Barbaresco, the triumph of origin

Author: Giancarlo Montaldo

Fifteen years have passed since the inclusion of the Additional Geographical Indications in the production regulations. The results in area planted with vines and production are exceptional and even unexpected. The perceived value of the wine and its land of origin has still strengthened. Other challenges await the producers to continue on the gradual path of valorisation

It was 21 February 2007 when the Ministry of Agricultural Policies issued the decree amending the Barbaresco production regulations. There were not many production provisions to be corrected, but there was all the work of delimiting the Additional Geographical Mentions (also shortened to MeGA) to be incorporated to give producers and consumers the certainty of their consistency. And another opportunity was also looming, namely that of even better specifying the origin of the wine with the use of the term ‘Vineyard’ (‘Vigna’ in Italian) with the traditional toponym or name.

Fifteen years later, it can be said that that of the MeGAs has been an effective choice, and not only because it has clarified without equivocation the real consistency of each of these smaller parts of the area of origin. What is more important is the result that their use has determined in the identity of the wine, on its real and perceived value and in its relationship with the market and the consumer.

Such striking results were not taken for granted due to a series of uncertainties, including operational ones. The subject matter, in Italy, was absolutely new and the very approach implemented by the Ministry left quite a few perplexities. It is true that there were only a few areas in Italy where the reference to a more precise origin on the label was very much felt, but this did not justify that the very lands where the work on identity and image had been more careful should be penalised. And the Langhe, with Barbaresco and Barolo in the lead, was one of these.

There was, moreover, a precise obligation dictated by the European Union, which demanded that every reference on the label be true and documentable: in the case of references of origin, this meant that they ‘were officially delimited and recognised’.

On the basis of their tradition and the very clear indications of the European Union, the producers of Barbaresco and Barolo were the first to experiment with this. And it must be said, in spite of everything, with excellent results both of a technical nature and – as we shall see later – of a strategic nature.

On the road to the MeGAs of Barbaresco

Without going back to the pioneering work carried out as far back as the early 1980s in the village of Barbaresco, work began in the mid-1990s in the area of this wine to select worthy areas and proceed to their delimitation.

Authoritative in this regard were the operational contributions of the municipalities of Barbaresco, Neive and Treiso, with the coordination of the Consortium of Barolo and Barbaresco, which also made up for the ‘latitude’ of the municipality of Alba, which often forgot that it had part of its own territory (San Rocco Seno d’Elvio) in the Barbaresco zone of origin.

The decision to proceed with a geographical rather than a vocational delimitation proved to be very effective. It facilitated the work of drawing the boundaries of these smaller parts of the zone of origin, but it did not detract from the quality of the technical result, because on these delimitations would be grafted the rules of the disciplinary to define where Nebbiolo da Barbaresco could be grown.

The work of identifying the areas and their delimitation was completed in the late 1990s, but then the traditional hindrances of Roman bureaucracy slowed down the final stages of the process of recognising these mentions and their suitability to appear on Barbaresco labels.

While initially, under Law 164/92, it seemed that these smaller parts of the area of origin could be called ‘sub-zones’ (a not very unfortunate term), the Ministry judged the areas identified in the Barbaresco zone to be too small. According to the ministerial opinion, the ‘Subzones’ had to have a territory at least equivalent to that of a municipality, whereas the approach pursued for Barbaresco identified as many as 25-30 smaller parts of the zone of origin for each village.

Vigneto Ovello a Barbaresco

Thus, the work carried out in the Barbaresco area ‘remained in limbo’ for a few years, until – following an umpteenth solicitation – the Ministry realised that in Law 164 there was another institute that could do the trick: that of Additional Geographical Mentions. If the term ‘Subzone’ already did not find much support, imagine that of the Mentions: it was a long, rather abstruse locution, made up of no less than three words. Here they compared it with what the French had coined a three-letter term to identify the same subject: cru

