Every wine region needs its standard-bearers. They come in various shapes and sizes, Krug in Champagne, DRC in Burgundy, Penfold’s in South Australia. However, what they share in common is being widely regarded as among the very best of a region’s producers. And, vitally, they carry the reputation of a whole region with them at home and abroad. Wine-Searcher.com shows Braida and Chiarlo occupy five of the top ten places in their ‘best of Barbera d’Asti’ tab, based on aggregating the scores of well-known critics, which is pretty impressive. They also have longevity. Braida established itself in the 1960s. Two decades later launched Barbera as an ageable, high-quality wine, rather than an everyday quaffer. Meanwhile, Chiarlo has been bottling top wines since the 1950s and started to export in the 1960s. It is credited with understanding how to stabilise Barbera through MLF as previously many of the wines had been young and semi=-sparkling. Since then both have consolidated their bases in Monferrato, mixed excellently-made high volume wines with collectable top wines and branched out into other areas of Piemonte in rather different ways. The two wineries are about half an hour apart by car: Braida is in Rocchetta Tanaro, 20 minutes north of the town of Nizza Monferrato, while Chiarlo is ten minutes south of the town in Calamandrana. Perhaps most importantly for wine lovers, there are clear stylistic differences between the two when it comes to Barbera. But before we come to that, we need to reflect on why these two companies are more famous than the region in which they are based.
The identity crisis of Barbera and Monferrato
Barbera and Monferrato suffer from an identity crisis. Generally, Piemonte is too often simply equated with Barolo and Barbaresco, and therefore other areas such as Monferrato or Alto Piemonte are overlooked. Then there is no clear distinction between the overlapping areas known as Asti and Monferrato. The former is mainly associated with the delicious, sweet Muscat-based sparkling wine. Monferrato refers to a cultural region not really understood beyond its own borders. The contrast with the clear identity of the Langhe understood as Barolo and Barbaresco could not be sharper.
Further, the appellation names really do not help. Barbera d’Asti covers pretty much the same area (less a few outlying zones) as Barbera del Monferrato, while Moscato d’Asti only covers the southern part of Barbera d’Asti. In reality, the best Barbera wines of the Monferrato region, the spiritual home of Barbera, are labelled either as Barbera d’Asti or latterly Nizza. Nizza was a sub-zone of Barbera d’Asti, now it is a DOCG in its own right. Barbera del Monferrato, a DOC, and Barbera del Monferrato Superiore, a DOCG, do exist as denominations but they simply do not have the same prestige or volume. As a result of these complications, the connection between Barbera as a grape variety and the Monferrato region is lost. In sum, the most famous Barbera denomination has the name of the region associated with another style of wine completely. The denominations that do have Barbera and Monferrato in the name are not that well known or valued. This makes the role of the region’s standard-bearers even more important. Very few wine enthusiasts will ask for a Barbera d’Asti as such; they will remember and ask for Braida or Chiarlo.
Big but balanced – Barbera at Braida
Giacomo Bologna’s, Braida, his nickname and now company name, is credited with the idea of Barbara as a high-quality, ageable wine. He was a friend of Angelo Gaja and like Gaja experimented with French oak barriques for ageing his top wines. He was on to something important as Barbera as a variety can do with a bit of a tannin boost from oak to make an ageable wine. Braida’s relatively high-volume Bricco dell’Uccellone popularised and made available Barbera aged in this way. It was accompanied by the much smaller, also single-vineyard, Bricco della Bigotta, and perhaps most outstandingly, the selection of best grapes picked up to a week later that goes into Ai Suma. The latter, named by Bologna after the Piedmontese dialect for ‘that’s it!’, is the apogee of the Braida style: intense, highly concentrated and, in short, a colossus of a wine.
Having recently tasted Ai Suma 2016 I can say that is one of the most remarkable wines I have tasted for a while. I am normally an advocate of low and moderate alcohol wines and low levels of new French oak. However, this shows that there can be exceptions to my rule. It carries its 16.5% abv (that number is not a typo) and 100 per cent new barriques with ease. The fruit concentration is remarkable and the complexity incredible: balsamic and spice notes mix with cooked blackberries and red plums; the astonishing richness is balanced with great Barbera acidity. The other two top wines are also big and balanced at over 15% abv and 40 per cent new oak. Even Braida’s entry-level Barbera, A Montebruna, weighs in at 15.5% in 2016. In a lighter style, the company also produces the lovely and indeed much loved Barbera frizzante, La Monella, ‘cheeky girl’ in dialect. Nowadays, it is 14% (like everything else, this would have been lower in the past) and no oak ageing. Here the Barbera del Monferrato DOC does get a look in as only this denomination allows a frizzante style. If you are interested in the winemaking details at Braida, they are well documented by Tim Jackson MW, here.
Precise and fruit-expressive – Barbera at Michele Chiarlo
Michele Chiarlo also based in Monferrato has a foot in two camps. On the one hand (should that be foot?), the company has bottled Barolo from great sites since 1958. It bought the sites in the MGAs Cerequio (where it is the largest single owner) and Cannubi in the late 1980s, putting it close to the top table of Barolo producers. On the other hand, it has built an impressive business that showcases the two great varieties grown in Monferrato, Moscato and Barbera. Undoubtedly, being a producer of Barolo has been a massive boost to its profile and indeed to the profile of Monferrato. The top Barberas here are the much-lauded Cipressi (best ever value wine to feature as Wine Enthusiast’s #1 Wine of the Year?) and La Court, the name of the estate that the Chiarlo family bought in 1995 in the heart of what is now Nizza DOCG which in turn has been transformed into Art Park La Court.
