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Produttori del Barbaresco: the worlds best wine cooperative?

In 1894, Domizio Cavazza created Barbaresco’s first cooperative, the Cantine Sociali. Cavazza recognised that Nebbiolo from Barbaresco differed from Barolo, and for the first time, acknowledged this on the label. In 1920, fascist rule forced the Cantine Sociali to close, it wasn’t until 1958 that a cooperative reemerged in Barbaresco; the Produttori del Barbaresco. Today, in a good vintage, the Produttori (consisting of 54 growers and 250 acres of vineyards) bottles nine single vineyard wines, a Barbaresco DOCG, and a Langhe Nebbiolo DOC. My appreciation for the Produttori, and Piedmont as a region, came to be in 2015. I received as a gift, a bottle of 2008 Produttori del Barbaresco Pora: the wine was ethereal, seductive and poised. Last year I visited the Produttori and in this article get to grips with what makes this cooperative the best in the world.

The history

At the helm of the Produttori del Barbaresco sits Aldo Vacca, few are more learned in working with Nebbiolo, both in the vineyard and the winery. Vacca’s great grandfather was one of the original nine Barbaresco land owners who together with Cavazza in 1894, started the Cantine Sociali (social cellars). After fascist rule brought the Cantine Sociali to an end in the 20’s, both of his grandfathers from both sides of his family were amongst the original 19 founders of the Produttori in 1958. It was thanks to the vision of Domizio Cavazza, a viticulturist and agronomist, that the Produttori came to be. After joining the wine school of Alba as the first direct, Cavazza moved to the region in 1888.

50HL barrels (larger single vineyards) in the new winery

After buying the villages castle, he took an interest in village life, in the wine, in the potential of the village. In the late 1800s no Barbaresco appellation existed, grapes grown in Barbaresco were more often than not labelled as Barolo. Before championing Barbaresco as a standalone wine, Cavazza had lobbied to expand the size of the Barolo region. He sought to increase volume and for the town of Alba to be the centre of marketing, research and communication, he had big dreams.

Cavazza had initially hoped for Barbaresco to be recognised as one of the villages of Barolo, just as Montforte, Serralunga were. As one can imagine the people of Barolo had no interest in this. This rejection saw the beginning of Barbaresco as a ‘real wine’, where Cavazza founded his winery in circa 1894. He was able to convince 9 land owners including Vacca’s grandfather, the bishop and a couple of generals from the royal army, to deliver their grapes to the winery and make wine together under the name of Cantine Sociali. The masterplan was to use Cavazza’ knowledge of viticulture and winemaking, combined with the vineyards of the members, to make a more broad impact upon the market.

Such was the birth of Barbaresco’s first cooperative.

After the Cantine was established, Cavazza commissioned a poster, an image of a knight holding a barrel of Barbaresco, one which is still used by the Produttori today. He also drew a map of Barbaresco with red dots marking what he recognised as the best vineyards. To recognise the importance of terroir, the unique distinctions of individual sites, was very much ahead of his own time. Cavazza died in 1913 and from 1914 to 1918 WW1 decimated much of Europe, the post-war landscape in Italy was one of fascism and depression. Without his unique vision, vision the winery closed at the end of the 20s.

With the exception of the Gaja family (where Aldo Vacca worked for 4 years) gaining notoriety as a producer, very little happened in the village of Barbaresco during the first half of the 19th century. In the 50s the village remained one of segmented growers, not only growing grapes, who sold their crops to the open market in their struggle to earn a living. But things were soon to change. In the late 1950’s the Bishop assigned a young priest, Don Fiorino Marengo, to run the village Parish. Don Fiorino was young, vibrant and dynamic. Inspired and fascinated by the stories of Cavazza and how 9 farmers had changed the way of life for so many, Don Fiorino was able to convince 19 farmers to pool together and revive the cooperative,. Together they bought a piece of land opposite the church in the main square of Barbaresco and the first winery was built.

Of the 19 original members, Aldo’s father was the only one with a university degree, for this reason it was his responsibility to manage the business. Until 1972 this was a part-time job, the sales of the wine did not justify him committing to the Produttori del Barbaresco full-time, instead he would visit the village twice a week, once to bookkeep and once to sell the wine.

In 1961 Angelo Gaja had told his father the time had come for them to stop buying grapes and to instead 100% estate bottle. At this time Gaja had no land in Barolo, instead of buying land they made the decision to stop making Barolo and focus only on Barbaresco. This was a turning point for the Produttori. Gaja made the world talk about Barbaresco whilst the Produttori made the world drink Barbaresco.

