A look at how terroir directly influences the Nebbiolo grape in Pertinace's Barbaresco wine
Wine words can be slippery, at best. Terroir is a fine example. Scientists are still trying their hardest to pin down what makes up terroir, to “crack the terroir code” and get past “romantic” rhetoric. Producers, however, have never been confused about the word. They will tell you it is the holistic influence of land, geology, climate, sun exposition, and grape-growing practices in their wines, and need it to be no more or less precise than that.
In Piemonte, particularly in the land of the “king and the queen”— royal Nebbiolo couples Barolo and Barbaresco—another word is used to signify terroir: cru, taken from the French usage for classified Burgundy vineyards. Crus are unregulated in Piemonte, so in 2007 (Barbaresco) and 2010 (Barolo), the Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive were created: the official delineation of these special vineyards.
You’ll still hear producers talk about cru, however (for one thing, it’s much easier to say).
But how different can one plot of land really be from the next? Is it so much to warrant these certifications, labels, the higher price tags and competition for the most famous cru? Vineyard-cultivated areas for Barolo and Barbaresco are small at just 685 and 1800 hectares, respectively (2.6 and 6.95 square miles). How much terroir can be squeezed out of that little land?
Quite a bit, it turns out. The differences are notable and marked. We took a look at the three Barbaresco cru labels by Pertinace, a winery located just five minutes from Alba and about 66 miles southeast of Turin.
Cesare Barbero, owner of Pertinace and manager of the associated producers of the cooperative winery, makes Barbaresco labels Marcarini, Nervo, and Castellizzano, as well as a fourth classico Barbaresco. The three cru labels come from 2 ½ hectares of land or less in the Treiso township (comune). Yet they are each incredibly different.
Let’s take a look at a blind tasting from Alba’s annual Nebbiolo Prima, an international pre-marketing event that presents the newest vintages of Nebbiolo-based wines Barolo, Barbaresco, and Roero. Attendee Sherwin Lao, a regional wine consultant, wine educator, wine importer, and member of FIJEV (Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux), tasted 122 Barbaresco wines from 75 producers, then selected 30 to recommend as the best of 2012. He inadvertently chose all three cru labels from Pertinace, only one of two winemakers he selected more than once (the other being Castello di Neive). The differences from one bottle to the next were so marked that he did not realize they were from the same producer.
Mr. Lao describes Castellizzano as have an “alluring chocolate nose…bitter sweet tannins, very supple and rich mouth feel, round with nice vanilla lingering on the finish;” Marcarini with “charred vanilla on the nose…taste of figs on the palate, delicious chewy sweet tannins, long and delectable finish;” and Nervo as “complex nose with leather, mushroom and ripe berries, full bodied, bitter-sweet tannins, very soft and scrumptious, exceptional long fruit-jam finish.” Mushrooms and chocolate are about as distant from each other as aromas can be.
Here’s the zinger: each Pertinace Barbaresco cru label is vinified in the exact same way and released at the same time. This means that the differences comes exclusively from the terroir.
Grape growing techniques are also part of terroir. Cesare notes that, being a cooperative winery, three different producers cultivate the vineyards, and they have varying degrees of style. The producers have complete autonomy within the limits of the Barbaresco appellation, and also must follow the yield as set by Cesare. The differences are not extreme, but they also influence the final product, of course. For example, the Nervo vineyard receives more biological fertilizer than the other two. And, leaves are trimmed back according to varying exposures; for example, south-facing Nervo gets more sun, so it is trimmed less in order to protect the grapes from over-exposure.
Soil: structured limestone and sand
Ready the soonest, harmonic and with elegant aromas of spices, dried fruit, and woodsy undergrowth.
Slightly less structured of the three
Soil: compact clay and blue tuff rock
More robust tannins, so greater longevity, with complex aromas of ripe fruit and sweet spices
Needs a year to open up
Soil: a “via di mezzo,” or halfway between the above two
Elegant and complex structure, balanced between the above two, with intense aromas of ripe fruit and sweet spices
When asked to describe his wines, Cesare skipped the nitty-gritty details of tasting notes, explaining, rather, the broader philosophy in three words: “Eleganza, tradizionale, terroir.” Eleganza: The wines are elegant because they are not made with too heavy a hand on the winemaker’s part. “We try to produce food-friendly wines. They’re not too jammy, heavy, or sweet, which can get tiresome to drink. Our wines are born to be paired with food.” Tradizionale: They follow the traditional mode of winemaking, allowing the fruit to express itself and not be covered by strong notes of vanilla and toasty-ness—both of which are pleasing to most everyone, but are too “easy,” characteristics of excessive use of wood. And finally, terroir—but this one is already crystal clear.