Monday, January 30, 2012

Langhe Report: Barbaresco at a Crossroads

The young in this world don’t remember the past; the old can’t imagine the future. As it goes throughout the world and history, this pattern keeps repeating. And in a place like Barbaresco, once again we are at a crossroads. Can the advances of the past be passed along to the new generation? Are they ready? Are there enough to pass it to that are receptive? Wine communities all over the world struggle with this passing of the baton to the new crop. I find myself in the Langhe again, in the Barbaresco of past and future.

Old people look around and shake their heads, wondering who will work as hard as they feel they had to. And equally, the very young look at the old ways and dismiss the folly of the older but not always wiser ones who still assert their control over the future.

Somewhere along the way, both sides have to either take that leap of faith or just throw up their hands and move on.

Oddly, what I sense in a place like Barbaresco is a change in direction, a tug-of-war between lifestyle and wine.

In the 1980’s Barbaresco producers were starting to travel outside of their region. A few made it as far as Paris, London, New York. They tasted Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa and saw the world market thirsting for finesse and power. They came back home and started reinventing the wines of the Langhe. Wines started to clean up. Barrels slimmed down, from muumuu to mini skirt. No longer were Botti fashionable. Barrique became haute rigueur. Nebbiolo even was regarded with some suspicion, as if it didn’t merit the same gravitas as Cabernet or Merlot or even Sangiovese. And for a generation, Italian winemakers started re-mapping the face of Piemontese wine. I was there, saw it all, enjoyed some of it, but also was alarmed at an early age.

Twenty-five years later, something new becomes something established, as if it had been there all along. Meanwhile, the world outside the Langhe was also going through a wine revolution. Internationalization was grabbing the palates of young wine drinkers, especially soon-to-be-influential critics. Not quite a conspiracy so much as a perfect storm for the homogenization of Nebbiolo to an almost unrecognizable category, without history or tradition.

And then folks’ tastes started changing. People tired of oak and extract, and even though wines coming up in this fashion got exceedingly high scores (to go with their high prices), some people were scratching their heads. Someone would taste an older wine, a ’67 or a ’79, and these wines spoke to them. I was there when this happened, they spoke to me. They still do. And the world stopped, just like it does in a snowstorm. No one moves. No more noise. Just silence and white. And a time to reflect.

This could just be a pipe dream from one who spends a lot of time dreaming, but my hope is that enough young folk in places like Barbaresco tire of their fine linen and Ferrari lifestyle and go looking for a simpler, quieter, more meaningful life on the little patch of earth they call home. Barbaresco is a very special place; I have loved it from afar for years and years. It feels a little like my home: open spaces, a little warm (even under a blanket of snow), and a sense of time and purpose.

This week, as we crawled back up the hill to Barbaresco – snow chains, frozen hands and open heart – I confess I don’t want Barbaresco to merely reflect some mega-wealthy oligarchical fashion statement. I have seen folks who can never have enough, who are tied to their riches and their toys and their power and seek to change and move everything about them, a distorted view of a personal manifest destiny. Thankfully the society of Barbaresco is of a communal nature. There is no uber-style-maker, even though the powerful wine-stream press likes to blow folks up on their covers as if to remake a place to sell their glossy rag-mags.

I have hope for the Langhe and for Barbaresco. The native wine is such a treasure to Italy and the world.

If I were young, that would be my mission, to fight to return and keep Barbaresco out of the hands of the few and the wealthy, and available (and wonderful) to all who love wine and Nebbiolo in one of her best and few expressions.

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