Gaja winery in Barbaresco village

For around 10 years the Produttori only made one wine, the first release of single-vineyard wines was in 1967 (5 single vineyards were released). Around this time Gaja and Bruno Giacosa had also begun to release single-vineyard wines. This had coincided with the winemakers of the region starting to look more toward Burgundy. In 1975 the Produttori added the Langhe Nebbiolo bottling, when Barolo and Barbaresco became DOCG in 1981, Langhe Nebbiolo became DOC (currently the fastest growing appellation in the Langhe)

The Produttori has since grown, today the cooperative stands at 11 wines, 54 members, 54 families, 54 shareholders. Vacca is clear that these families do not work for him; he works for them. Prices have remained relatively low, perhaps the most low-cost age worthy wine one can buy, all of this despite their universally acknowledged quality.

During the 1950’s wine cooperatives were popping up across much of Europe, as a rule of thumb they produced table wine, which was in the most part only of reasonable quality. Despite this, there are few wines in the world, cooperative or not, which rival the complexity, elegance and diversity that the Produttori’s single vineyards offer. No other cooperative has been able to achieve this level of recognition, none make wine this serious, wine which is able to rival the great wines of world.

What has set the Produttori del Barbaresco apart?

Few will argue that since its inception the Produttori del Barbaresco has not been a worthy champion for Nebbiolo. In recent decades the cooperative has further developed upon quality, remained consistent despite warmer vintages and has seen demand balloon as a result. The latter half of this article will explore the changes which have been paramount in this success. Although perhaps obvious, it is hard to propose anything to have been more important than the cooperatives decision to focus on only one grape and one wine; Nebbiolo and Barbaresco. To this day the Produttori del Barbaresco are the only winery in the region to work only with Nebbiolo. The scale of this resource, 54 multi-generational farmers working with a single variety, cannot be overlooked when considering the Produttori’ success.

Since the days of the Cantine Sociali, quality winemaking has been of the utmost importance to the cooperative. In the early 70’s the Produttori hired a consultant winemaker (Roberto Macaluso) and in 1984 they hired a full-time professional winemaker. In 1986 Gianni Testa joined the Produttori as a student straight out of wine school. He remains at the winery to this day and has worked his entire career with only grape. The Produttori’s approach to winemaking has remained sensible. As more efficient and effective equipment has become available, the board have encouraged growers to invest a percentage of their profits into updating the winery facilities and equipment.

The vinification style of all of the wines is the same. Barbaresco single vineyards ferment in 50hl stainless steel tanks, temperature-controlled to reduce the likelihood of stuck fermentation. Bigger single vineyards (Ovello, Pora and Montestefano) Barbaresco and the Langhe Nebbiolo ferment in 100hl stainless steel tanks. As production increases the Langhe Nebbiolo are fermented in concrete tanks which are built in to the old winery.

The wines spend quite some time on the skins, roughly around 20 days, with pumpovers 2 to 3 times per day for the first week whilst fermentation is lively. The Produttori opt for immediate fermentation, cold soak does not deliver desired style. Once fermentation is in the most part complete, the cap is submerged and the wine is allowed to ferment bone dry.

The focus here is on extraction of both harsh and soft tannins, the Produttori wants it all. Aldo is confident in Barbaresco’s terroir and in the cooperatives grapes. He would rather extract everything out of the grapes and for that finished wine to take a couple of extra years to soften out, opposed to something being missed in the winemaking process. As the climate has changed and vintages become warmer the winemaking has adjusted accordingly. The Produttori have committed considerable investment in expansion of the winery and cleaning up the wine.

Investment in equipment has been tantamount to maintaining consistent quality. The crusher destemmer which the Produttori used in the 80s and 90s was somewhat ineffective. Whilst it was indeed destemming it was not perfect, there were stems left in the must. The green, tannic and bitter stems of Nebbiolo did not suit the finished wine. In the early 90s the Produttori purchased a new pneumatic crusher destemmer, having experimented with a vertical crusher the members felt that the amount of vin de press was too high. This new pneumatic press allows a gentle extraction, the skins remain soggy and damp after the pressing which better suited the desired wine.

The combination of oak in the cellar is French and Slovenian, exclusively sourced from Italian coopers. The barrels are all large, usually 25,50 and 75hl used for 25-30 years. This means that even where the time in barrel is long, the impact on the finished wine is minimal. The Produttori have been steadily replacing all of the old barrels over the last 20 years. This programme of changing the barrels has helped the Produttori maintain a clean wine. Where barrels are used for extensive periods of time, such as at the Produttori, spoilage can become a problem, something I have certainly tasted elsewhere in the region. Expensive decisions taken in the barrel room have helped deliver a pure and clean expression of the Nebbiolo.

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25HL single-vineyard barrels

In years gone by, vintages were unripe or just ripe, now there are ripe or super-ripe vintages. This has meant a change in the management of the vineyards. The new generation of growers are sensible in regards their understanding that high-quality wine can only come from good vineyard management. The standards that the Produttori expects are higher than ever and growers are more than happy to oblige.