Stefano Chiarlo who now heads up the winemaking thinks that despite Barbera’s natural generosity, quality is achieved by rigorous reduction of yield and better clonal selection. In the past, there might have been 15 bunches on a vine, only half of which would be fully ripe. Now they aim for seven bunches per vine. New clones have also helped, producing bunches of half the weight of an earlier generation. Both wines are now Nizza DOCG, introduced in 2014 with leadership from Chiarlo. As a result, the wine has to be 100 per cent Barbera and the yields are severely restricted to 49 hL/ha (44 hL/ha if named single vineyard.) Compare that to a maximum of 70 hL/ha for Barbera d’Asti, 63 hL/ha for Barbera d’Alba and Barbera del Monferrato, rising to 84 hL/ha for Piemonte DOC Barbera. DOC Barbera is indeed a broad church!
However, although yields are low, the alcohol levels are not high. Cipressi 2016 is 14% abv and La Court Riserva 2017, a hot year, is also 14% abv. This is a stylistic choice and most likely to be related to the exact choice of picking date. Barbera can put on 1–1.5 per cent potential alcohol in a week according to Stefano Chiarlo. Oak use is, of course, also a choice. While Barbera benefits from oak tannins, Chiarlo aims to let the fruit be the protagonist. Cipressi is aged for 12 months in large oak casks for controlled oxidative ageing rather than new oak flavours. La Court ages for the same period in oak, half in large casks and half in tonneaux, for very limited new oak flavour. As the latter is a Nizza Reserva, it must be aged for a total of 30 months before release but the rest of this is in bottle.
These wines show a wonderful precision of Barbera fruit (damson, blackberry, with additional complexity from herbal and balsamic notes. Their principal structural feature is the trademark racy acidity, though both also have refined tannins. (Maceration on the skins lasts for 10–12 days with a mechanised cap-wetting system for very gentle extraction.) There is a clear step up in quality between Cipressi and La Court. The latter displays greater fruit richness and an intriguing earthiness while also adding a hint of liquorice and vanilla from oak. These are wines that do not shout but are supremely elegant, balanced and precise.
The two titans also differ in their ranges and to some extent in their business models. As we have seen, Michele Chiarlo has top Barolo to offer within the context of quite a wide range of Piemontese wines. The core is the three Barbara wines (entry-level, unoaked Le Orme, Cipressi, La Court). In addition, they have other top Piemontese denominations: Barbaresco and two Barberesco MGA wines, a well-regarded Moscato d’Asti (Nivole), a Roero MGA, a Dolcetto, two Gavis including a single-vineyard wine, a traditional method sparkling wine, not to mention the unusual red variety, Albarossa. Three grappas, from the three classic varieties, Nebbiolo, Barbera and Moscato complete the range. As Stefano Chiarlo’s says, we are really running two wineries. The first is for our two high volume wines (Barbera d’Asti le Orme and Moscato d’Asti Nivole) that together make up half of their 100,000 case production. The other is for what they call, with only the smallest amount of exaggeration, ‘the best crus in Piemonte’, all their single-vineyard wines.
By contrast, Braida sticks closer to its Monferrato roots with the exception of an interesting joint venture for white wines. In the Monferrato range, the three top Barbera d’Astis are supported by the excellent high-volume A Montebruna and La Monella. The range is extended by the unusual Barbera and international varieties blend, Il Bacialè (60 per cent Barbera, the rest from Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir). Both Monferrato sweet and sparkling wines, Brachetto and Moscato d’Asti, are made in significant numbers. The other local variety that is made here is Grignolino, one of what I call Monferrato’s famous five.
In addition, there is the line-up of white wines, grown on the Serra dei Fiori estate at some altitude in Trezzo Tinella, south of Alba. The wines are made at Giacosa Fratelli in Neive (Barbaresco) but distributed by Braida. The white wines are a Nascetta, the rising star of Langhe whites, a Riesling, a Chardonnay and a Chardonnay/Nascetta blend. As at Michele Chiarlo, there are some high-volume wines here, especially La Monella (90 per cent sold in Italy), A Monte Bruna, the two sweet semi-sparkling wines of course and, most interestingly, surprisingly high numbers of the super-premium Bricco dell’Uccellone. Fifty per cent is exported, mostly to the three markets of Switzerland (bolstered by visitors who can drive from there), Germany and the USA.
Monferrato is blessed by having these two titans to make the case for its wines, especially great Barbera. We are fortunate that these two titans do not have to battle it out, unlike most ruling families in Greek mythology. For the wine lover, we are presented with two great ranges in highly distinctive styles.
With thanks to Stefano Chiarlo (Michelle Chiarlo), Norbert Reinisch (export manager at Braida and husband of Raffaela Bologna) and Marta Sobrino (Well Com PR agency), for organising the wine samples and setting up Zoom calls).