When you combine the history of Monferrato with the passion and soul and knowhow of the people involved in making the region’s wines, you get something truly unique: Barbera d’Asti.
Five years ago, I interviewed Californian winemaking pioneer Tim Mondavi over lunch, during which he recalled meandering through Burgundy with his famous father, Robert Mondavi. At one point, Tim told me, “I was traveling with my
father in Burgundy, using my poor high school French to translate his questions to the winemakers that we visited. Whenever my father asked a winemaker ‘But what did you do to make this wine so great?’ the answer was always the same: ‘Nothing! It is all the terroir!’ We didn’t know what they were talking about – we thought at first that terroir might be their dog.”
Incidentally, whenever they encountered a terrible wine, the winegrowers’ answers were all the same: “Nothing! It is all the terroir!” The lesson, in a nutshell, is that when it comes to fine wine, place matters, and – for better or worse – it trumps just about everything else.
Let’s back up a little bit, because before we can talk about place – about the concept of terroir with respect to Monferrato and Barbera d’Asti – we need to talk about terroir in the abstract. Which, for a wine writer, is one of the least pleasant things that we have to do (it’s right up there with redeye plane flights and spitting), because terroir is possibly the most overused word in the entire fine wine genre.
First, a definition; and I’ll warn you, it’s woefully inadequate.
noun – the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.
Not only is that definition impossibly broad, it says nothing of the people, history, and uniqueness that go into what the concept of real terroir is all about. Terroir a bit like music that has real passion and soul; if the band talks too much about the passion and soul in their music, it’s likely that there actually isn’t too much passion or soul in their music. If a winegrower talks a lot about having terroir, but doesn’t have history and a truly unique wine, then guess what? They don’t really have terroir.
\The bottom line is that the elements wrapped up in the concept of terroir – weather, soil, vineyard practices, sunlight, slope, history, passion, blood, sweat, and tears – need to have a viable end result. They need to have a natural purpose. They need to produce something – a wine – that really cannot be duplicated anywhere else on the planet.
So, while Barbera is a hearty grape, and many wine regions have seen success in crafting Barbera wines that are vibrant, fruity, and accessible, none of them have ever matched the same passion and soul found in Barbera d’Asti. It’s in Monferrato that you find Barbera performing at its most diverse and substantial heights. There is no other terroir in the world for Barbera that can match this place’s range, from electrifying, easy-to-love wines that are perfect for right now (and for pizza), to wines from sub-areas like Nizza that can age so long, so well, and with such complexity that even seasoned wine pros can mistake them for aged Barolo or Barbaresco.
All of this begins with dirt. The rolling vineyard hills of Monferrato where Barbera is grown have their origins in the Tertian age, when the sea retreated from the Pianura Padana, and started a long process of erosion that is largely responsible for the Piedmont landscape that we see today. (For some perspective, the commune of Asti was established in 1095, \\\Barbera d’Asti achieved DOCG designation in 2008. So we are talking about a terroir that is about two million years in the making.) The soils here are generally poor in organic material, which means that grapevines get a little bit of stress, which in turn means more intense, flavorful fruit.
These ancient soil deposits come in two main “flavors:” white soils, and Asti area sands. The white soils are the older of the two, and are found in Canelli, Alessandria, Casale, and in the south of Asti. The name comes from their light grey appearance, a result of their rich calcium carbonate, silt, and clay deposits, and the abundant volume of marine fossil shells that can be found among the gently rolling hills that house these soils. In general, the Barbera wines produced here are the kind that can fool the experts: full bodied, deeply colored, spicy, rich with dark red fruit flavors, and able to age for several years in the bottle.
The second “flavor,” the Asti area sands, are made up of marine sedimentary deposits left over from the Pliocene era, and are found mostly in the middle of the Asti Monferrato zone, on the steep slopes that buffer both sides of the Tanaro river. Barbera from these sandy soils generally have less acidity (that’s by Barbera standards, of course; they’ll still stand up to just about any food you want to serve with them) and are meant for earlier drinking.
No terroir discussion is complete with a chat regarding the weather: the climate in Asti is warm, temperate, and wet. The warmth is great for the ripening of Barbera\ grapes, and the hills allow for drainage that keeps the vines stressing their roots for nutrients and water, despite the ample rainfall (that stress is essential, for it tricks the vines into diverting its energies into producing more intense grapes).
What really makes the Monferrato terroir legitimately world-class, however, is the amalgamation of all of the above. The landscape allows for almost innumerable combinations of soil, slope, aspect, sun exposure, and drainage. Those combinations account for the impressive diversity of the region’s Barbera wines.
But we’re not really done with this terroir discussion yet. Because when you combine those things with the history of Monferrato, and with the passion and soul and knowhow of the people involved in making the region’s wines, you get something truly unique. You get high quality, diversity, and something more – you also get a “common denominator” in the wines of Barbera d’Asti, a sense of the modern married with authenticity.
Now that is what I call terroir (no matter what the dictionary says!).