Travel Dispatch: The Road to Nizza DOCG

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Gianluca Morino and company at Cascina Garitina had been on their feet for hours when the first thunderclaps rattled the walls at dawn.

They’d seen the storm predictions. No one was sleeping.

One week earlier a tornado had ripped through the area.  For 57 seconds Gianluca watched the second hand make one languid circle of his watch. With each click he hoped against reason it might stop.  When the winds calmed, he unbowed his head and surveyed the damage.

Rows of vines lay flattened, domino-style like we used to do as kids. Vintners scrambled to stand them upright, replacing fallen wooden stakes with iron ones. Now the problem was exposure.

In early August the grapes were just beginning to ripen, swollen into tight little bunches, some of them already purple. The largest leaves—their first line of defense—had blown clean off, leaving them vulnerable to the elements. Sun was something the older vines could handle. In time they develop a thicker skin. But hail would be trouble.

We are just outside of Nizza Monferrato, in Castel Boglione, one of the 18 townships comprising the soon-to-be official DOCG Nizza. I’ve come to visit as part of my summer holiday but for everyone else it’s business as usual. Producers here currently fall into the DOCG category of Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza, effectively a sub-appellation of the Barbera d’Asti, itself a vast appellation that currently includes 169 townships and produces huge quantities of Barbera. Current regulations allow for a 10 percent addition of other grape varieties, including international varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Those who have worked the land for a century or more have realized the potential of their vines, and the potential of Barbera itself. By itself. Now they’re fighting tirelessly for recognition.  Growers whose grapes were once packed into crates and shipped to the nearest cooperative, destined for vino sfuso (table wine), went back to school to study enology, biology, and chemistry. They’ve hired consultants to help them make wine on their own land and invested heavily in all necessary equipment.

It’s a costly enterprise, and riskier than ever during these uncertain economic times. Nizza DOCG is not simply an acknowledgment of their efforts. It is a mark of prestige, indispensible in today’s competitive market, that will permit these producers to continue their efforts in the vineyard and in the winery and to create a viable future for their families. For this reason they’re particularly rattled by the weather, as they prepare for their first release under the new appellation in 2016.

Winemaker Gianluca Morino

Gianluca is the sleepless president of the Nizza Winemakers Association. Together with several producers—with whom he remains in constant contact throughout the day via telephone and social media—he is working to exalt the reputation of Barbera, and ultimately Nizza Barbera, the world over.  In this current age of constant distraction, branding and diffusion is critical. Today, a singular word, phrase, or concept has the potential to spread virally in seconds.

The real feat is to grasp that moment and make the most of it before something else comes along. 

In 2014 Nizza DOCG will officially become a reality, with bottles appearing on shelves by 2016.  The new label will not longer contain the phrase Barbera d’Asti. Nizza DOCG will have to stand alone. Testament to a distinctive terroir and one singular variety.  The goal of the Association is to make Barbera something of a household name. Ubiquitous in the right way.

Despite its being one of the most frequently planted grapes in Italy, alongside—Montepulciano and Sangiovese—Barbera shares an initial letter and a region (Piedmont) with Barolo and Barbaresco, unarguably two of the most highly regarded Italian red wines.

Barbera’s use as a blending grape and a popular table wine throughout much of northern and central Italy may be part of the reason it is now fighting its way to the top, not unlike the oft- maligned Falanghina, which is also indigenous and extremely popular throughout southern Italy yet struggles to defend its identity. Falanghina is highly representative of the coastal south where it thrives and is capable of producing gorgeous and terroir-expressive wines. Similarly, Barbera is quintessential to the region, Nizza in particular.  With care and attention it has the capacity to produce wines of extraordinary character.

The sheer quantity of Italian wine in the international market is daunting for a small group of producers whose classification derives from an area largely unknown outside of northern Italy, save for the rare Asti connoisseur. Nizza will be even more challenging, yet Morino and his fellow producers are confidant in their Barbera, distinctive for its rich earthy quality, high acidity and potential for aging, and a natural alcoholic potency thanks to uniquely advantageous geological conditions that are particularly optimal for even ripening and the accumulation of sugars.

The specifications for Nizza DOCG will require wines to be made from 100% Barbera, harvested within a strictly delineated area surrounding Nizza Monferrato, aged for 18 months  prior to release, six of which in oak, the size and style as determined by the winemaker, and to naturally reach a minimum of 13% ABV.

Together with Morino’s Neuvsent 2007 we tasted a small selection of Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza wines most representative of what the Nizza DOCG will be.

Tasting Notes

Paolo Avezza Sotto la Muda 2007 had notable acidity, complexity and brightness. Very lively.

Produced by Giuliano Noé, whom Morino describes as “the father of Barbera” together with Michele Chiarlo, La Gironda  Le Nicchie 2009 was warm and chewy but completely clean.

Now its fifth generation and led by enterprising father and son Ermanno and Umberto, Brema 2009 was only  beginning to evolve – still dense with notes of toasty chocolate and cherry cordial.

Cantina Scrimaglio Acsé 2009, which means “like this” in local dialect was extremely  complex with notes of dried fruit and a dusty violet leaf and orris root element elegant earthiness, and acidity that seemed to dance up, down, and around the palate.

Annie Shapero

Certified sommelier and DiVino founder, Annie believes that the language of wine is more than vocabulary. It is history, culture and most of all, storytelling. She created DiVino as a writer, educator, and wine consultant to bring those stories to life and give people the tools to join the conversation. Watch her free, 21-episode introduction to wine tasting on Youtube, 21 Days to Wine.

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