On a beautiful day in late summer, Vinnie and I were travelling in southern Piedmont, Italy. We were up in the hills southeast of Asti, driving through countryside rich with vineyards that were heavy with grapes. In the air there was a sense of anticipation that the moment of harvest had almost arrived. The roads were barely wider than a single track and already we had to dodge the tiny tractors, scooting in and out of the vineyards, that would soon be hauling the miniature trailers containing fruits of a year’s careful nurturing. Soon the sanctification of the grapes would begin as the annual miracle of their transubstantiation into wine gets under way.
This is an area rich in viticultural heritage but this does not prevent new arrivals on the scene and in 2014 the rules were changed to admit a new DOCG wine called Nizza. It takes its name from the town of Nizza Monferrato at the centre of the designated production area and the rules state that it must be 100% Barbera, a variety that is a native to Piedmont. To find out more about this newcomer we visited Cascina La Barbatella, a small winery hidden in a tiny valley above the town.
We were welcomed by Martina who told us something of the winery’s history. It was founded by Angelo Sonvico in the early 1980s and his name lives on in some of the wines now produced by Lorenzo Perego and his wife, Cinzia Marguccio. This is small-scale wine-making with an annual production of only around 25,000 bottles from 4 hectares of vines.
The tasting room, situated on its own terrace, has a beautiful view overlooking the valley. Here we tasted two wines both made from the Barbera grape but vinified in very different ways. The harvest for both these wines is towards the end of September and is done by hand. Both wines are fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks for two to three weeks but then their paths diverge.
The DOCG Barbera d’Asti from 2020 was matured for 12 months in steel tanks and should then have a further 6 months in the bottle; however, we were disturbing that final period of repose. The colour is bright ruby with cherries and raspberries on the nose, with a hint of lavender. On the palate it is light and fruity with the low tannin level that is a feature of the Barbera grape but with good acidity. This is a light and fresh wine that will go well with pasta dishes at lunchtime when its characteristics will suit not only the food but also the occasion. Martina advised that it is a wine to be drunk within five years.
By contrast, the Nizza – the wine that we were here to sample – has had a more complex treatment. The maximum yield for grapes used for Nizza is seven tonnes per hectare compared with nine for Barbera d’Asti and this reduction in yield increases the quality of the grapes. After fermentation, the wine matures for 12 to 16 months in barriques of French oak before spending six months in a tank and one year in the bottle. We tasted a 2018 that had a deep ruby colour. The bouquet has the extra notes of vanilla and old leather from the oak of the barrique that complement the underlying fruitiness of the Barbera grape. Tannins are present but not high which is, again, a characteristic of the grape. This is a more complex and structured wine that would sit well with dishes containing truffles or red meat and has an ageing potential of 10 to 15 years. Lorenzo and Cinzia have given this wine the name Vigna del Angelo or Angelo’s vineyard in honour of the founder of the vineyard, Angelo Sonvico – in Italian angelo also means angel and so the label on the bottle is meant to represent an angel’s wing. Unfortunately, it bears more of a resemblance to a human ear and so now has been replaced by a halo.
For those looking for a still more complex Nizza, La Barbatella also offers a riserva that involves the selection of only the finest bunches of grapes and is only produced in the best years. This then matures for two and a half to three years in 500l French oak tonneaux before spending six to twelve months in the bottle.
A trip to the cellar completes a visit to La Barbatella and you can trace the history of the enterprise through the collection of old wines that are held there – a liquid archive, if you like. The cantina also hosts frequent pop up events with picnics, food and wine pairings, tasting sessions, and even a spot of glamping. Keep an eye on their Instagram page to see all upcoming events.More about this vineyard