Braida Winery synonymous with barbera grape

It’s a catchy opening line for an Italian wine salesman. Norbert Reinisch used to be a doctor of internal medicine, but he “changed from the curative side of medicine to the preventative” when he joined the wine business. This he did when he married the daughter of Giacomo Bologna, and now he’s the export sales manager for the Piedmontese winery Giacomo Bologna ‘Braida’. Bologna himself, whose nickname was Braida, is a hero of modern Italian wine. He’s credited with doing more for the barbera grape than anyone. He’s no longer with us, but the job is continued faithfully by his family, including son-in-law Reinisch.

Barbera is Italy’s third most widely grown red grape variety after sangiovese and montepulciano, but doesn’t get a fraction of the press of sangiovese. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that barbera was involved in the 1986 Italian methanol scandal, which actually killed people. Barbera had some lost ground to recover.

“Giacomo Bologna was a big personality, a pioneer of top-quality barbera. He was the first to believe in the quality of barbera,” says Reinisch. “We produce seven different barbera wines.” They include a sparkling version, although it isn’t available in Australia.

Unlike sangiovese, which is grown all over Italy, barbera is fairly specific to Piedmont: 85 per cent is grown there, says Reinisch.

Others have made a name for themselves with barbera, notably La Spinetta (tastings), Prunotto (tastings), Vietti (tastings) and Michele Chiarlo (tastings) in Piedmont and Castello di Cigognola in Lombardy.

But Braida is the one winery whose name is synonymous with barbera.

According to Daniele Cernilli and Marco Sabellico’s book The New Italy, Giacomo Bologna realised in 1985 that by reducing yields, selecting grapes from the best vineyards, and maturing the wine in small oak barrels, a wine of great depth and structure could be made from a grape that had hitherto made thin, acidic and slightly fizzy wines. Part of the problem was barbera’s notoriously high acidity coupled with high phenolic (tannin) levels, which made it essential to start with properly ripe grapes of good flavour concentration.

Reinisch recently came to Sydney promoting his wares, including Braida’s four top, old-vine DOCG Barbera d’Asti: Montebruna (tastings), Bricco della Bigotta (tastings), Bricco dell’Uccellone (tastings) and Ai Suma (tastings). These are serious red wines of stature and power.

Montebruna is a single-vineyard wine made from 60 year-old vines. The 2012 ($47) is deeply coloured and quite oaky to sniff, with intense black-cherry and blackberry flavours and fine, taut tannin structure. Bricco della Bigotta is another old-vine, single-vineyard wine; the 2010 ($118) is a dense, powerful wine full of dark-chocolate aromas, soft and fleshy in texture.

The most famous wine is Bricco dell’Uccellone, another old-vine, single-vineyard wine, and the wine that first made Giacomo Bologna’s fame. Bricco means the top of the hill, and uccellone has several meanings, not all printable, but one of them is ‘big nose’ – a reference to an old woman with a big nose who once lived on the hill. The 2010 ($118) is a superb wine, savoury, complex and powerful with terrific balance – which is remarkable for a wine with 16 per cent alcohol. The 2011 vintage ($130) is also 16 per cent, a massive wine from a hot vintage, but showing a wealth of lush sweet, black-cherry fruit, concentrated and dense, its acidity keeping it lively. A superb wine, but I preferred the ’10 for its greater elegance.

Just how well these wines age was demonstrated by a bottle of 1999, which came from the private cellar of John Portelli, of importer Enoteca Sileno. This was simply a great wine. The layers of complexities included old leather, dark chocolate, cigarbox and roasting pan aromas, with a note of ‘squashed-ant’ volatility. Wonderfully mellow and balanced, its acidity not assertive but undoubtedly helping keep the wine fresh. It will last at least another decade.

Interestingly, the alcohol was 14 per cent, and Reinisch volunteered that climate warming was resulting in consistently higher alcohols this century.

Then came the newest of the wines, Ai Suma, which is a barrel selection of the best wines from the above three vineyards. This is a wine unashamedly modelled on American tastes: a huge wine, with high glycerol and alcohol (again, 16 per cent), sweet fruit, lots of oak and tannin, and almost painful concentration. And, occasionally (as in 2011) a little residual sugar resulting from a fermentation that failed to complete. The 2011 is $170, and is certainly impressive – if that’s your style of wine. I preferred the 2010, which has a touch more savouriness and balance.

At another recent event I tasted another superb barbera: Castello di Cigognola Oltrepo Pavese DOC 2011, from Lombardy (not imported). This is a rich, fruitcakey, chocolaty, sumptuous wine of considerable aging ability. Like the Braida wines, they are in a different league to most of the barberas produced in Australia to date.

We do have an increasing number of barberas, which are lighter, simpler and more fruit-accented, and lack the extract of the best Italians. A notable exception is the 2012 Coriole ($25 – tastings) from McLaren Vale: easily the most impressive Aussie I’ve tasted recently, a wine of depth and richness.

I wouldn’t advocate shooting for 16 per cent alcohol, but there is certainly work to do here, if we are to find the right sites to grow the vines, and the right methods to handle the grapes. Light, simple, fruity wines are fine at modest prices, but barbera has the potential to deliver more: something truly spectacular.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 8 Apr 2014.

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