worthy Barberas

Barbera is probably not the sexiest grape to write about. It’s not the kind of trophy wine you see on top of wine tasting lists. And yet, it’s one of Italy’s most-planted native grapes. You can find it in many regions but it’s in Piedmont that it shines. Or should I say, tries to shine? I suppose nebbiolo will probably always be the first grape that springs to mind when you think of Piedmont. But nebbiolo and barbera are two very different grapes and produce very different wines. Nebbiolo is late ripening, while barbera is earlier ripening (still later than dolcetto though). Barbera wines are often very dark, while nebbiolo is very transparent. And barbera is low in tannins, while nebbiolo tends to produce very robust and tannic wines. The only thing they have in common is the high acidity. So all in all, despite the fact they are grown in the same area, there is very little common ground.

The reason why I find barbera interesting, however, is because it occupies a place where you don’t find many other grapes. Just think of the usual suspects in red : cabernet sauvignon or franc, merlot, syrah, grenache. Or popular Italian grapes, such as sangiovese, nebbiolo, and montepulciano. None of them really has the same characteristics as barbera. Barbera’s ripe but juicy black cherries, its freshness and virtual absence of tannins make barbera worth investigating. On top of that, barberas are normally not too expensive and can be enjoyed while young. The acidity of the grape is also a grateful partner for tomato based sauces. Think bolognese or puttanesca sauces with pasta. For me that’s comfort food with comfort wine. Perfect for those evenings when you want to treat yourself with a nice meal without having to spend hours in the kitchen…

I focused a bit on barbera in the past few months to explore the grape. In general I found that I prefer the Barbera d’Asti over the Barbera d’Alba. In Alba we are in Barolo territory, so it’s nebbiolo that is in the spotlight here. It’s therefore no wonder that wineries choose to use their best vineyards for nebbiolo, as Barolo can be sold at much higher prices than any barbera. In Asti things are different, because barbera does not have to share the attention with nebbiolo. In general I found that Barbera d’Asti is a bit more full-bodied and with more pronounced acidity than Barbera d’Alba, the latter being a bit warmer, rounder. Of course it’s difficult to generalise not having tasted dozens of barberas from Alba, but the Albas I had were not from obscure unknown wineries, so I suppose they were representive for Alba.

The second conclusion I draw from my experience is that barbera is a winemaker’s grape. Despite my feeling that barberas are best when they are juicy and fresh, some were very modern, with very strong wood aromas, obviously more geared towards an international palate. Those are not bad wines per se, but they loose their unique selling proposition. However, the grape allows it, contrary to  terroir grapes such as nebbiolo or pinot noir, which need very cautious extraction and use of wood.

So here’s a few barbera’s I can recommend…

If you’re looking for good, textbook barbera :

Tre Roveri 2011, Barbera d’Asti Superiore, Pico Maccario

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The nose is loaded with ripe dark cherries, yet at the same time it has a spicy freshness. The fruit is evolving towards dried fruit, showing a bit of evolution. The wine is rather full-bodied, but has the typical barbera acidity that keeps this wine fresh, nicely covering the 14% alcohol. Actually, this wine was best on day two, showing more elegance and perfect balance. So no hurry here.

If you want to show off :

Vigna Scarrone 2012 Barbera d’Alba, Vietti

Beautiful, well integrated nose with cherries and a whiff of  chocolate. Elegant and complex, with multiple layers and very long finale! No doubt that barbera transcends its peers here, but it also costs more than 30€. That’s a price point where the competition with premium wines from other grapes starts getting really tough. I know that that is comparing apples and oranges. But in the end, isn’t that what everyone does? Nevertheless, great effort.

Nizza 2011, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza, Dacapo

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Picture courtesy of the Associazione dei Produttori del Nizza

This is a barbera from the subzone of Nizza which was in 2011 still a part of the denominazione of Barbera d’Asti, but exists separately as DOCG Nizza since 2014. Before that barbera could still be complemented by 10% other grapes. Now it is 100% barbera.

The wine is a bit evolved and the nose has become a nice bouquet where everything has blended beautifully together. The morello cherries stand out, together with a bit of coffee. The ripe fruit is balanced by a razorsharp acidity that might be over the top for some, but I like it. I had it with ragu alla bolognese and that went very well. But mind you, this is more than just a simple spaghetti wine!

If you’re looking for a good price quality ratio :

Soliter 2016, Barbera d’Asti, Pescaja

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This is a barbera that can be found around 10€ and it gives very good value for money. It’s a modern barbera, the wood is still very noticeable, but then again it’s also a very young wine. Beautiful ripe cherries as well and a hint of black pepper. This is a very smooth wine that makes you grab the bottle as soon as your glass is empty. Dangerous stuff!

Piova 2014, Barbera d’Asti, La Montagnetta

Another pleasant easy-drinking barbera at around 10€. Graphite, black cherries, chocolate, and a hint of rose. Quite ripe and round, and the wood is very present. Good and lively acidity that give this wine freshness. Very modern style, but pleasant wine.

So these a couple of barberas that I liked. I did not post all the barberas I tasted here in order to avoid a too lenghthy post, but I started using Vivino to post my tasting notes there, so if you’re interested in the other barberas I tried, you can find them there if you go to my profile.

Cheers!