Additional Geographical Mentions of Barbaresco

Ministerial recognition in February 2007 assigned the Barbaresco Docg 66 Additional Geographical Mentions, subdivided as follows among the various territories in the area. In the municipality of Barbaresco, 25 have been identified: Asili, Ca’ Grossa, Cars. Cavanna, Cole, Faset, Martinenga, Montaribaldi, Montefico, Montestefano, Muncagota, Ovello, Pajè, Pora, Rabajà, Rabajà-Bas, Rio Sordo, Roccalini, Roncaglie, Roncagliette, Ronchi, Secondine, Tre Stelle, Trifolera and Vicenziana. Twenty are those attributed to the municipality of Neive: Albesani, Balluri, Basarin, Bordini, Bricco di Neive, Bric Micca, Canova, Cottà, Currà, Fausoni, Gaia-Principe, Gallina, Marcorino, Rivetti, San Cristoforo, San Giuliano, Serraboella, Serracapelli, Serragrilli and Starderi.

The situation is somewhat different in the municipality of Treiso: this village was awarded 17 exclusive MeGAs and 3 in cohabitation with the hamlet of San Rocco Seno d’Elvio. Treiso’s exclusive MeGAs are Ausario, Bernardot, Bricco di Treiso, Casot, Castellizzano, Ferrere, Garassino, Giacone, Giacosa, Manzola, Marcarini, Nervo, Pajorè, Rombone, San Stunet, Valeirano and Vallegrande. The three in synergy with San Rocco are Meruzzano, Montersino and Rizzi. San Rocco Seno d’Elvio has only one Mention of its own, Rocche Massalupo.

In addition to these 66 MeGa, there are six areas that the municipalities have delimited, but which were not included in the Specifications because they were never claimed. These are temporarily ‘frozen’ and may be included in the Disciplinary when there will be a request from some producers. These areas are two in Barbaresco (Cortini and Niccolini), one in Neive (Casasse) and three in Treiso (Bungioan, Canta and Sant’Alessandro.

Some curiosities about these MeGAs say that the smallest is Rabajà-bas in the municipality of Barbaresco, while the largest is Canova in the village of Neive. Of the 66 MeGAs included in the specifications, only one (Trifolera) is currently unclaimed, while all the others have at least one producer using them. This is an extraordinary result, which reflects the great attention that producers and market operators pay to these origin specifications on the label. The MeGAs with the highest numbers of claims are in order Ovello, Gallina, Rabajà, Albesani, Basarin, Starderi, Bricco di Neive, Montestefano, Meruzzano, Montersino, Gaia-Principe and Montefico.

What is even more important is the result of the claims of Barbaresco with MeGA as opposed to ‘classic’ Barbaresco, which has no further specification of origin. In 2021, against a total claim involving 755 hectares of Nebbiolo vineyards for Barbaresco, a good 426.63 hectares, or 56.89%, are those claimed with MeGA. Barbaresco without further specification of origin stopped at 325.54 hectares, or 43.11% of the total.

If we develop the same comparison for actual production, we obtain a similar breakdown, i.e. 56.71% refers to MeGA and 43.29 to Barbaresco without any other specification.

Such a striking result underlines the attachment that producers and market operators have to the labelling of MeGA as an indication of a more precise origin of the wine.

But it should not be understood as higher product quality. This may be a pleonastic clarification, but it is good to remember it to avoid misunderstandings or misinterpretations. In great vintages, the quality of MeGA often equates to a greater level of pleasantness and breadth of character. This is not always true, however, in less bombastic vintages, in which producers generally prefer blending between different vineyards to separate vinification, because in these vintages, the synergy between different origins often helps to enhance the level of quality.

Vigneti a Barbaresco, da Rabajà fino a Pora

But there is yet another element worth mentioning: these results of greater preference for Barbaresco with MeGA compared to ‘classic’ Barbaresco are even more relevant when one considers that they are obtained without the contribution of municipal MeGAs. In Barbaresco, in fact, there were no requests for and recognition of Menzioni linked to individual villages, which is possible in the case of Barolo, for example. Today, in Barbaresco, there is a broad debate on this issue and in the next few years the inclusion of municipal MeGAs in the production regulations could also be verified.

