Sunday, August 21, 2016

Is the Future for Nebbiolo in Piedmont Under Attack?

This has been quite a summer for Piedmont. Historical wineries changing hands, millions of Euros passing from one family to another, and the popularity of Barolo and Barbaresco never higher. In Piedmont, Nebbiolo is a top contender for indigenous grapes with potential to make great wine and the spotlight is on the Langhe. But its neighbors are angling for some of the attention.

A proposed change to the Piemonte DOC will allow the word “Nebbiolo” to appear and be noted on the label. The folks at the Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Dogliani feel this will damage these loftier appellations, as this will bring in a wine that could compete well below price for the attention of thirsty Nebbiolo lovers.

Larger and wealthier wine consortiums want in on the action. A major consortium, Consorzio Barbera d’Asti & Vini del Monferrato, has tirelessly promoted wine from the Barbera grape. While loved in northern Italy, Barbera is seen in the US as a value driven wine. If it’s $10 or under, sales can be brisk. For the $20 and over crowd of Barbera producers, it’s a bit more challenging.

In a parallel marketing universe, another powerful consortium, the Consorzio per la Tutela dell'Asti, wants to recoup losses from diminished sales of Asti Spumante. Once a fruity and frothy staple for Italian wine lists and grocery shelves, it has lost market share to Prosecco (and in all likelihood as well, to one of their own, the very popular Moscato d’Asti). There is talk of a new iteration, "Astisecco", a drier version of Asti Spumante.

Where does that leave producers in satisfying the lust for more Nebbiolo wine denominated from the Piedmont region? One of the voiced motivations of Luca Currado and Mario Cordero, with the recent sale of their Vietti winery to American investor Kyle Krause, was the possibility to expand the footprint of the Vietti Nebbiolo “Perbacco” brand with enhanced investment and commitment to sourcing Nebbiolo within the Langhe DOC Nebbiolo growing zone. The wine hovers between $20-25 in America, and sells out every year. Other producers as well, are seeing growth and selling out their Langhe DOC Nebbiolo.

The proposal to allow for a Piemonte DOC using the words “Nebbiolo” on the label have raised a few hackles amongst the Langhe growers.

In a recent column for the Wine Enthusiast, Kerin O’Keefe , who originally broke this story, interviewed the current president of the Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Dogliani, Orlando Pecchenino, who stated “Piemonte (DOC) Nebbiolo would only benefit the large cellars in Monferrato and the Asti denominations, who currently focus on Barbera. But it would have major repercussions for producers of Langhe Nebbiolo, Barolo and Barbaresco, because it could cause a collapse in prices and damage the reputation of wines made with Nebbiolo.

“Our consorzio and producers are strongly opposed to creating Piemonte Nebbiolo and will be voicing our concerns and our objections when we’re convened by the region to vote.”

O’Keefe then writes, “Modifying the production code to allow Nebbiolo into the Piemonte denomination requires a meeting between all the regional consorzios and producers who use the Piedmont designation. A 51-percent majority is needed to pass any change.”

Over lunch recently with Pietro Ratti, who runs the Renato Ratti winery, we talked about the future of Nebbiolo in Piedmont and the potential threat by the powerful consortia from Asti and Monferrato to enlarge the scope of the Piemonte DOC, allowing wording to the effect of “Piemonte DOC Nebbiolo.” Currently the Piemonte DOC disciplinare (last modified 12/29/2014) allows for a minimum use of 60% Nebbiolo in the Rosso classification, but they do not presently allow the use of the word Nebbiolo on the legal and official label.

One must understand the Italian sense for these things. When Asti Spumante was in high gear, selling loads of fruity sparkling wine to a thirsty America, the coffers filled. Asti is a wealthy area, and its political power has often foreshadowed that of nearby, smaller Alba. As well, Monferrato has a stake in large volume production, and there are powers that want their share of the pie. Not to say Alba is poor and helpless. There is plenty of wealth as well. But it is also directed to other enterprises. Wine is important, but Nutella is bigger.

The Asti and Monferrato areas rely heavily on their agriculture and wine industry. And while Alba and the Langhe are recognized for having great historical tradition for Piedmontese wine, with Barolo and Barbaresco leading the charge, the production of these wines are smaller. Total production of Vietti wines, according to their US importer, Dalla Terra, is 17,000 cases.

Renato Ratti's winery, in 1983, made only 4,000 cases of all of their wines. Ratti chose to go the Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC route, rather than the Langhe DOC Nebbiolo route that Vietti, and others, have taken. In the 2010 harvest they made 5,800 cases alone of their Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC “Ochetti." Estimates for total production of all their wines range in the area of 25,000 cases, about 50% larger than Vietti currently produces.

Photo from the archives of the Batasiolo winery
The Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Dogliani, of which both Renato Ratti and his son, Pietro Ratti, have been past presidents (Pietro is currently the vice-president), has a vested interest in Nebbiolo. Barolo and Barbaresco, both DOCG, are Nebbiolo, 100%. Two DOC’s figure in as well, Langhe DOC Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC.

