There are very few things I like more than a good co-operative wine producer. I love the romance of the small grape growers of a region pooling their harvests, sharing experience and expertise. Sensibly, they entrust the complex tasks of making, promoting and selling the wine to a company set up for the common good, in which they have a stake. Years ago I can remember being profoundly impressed by Due Palme, a 2,000 grower co-operative in Puglia, and more recently I visited the outstanding co-operatives in Trentino (By and for the people) and Alto Adige (Alto Adige). Piemonte too has its co-operatives, which range from competent to outstanding. The best known is, of course, Produttori del Barbaresco, so it was great to discover Pertinace, a second high-quality example, also within Barbaresco DOCG.
A co-operative rooted in one municipality
Pertinace is named after a tiny hamlet in the commune of Treiso, Barbaresco’s most southerly municipality. Ultimately, the name refers back to a Roman emperor, Publio Elvio Pertinace, probably born here in 126 CE. (Sadly there is no record of his tastes in wine. If you read Italian you can learn about his rise as the son of a liberated slave, his 87-day reign and bloody end here.) The co-operative was founded by Mario Barbero in 1973. He persuaded 12 of his fellow growers to pool their efforts in a company called Cantina Vignaioli Elvio Pertinace. Today the winery is run by his son, Cesare Barbero. As virtually all of its vineyards are in the single municipality of Treiso, this is a co-operative with a sense of place. Since 1973, the number of growers has risen to 20 who between them grow grapes in 110 hectares of land. Most of the growers are the children or relatives of the founding members, strengthening the sense of place.
The company also has some other advantages. In many co-operatives, the average holding is one hectare per member or even less. This means that the growers are part-time and may only be able to work their land at the weekend. Pertinace, by contrast, has only three small growers with the others having 7–18 hectares each. Grape growing is their full-time jobs and in this, they are advised by the company’s agronomist. In addition, the company’s policy is to pay by the quality of grapes delivered with a bit range of pay, some grapes being rated as being worth twice other grapes. This is a big incentive for growers to produce the best possible fruit. The growers are contracted to deliver all of their fruit to the co-operative. This ensures continuity of supply and that it does not lose the best fruit to others. Finally, they have several quality levels. The very best fruit from three individual MGAs, see below, goes into the single MGA bottlings. The next grade goes into the Barbaresco classico, a blend from their vineyards within the denomination. Thus far all the wines are bottled as Pertinace. But there is a second line, sold in supermarkets in Italy, under the Cantina Vignaioli brand. This differentiated strategy allows for strict selection for the top wines.
The Pertinace wines have a very strong family resemblance. They are elegant and subtle wines; they do not shout or seek to impress with extravagant fruit or overt oak flavours. But they do show layers of interest, they evolve with time in the glass and they show the elegance and perfume that is typical of Treiso as a commune. They tick all the boxes for an authentic expression of Barbaresco. Aside from mainly being sourced in Treiso, the family resemblance is due to the way that they are made. All the Nebbiolo wines are made in the same way. The fruit is destemmed and pressed, a selected yeast is added for a secure and reliable fermentation to dryness. Fermentation temperature is controlled to keep it to 30ºC or below. As in generations past, the wine is kept on the skins for a couple of months using the submerged cap method. Once MLF is completed, the wine goes to mature in large, Slavonian oak casks for 18 months (twice what the rules require). Thus, with the exception of the contemporary features of selected yeast and temperature control, these are traditionally made wines that will have the capacity to age for years in the bottle. Gentle winemaking and long, neutral ageing allow the inherent quality of the grapes–and of the individual vineyards–to shine.
Pertinace also makes a very good Alta Langa traditional method sparkling wine, a pair of Barberas in contrasting styles (see below), no fewer than three Dolcetto bottlings, a Barolo from La Morra and several other wines. Here I will comment on the Nebbiolo and Barbera wines.
Langhe Nebbiolo, 2018, 14% – a lovely, accessible, red-cherry fruited wine with rose and earthy/tar notes, medium body, elegant with fine tannins,. In short, an outstanding example of a junior Barbaresco in all but formal classification, €12 in Italy, 16/20
Barbaresco Marcarini, 2017, 14.5% – Pertinace have access to 3.6 ha of the Marcarini MGA (i.e. sub-zone of the Treiso commune of Barbaresco) that faces south-west. Pertinace’s plot in at the top of the vineyard where it benefits from cooling and refreshing breezes from the River Tanaro. The soils are relatively sandy, resulting in elegant, perfumed and accessible wines. The 2017 has an enticing nose with rose, smoke and red berries beautifully integrated. The palate shows appealing ripe fruit with emerging smoke and liquorice notes, underpinned by moderately firm and ripe tannins. While being easy to appreciate now, this has the fruit and the structure to age. All the MGA wines are €27 in Italy, a bargain, 16.5+/20
Barbaresco Nervo, 2017, 14.5% – in the famous Nervo vineyard, Pertinace are supplied by two growers who have 3.5 ha of vines between them in the middle to the top of the vineyard. Soils are compacted, rocky with blue clay and limestone (Sant’Agata marl). The wine shows floral and lively red and black fruit, lifted acidity currently elevating the tannins. It is a touch more rugged than the other two MGAs. This shows real potential to age, 17/20.
Barbaresco Castellizzano 2017, 14.5% – this is a small south-east facing MGA, of which Pertinace has one hectare, close to the border with the next commune of Neive. Unusually the vineyard area is close to flat and the soils are darker in colour. It is between Marcarini and Nervo in terms of character. What struck me about it was the power of the chocolate and liquorice notes. Dark plum, chocolate and smoke on the nose, a touch fuller body than Marcarini, firmer but pleasant tannins. Again this has the fruit and structure to age, 17/20
Barbera – in Alba and Asti
I was puzzled by the two Barbera bottlings. One was Barbera d’Alba, entirely what you would expect within Barbaresco but the other was Barbera d’Asti. However, Cesare Barbero explained that it was his own 1.3 ha vineyard in Agliano Terme. It could be classified as Nizza DOCG but he has not jumped through that hoop. These two wines were a textbook example of Barbera in two styles. The Barbera d’Alba DOC, 2018,14.5%, shows the purple tint of young Barbera. The nose is so inviting in an overtly fruit-expressive style. Red and black cherry, plum and a hint of spice leap out of the glass. On the palate, the wine is fragrant, juicy and ridiculously drinkable–be warned you barely notice the 14.5% abv. At the same time, the fruit is well supported by brisk acidity and chalky tannins. Barbera d’Asti, Gratia Plena, 2015, 15%, despite being five years old is the current release and is a much more serious wine. Ruby in colour, the nose is dark and dense with black pepper and leather notes over dark plum fruit. There is a real depth to the fruit, with the concentration being balanced by a rounded acidity. The watchwords here are concentration, depth and a certain seriousness.
I am looking forward to tasting the Dolcetto wines in due course. But in the meantime, if you thought there was only one co-operative worth following in Barbaresco, the name you need to seek out is Pertinace, a co-operative with a sense of place.