This could lead to a further thinning of the share of ‘classic’ Barbaresco, with another 6-7% of surface and production area that could make use of the new opportunity.

Important economic stability

There are other parameters that can help us assess the health of the Barbaresco appellation. Specifically, we have analysed, over the period between 2008 and 2021, three parameters of a certain reliability: the area under vines registered in the company file, actual production and the volume of wine bottled.

As can be seen from the table published alongside, the trend in wine-growing potential is growing steadily, but does not create any particular problems for the market balance thanks to the constant management of plantings implemented by the Consorzio Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe Dogliani for about a decade. Between 2008 and 2021, plantings of Nebbiolo vines for Barbaresco increased from 700 hectares in the first year to 812 in 2021, with an average increase of 8.6 hectares per year.

In this regard, it must be said that the size of the area entered in the farm file is higher than the active area used in the annual claim, because this value also includes vineyards in the very first years of planting that are not yet involved in the act of production.

As far as actual production is concerned, the situation has become rather stable over the years. In fact, the average production over the last 14 years (2008-2021) is 4,608,415 bottles, with a rather consistent year-by-year distribution, with 8 vintages in which production exceeds this average value and 6 in which it remains below. But the difference between the average value and that of the individual vintages is always contained, confirming the good stability of production that we have mentioned.

This consistency can also be seen in the development of bottling volumes. The average figure for the fourteen years between 2008 and 2021 was 3,959,245 packaged bottles. In this case, the distribution among the vintages is even more favourable, since there are 10 in which the bottling volume exceeded their average figure and only 4 in which it remained below it. The ratio of the average bottled volume to the average annual production value is almost 86% (85.9%).

Clearly, there can be no correspondence between production and bottling volume, given that Barbaresco must spend at least 26 months in the cellar between maturation in various types of containers (steel, cement and wood) and refinement in the bottle before going to market. What is important is that the two values are consistent, to avoid, on the one hand, an exaggerated increase in stocks and, on the other, an excessive reduction in the wine available.

Other indicators can help us give a complete picture of the health of Barbaresco and its evolution. The breakdown between the various players in the chain attributes 16% of all production to delivery to cooperative wineries. In this case, there are two actors, the Produttori del Barbaresco in Barbaresco, which gathers associates from Barbaresco and Neive, and the Cantina Pertinace in Treiso, which involves associates from this village only.

The share of own winemaking is 57% and that of grapes bought and sold is 27%, a figure that is constantly decreasing. This latter figure could probably even be lower if one took into account the cases where the seller and buyer are the same figure, represented on the one hand by a company or individual person who owns the vineyards and produces the grapes and on the other by a company dedicated to their vinification and the marketing of the wine.

Tabella che indica dati relativi a superficie, produzione e imbottigliato di Barbaresco

The final reference is the number of companies operating under the Barbaresco designation. Very numerous (337) are the companies that produce the Nebbiolo grapes for this wine. This means that each individual vine grower has an average surface area of more than two hectares, which is higher than at the beginning of the 2000s, when it was even less than one hectare.

The winemakers, whether large or small, are fewer in number: there are currently 152. The number of those bottling Barbaresco wine is greater and fluctuates from year to year between 185 and 200 companies. This means that the average availability of bottles for each of these producers is less than 25 thousand. On the contrary, using the average production figure for the last 14 years (4,608,415), the average availability of product to offer the market fluctuates between 24,910 and 23,042 bottles.

In terms of the market and promotional support for the identity of Barbaresco, this means yet another thing: that there are at least 185-200 producers who systematically take to the roads around the world to promote and market this wine. A potential of positive forces that champion this small but extraordinary denomination of origin.

28th February 2022,

Giancarlo Montaldo

original in Italian published in Barolo&Co nr I-2022 / courtesy of Barolo&Co

translation by Barbara Fassio

Picture of Giancarlo Montaldo
Giancarlo Montaldo
Business consultant on wine issues, journalist and writer.
Picture of Giancarlo Montaldo
Giancarlo Montaldo
Business consultant on wine issues, journalist and writer.

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