Not to say that some of the existing wines from Langhe Nebbiolo DOC and Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC haven’t already mucked up things a bit in the marketplace. Discounting and moving through older and less highly regarded vintages, these wines can be seen on the shelves in the US for $12.99 and sometimes even under $10. And while this is usually a temporary situation, one can often find this kind of activity in local Autogrill wine sections on the autostradas in, and near, the Piedmont region. The fear of dilution for Nebbiolo with the new proposed Piemonte DOC Nebbiolo modification might already be a fait accompli with current selling practices and marketing expediencies.

At risk, as well, is the nebulous idea of image for Nebbiolo in Piedmont. Barolo and Barbaresco, not too long ago, were a hard sale. And while folks aren’t exactly flocking to their local wine shops to spend $100 for a bottle of Barolo, plenty of collectors, worldwide, are looking for these wines to put in their cellars. The dilemma Barolo and Barbaresco once had, that of competing for the attention of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa Valley wine collectors, is now viewed from the rear view mirror of a fast moving Ferrari. They have achieved world-class status.

Now the issue is over the soul of Barolo, according to some of the more vocal critics of growth (and success) in the Langhe. I for one, have my own soul to worry about which keeps me plenty busy. Whatever road Barolo (and by extension Barbaresco and the Langhe) is going down, is out of my jurisdiction.

33 years ago, Mort Hochstein profiled Renato Ratti in a then start-up wine tabloid, The Wine Spectator. The September 16-30, 1983 issue devoted a page to Ratti, his controversy and his many scandals (see image above or go to link of the article here).

In it, Ratti contended that he had produced four scandals during his tenure as proprietor of his eponymous winery. The scandals Ratti referred to at the time were:

1) Raising the price of his wine from 500 lire a bottle to 1,000 lire (at the time appx 625 lire = US $1.00). Other winemakers, like Angelo Gaja and Bruno Giacosa, pushed beyond Ratti, approaching the wine values of Burgundy and Bordeaux, unheard of at the time.

2) Adopting the cru concept, which was not part of the tradition of the Langhe. Barolo, especially, was an amalgam of different vineyards, and this was seen as an odd way of dis-unifying the vision of Barolo in general. Site specific wines, at the time, were not part of the tradition.

3) Reducing the time the wine spent in wood. He also eschewed the use of barrique, which in 1983 was just coming into vogue among modern-leaning winemakers in the Langhe.

4) Ratti also was the first person to map out and classify certain properties in Barolo and Barbaresco which he deemed to be the top ones. For a comparison of his classification versus more modern interpretations from Masnaghetti and Galloni, please refer to an article I wrote last year for Wine Searcher, Barolo’s Greatest Vineyards Ranked.

Renato Ratti also noted that “Nebbiolo was once more widespread than it is now. During the Middle Ages it was planted throughout northern Italy, but cultivation gradually shifted only to the most favored sites. When the phylloxera onslaught came, growers replaced Nebbiolo plantings with more congenial vines.”

If indeed Nebbiolo was “more widespread than it is now,” as Renato Ratti contended back in 1983, perhaps this proposed change to the Piemonte DOC to allow the word “Nebbiolo” to appear on the label (although it appears a minimum of 60% of Nebbiolo wine is already allowed by the rules of the Piemonte DOC disciplinare) is an attempt by producers in Asti and Monferrato to reclaim some of the lost glory. This came up recently in a conversation with Rebecca Murphy, who, while doing a wine of the week piece for the Dallas Morning News, had a producer from Monferrato who changed the wine appellation from Monferrato DOC to Piemonte DOC. The Monferrato DOC disciplinare allows for up to 85% of Nebbiolo to be used in the Monferrato Rosso DOC. And while the wine we talked about wasn’t a Nebbiolo (it was a Barbera/Pinot Nero blend), the producer stated that he changed the appellation from Monferrato to Piemonte because “Piemonte is a better known region.” I don’t know how many of you know winemakers from Monferrato, but they are proud of their region. This could not have been an easy decision. But it was probably a necessary one to get consumer attention. And who suffers if the wine is good, as in the case of this producer, Azienda Agricola Marchesi Incisa della Rocchetta?

If a family, like Incisa della Rocchetta, which has deep roots, in a well-regarded if lesser known region like Monferrato, feels the need to change their red blend to the Piemonte DOC, what’s to discourage those who have Nebbiolo vines from following suit?

Is the future of Nebbiolo in the Langhe under attack, or is this a move towards repatriating Nebbiolo into the broader quilt of terroir in Piemonte? Of course there will always be opportunists who will look to make a quick Euro on the trendiness and popularity of the Nebbiolo grape. But what if we find the next Carema or Gattinara amidst the hills of Asti or the Monferrato? They say there is no stone unturned in Piemonte - all that we can know, we now know. And yes, perhaps the great vineyards have already been tracked - by Ratti, by Galloni, and by Masnaghetti.

One thing we know for sure: Piedmont is in transition – and it is on the move. Whether it is an ascendant move to the light or a downward spiral towards darker forces remains to be seen. As Renato Ratti said back in 1983, “The Italians take wine for granted. I had to go out of the country before I understood how important it was and what richness we had here.”

Hopefully that richness won’t be sacrificed for an easy buck. And maybe we might just find the next Barolo or Barbaresco in them thar hills.

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