BARBARESCO, Italy — Angelo Gaja, the most famous vintner in Piedmont and the father of the revolution that has modernized the local wine world, was angry. "People say that we are throwing tradition overboard and that we are destroying our wines," he said, gesturing emphatically with both hands.
Ever since he and his followers started working to improve wine quality during the 1970s, their wines have been surrounded by controversy, but never has it been so hot. Following the release of the 1996 Barolos and 1997 Barbarescos, a group of European wine journalists, led by the Swiss wine magazine Vinum, accused the majority of Piedmont's leading vintners of producing "international-style" wines lacking any distinctively Piedmontese character.
The controversy is all about the nontraditional winemaking techniques some modern Piedmontese vintners use to soften the Barolos and Barbarescos made from the native Nebbiolo grape. Their goal is to make wines that can be drunk on release but will still age well. Shorter fermentation periods to avoid extracting too much tannin from grape skins and pips and extended maturation in small \o7 barrique \f7 casks of new French oak are their prime methods for taming the Nebbiolo grape's famously fierce tannins.
Critics of the new-style wines assert they lack the dryness typical for the grape and do not posses enough tannin to age more than a handful of years in the bottle.
"Nonsense," say the modernists.
"Recently, a group of colleagues and I were invited to a big blind tasting of the 1989 and 1990 Barolos and Barbarescos," says Elio Altare, one of the vintners at the center of the controversy, "and we were asked to identify which wines were from 'modernist' producers and which wines were from 'traditionalists.' We sat there blankly looking at one another, because none could say which was which. When those wines were young the stylistic differences were very obvious, but with time these wines have come closer together."
Altare is widely regarded as a leading modernist Piedmontese winemaker and therefore might be regarded as having a vested interest in defending the new-style wines. But his story is confirmed by Aldo Vacca, director of the Produttori del Barbaresco, whose wines are widely regarded as traditional in style. He had recently tasted the 1989 Barolo "Cannubi" from Luciano Sandrone, another modernist, and said, "I was surprised to find that it did not taste very different in style from our own wines of the same vintage. Nebbiolo seems to have a very stubborn character which always comes through with time, regardless of wine style."
No Piedmontese vintner has been more frequently criticized by the international wine press for making "soft," international-style wines than Gaja. However, at a recent tasting his Barbarescos of the 1985 vintage were still full of vigor, showing a tremendous intensity of black plum, chocolate, licorice and spice flavors. When they were released in 1988, many European journalists cast doubt on their ability to age.
Even the traditionalists are not uniform. Vacca's nine single-vineyard 1996 Barbaresco "Riservas" are remarkable wines for a co-operative winery. Though each tastes very different, they all have rich, forthright berry and plum fruit flavors, which does not exactly square with the traditional Nebbiolo style.
These wines all pack a considerable tannic punch, though none is so astringent or aggressive that it could not give pleasure today, drunk with a steak or the braised meat dishes that are traditional in Piedmont. It is these "ripe" tannins that are typical of the recent string of excellent vintages in Piedmont: 1996, '97, '98 and '99. Those 2000 vintage wines picked before the torrential October rains also look to be exciting.
A wide variety of red wine styles can be found in Piedmont, just as in Bordeaux or California. Most of the "new" winemaking techniques have long been part of normal practice in wine-producing regions elsewhere in Europe and the United States. So why the fuss here?
"Italians are skeptical people used to scandals in politics and the church, so when something changes they are worried that behind this could be a scandal," Gaja says. "I think that foreigners have picked up on this anxiety."
One of the things that \o7 has \f7 changed is that Gaja no longer markets his top Nebbiolo red wines under the Barolo and Barbaresco designations. From the 1996 vintage forward, his single-vineyard "Costa Russi," "Sori San Lorenzo" and "Sori Tildin" (formerly Barbarescos) and his "Sperss" and "Conteisa" (formerly Barolos) carry the inferior Langhe DOC designation.
Gaja insists that this move is an attempt to focus public and press attention on his regular Barbaresco, which will continue to carry this designation. Likewise he complains of an explosion of single-vineyard Barolos and Barbarescos in recent years "which were not always of the highest quality."
If proof is needed that Piedmont has not lost its way, Gaja's single-vineyard Nebbiolos from the 1996 vintage provide it. They combine tremendous concentration of black berry fruit character with huge tannins that lack any suggestion of hardness, and even in their current youthful state they show an elegance and sophistication which put them in the first league of red wines world wide.
Pigott is a British journalist and wine writer.