Vacca believes that the farmers really began to notice the effect of climate change in 1997 and 2000, the farmers discussed the ripeness and the potential of not releasing the single vineyards as reserve. Work in the vineyard had previously been geared toward exposure of the fruit zone, now this is not so important. Additional leaves are retained in order to increase shading of the fruit zone and intra-row cover crop planted. Whilst green harvest remains to some extent important, although not as important as it may have been in the 90s. A few extra grapes will ripen more easily these days, so yield is balanced opposed to low.

The Produttori is also now working with better clonal material, when replants take place the farmers work with particular plant material. In the late 80s the university of Turin selected mother plants, their focus was quality opposed to quantity, from these plants they reproduced clones which were made available to local nurseries. Gaja, arguably the preeminent producer of Barbaresco, do not purchase plant material from this clone library. Instead they plant their own massal nurseries, sick vines are marked and those which recover are selected for planting.

Further to more suitable clonal material, a new approach to canopy management and cover cropping where necessary, the growers are now acutely aware of the importance of minimising their use of fertiliser and pesticide. The board hold seminars and meetings in the winter to keep growers updated on the latest viticultural developments. Aldo is clear that whilst the board are always available for consulting, they do not impose anything. The growers work their own vineyards the way they want.

As the market price for Barolo and Barbaresco increases producers are less willing to demote their Barbaresco juice to Langhe Nebbiolo. For this reason many are planting outside the Barbaresco DOCG with the intention of bottling these grapes as Langhe Nebbiolo. Despite this, the Produttori have no plantings outside Barbaresco. The farmers and the board refused to do this, 100% of the grapes used in the Langhe Nebbiolo, even in vintages like 2015 where ripeness is achieved everywhere and could in theory make Barbaresco, are grown within the Barbaresco DOCG. The DOCG also permits up to 15% Barbera in Langhe Nebbiolo, the Produttori del Barbaresco never opts for this inclusion.

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Pora vineyard

The Produttori is committed first and foremost to making a fantastic Barbaresco, with their current holding they could if they deemed fit add several more single vineyards to the nine they are currently bottling. However, the farmers believe that this would mean high-quality grapes are no longer available for the production of the Barbaresco and the Langhe Nebbiolo. The cooperative is not willing to sacrifice the quality of these two wines.

The single vineyard wines of the Produttori del Barbaresco are arguably the most complete expressions of the regions great sites that one can taste. The cooperative is uniquely positioned to best showcase these sites, akin to the monopoles of Burgundy. Consider this, for the most part where a producer bottles an Ovello they likely own just a few rows of vines in a particular section of the vineyard. In Ovello alone, the Produttori have 12 farmers. This variation of intra-vineyard plot ownership means that the resulting wine is a more all-encompassing representation of site and place. Furthermore this means that in any given vintage the cooperative is able to cherry pick the very best grapes for the single-vineyard wines with the rest being used to for Barbaresco

A board of 9 farmers run the cooperative, the other 54 elect these 9 farmers once every 3 years. A vote then takes place to select one of these 9 to be president, along with the board the president will make commercial decisions. Aldo meets with the winemakers once a month, together they decide on release dates, bottling, purchasing decisions and more. Decisions are made democratically, for the 50th anniversary Aldo suggested the cooperative add a tenth single-vineyard wine, the board rejected and stuck with 9. This autonomy, transparency and commitment to the farmers has meant the cooperative has grown in both size, quality and reputation.

If in any specific vintage a particular site is unsuitable for bottling as a single vineyard, the Produttori will not bottle any of the single vineyards. This policy intends to keep all of the farmers happy, in the long term it could create tension if one farmer were to suffer whilst the rest prosper. The primary goal of the Produttori is to alway bottle an outstanding Barbaresco (50% of their total production). The Produttori will only bottle the single vineyards where they can ensure the Barbaresco remains outstanding.

The Produttori’s new winery

Harvest is quite the spectacle these days, producers bring their grapes to the courtyard outside the winery, where there is a large scale and board publicly displaying the prices paid to different growers. The Produttori initially only measured brix, it had previously been a struggle to ripen grapes and so sugar ripeness was essential. Now the assessment of ripeness is much more all-encompassing. Measured levels of sugar, colour intensity and phenolic ripeness establish overall quality. This assessment decides whether the grapes will make Langhe Nebbiolo or Barbaresco. The growers receive payment on a sliding scale from 2 to 5 euros. These changes are a sign of both the transparency and the technological advancements of the Produttori del Barbaresco.

For those wanting a little more

I hope that this article has helped outline what it is that distinguishes the Produttori del Barbaresco not only from other cooperatives but also a winery. If you wish to find out more about the vineyards, wines and growers of the Produttori del Barbaresco their website is a useful resource. If you really want to geek out John Gilman of View From The Cellar has an extremely in-depth article from circa 2009 which should cover everything you could need to know in detail. Fine Wine Geek has also put together a complete table of bottlings and volume by year here.

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