Working With Barbiere
Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
Barbieri. He has not been on the cover of The Wine
Spectator, nor even in the fine print. Robert M. Parker, Jr.
has not anointed him the rising star of the wine firmament.
No importer has bragged that such-and-such an estate is now
"working with Valerio Barbieri". Yet Barbieri has helped
make Tuscany a magic name for wine.
He never asked for recognition and no one ever found it in his or her interests to give it him. Many of the star Tuscan enologists would have had much more limited success had they and their clients not sought his help. Barbieri, a viticultural consultant, oversees the planting and management of vineyards. Starting this work thirty-five years ago, he was one of the very first such consultants. Still out in the Tuscan vineyards, day in and day out, he is a storehouse of the wisdom of the land. He remains the only active consulting viticulturalist of his generation.
He was born in 1942 at Greve-in-Chianti, one of the important wine towns in the Chianti Classic zone. As far as he knows, his ancestors were Chiantigiani (had ancient ancestral origins in the heart of the Chianti Classico area). He studied agriculture in Florence at the city's technical institute for agriculture, where he selected viticulture as his specialization. His first job was as a technician in the University of Florence's experimental farm. After working there for several years, he became director of Isole e Olena, a large farm in Barberino-Val d'Elsa with vineyards in the Chianti Classico wine zone. He transformed that farm's patchwork of small vineyards, once farmed by hand, into larger modern ones that could be farmed by machine.
This was a transformation that was occurring all over Tuscany. The sharecropping system that had existed for centuries suddenly collapsed. Landholders were left with a farm management system based on the management of small pieces of land by sharecropping families. The system of land management had to change. The vineyards had to be totally reconstructed and replanted. Most of the sharecroppers had packed up their belongings and left for factory jobs in the cities. The resulting lack of farm labor necessitated that the new vineyards be designed for mechanization. European Economic Community funds designated for agricultural improvements made the reconstruction possible.
It was in this era of rapid change that Barbieri spread his wings as a viticulturalist. At Isole e Olena he had the good fortune to come in contact with Giacomo Tachis, enologist at the Marchesi Antinori wine company. The De Marchi family, the Piedmontese owners of the estate, had sold most of their grapes to Antinori. Tachis, Piedmontese by birth, became a friend of Barbieri and the De Marchi family. Isole e Olena bottled its first wine with the 1969 vintage. As of 1972, Barbieri left Isole e Olena and began to consult for individual estates, principally in Chianti. It was a radical move because in those days an agronomist typically worked for a large farm as an agricultural manager. Barbieri kept in close contact with Tachis. It was in the interest of Marchesi Antinori for Tachis to recommend skilled viticulturalists and enologists where Antinori purchased either grapes or wine. For this reason, Tachis recommended Barbieri to many farms in need of viticultural help. During the 197Os, 198Os and 199Os, Tachis also worked closely with another agronomist, senior to Barbieri, Dottor Carlo Modi. Modi was an agronomist who had worked for most of his life as a functionary within the agricultural sector. As Modi began to retire in the late '9Os and the first years of the new century, Barbieri took over many of his clients. As a consequence, Barbieri's work became even more closely connected to Tachis. Barbieri, often aided by his daughter, Elisabetta, collaborates with other consulting enologists, including Giorgio Marone, Federico Staderini, Gabriella Tani, and Graziana Grassini. In the past, he worked at estates such as Fonterutoli and Castello di Brolio, which have played crucial roles in the development of the Tuscan wine industry. His present clients are Fattoria di Pisignano (San Casciano Val di Pesa), Villa Branca (Mercatale Val di Pesa, Chianti Classico), Villa Caffaggio (Panzano-in-Chianti, Chianti Classico), Marco Felluga's estate, Azienda Agricola San Niccolo' a Pisignano (San Casciano Val di Pesa, Chianti Classico), Casa Sola (Barberino, Chianti Classico), Rocca delle Macie (Castellina-in-Chianti, Chianti Classico), Scopone (Montalcino), Fattoria di Magliano (Scansano), Tenuta di Risseccoli (Greve-in-Chianti, Chianti Classico), Azienda Agricola Regionale Alberese (on the coast just north of Grosseto) and one estate, Illuminati, in Abruzzo in Southern Italy. He has also worked in Tuscany's Bolgheri zone as well as on the island of Elba and Giglio off the coast of Tuscany.
Barbieri is not proud of the 196Os and 197Os reconstruction of the Tuscan vineyards. The European Economic Community via the Italian political system threw money into a Tuscany not prepared to use it wisely. Decisions were made which had no solid base in research or past practice. At that time, "wine was made in the cellar". Viticulture was not held in high esteem. The volume of a harvest, not its quality, was the measure of its success. The nursery industry was neither organized nor prepared to supply the trade with the large amounts of quality rootstocks, scions and grafts. Landowners selected vineyard expositions out of expediency or fancy, not out of an interest to take advantage of sun exposure, elevation or soil suitability. Agricultural functionaries recommended rootstocks, particularly Kober 5BB, which encouraged too much vigor and production. The vine varieties were planted in proportions recommended by Chianti laws of the day, which included white grapes and far too much Canaiolo. Clonal selections of Sangiovese did not yet exist. In order to propagate more vines, nurseries used whatever budwood that they could get their hands on. Thankfully the sharecroppers who had farmed the land, buried manure in the soil. Farmers, therefore, generally did not apply large amounts of synthetic fertilizers. Tuscany also has a dry growing season which limits fungus diseases except for oidium. Hence fungicide use has not been excessive. Because of these conditions, Barbieri feels that Tuscany's soil has been less abused than those of other regions of Europe.
In the 198Os, the requests for high quality wines increased dramatically. The wine style desired by a new generation of consumers emphasized darker wine color, more alcohol and softer tactile sensations. Since the Chianti vineyards had not been set up to produce raw material that could produce this end result, Barbieri and others like him had to develop strategies that essentially enabled average vineyards to produce excellent grapes. The methods he and others employed were shorter pruning and reduced fertilization. At the beginning of the decade, Barbieri and others used mass selection to propagate the better clonal material within a farm. Later in the decade, they employed the more scientific method of clonal selection. The characteristics they sought included the ability of the vine to ripen early in the season, to have berries hanging loosely within each bunch, to produce small berries, and to give a reduced production per plant. Barbieri visited French wine regions several times during the 198Os. Some of what he saw he integrated into his work. Other improvements such as denser vine spacing had to wait until the next major replanting. The 198Os was a preparation period for Barbieri and others like him for the major replanting of the 199Os and early 2OOOs.
Because a winegrape vineyard has to be replaced every 25 to 3O years, the vineyards planted in the 196Os and 197Os were ready to be replaced by the 199Os and early 2OOOs. Barbieri and the remnants of his generation now had the chance to right the wrongs of the past. Because the market had moved towards higher quality wines, quality not quantity of production became the fundamental goal of reconstruction. Vineyards were reconstructed from the subsoil up so as to provide good drainage, a loose subsoil, higher vine density, lower vigor rootstocks and clones of varieties that assured less vigorous growth, looser bunches and smaller berries. Horizontal cordon was introduced because it was a better fit for mechanization. The white grapevines were not replaced. The percentage of Canaiolo in the vineyards was also reduced. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and more recently Syrah were planted for use in Chianti and IGT wines. Barbieri and others tried to minimize the impact of the reconstruction. Barbieri is proud to have been involved throughout Tuscany during the second reconstruction.
At the end of my interview, Barbieri took me into the vineyards of Villa Branca where he showed me the difference between the vineyards planted during the 196Os and '7Os, those of the 199Os, and those most recently planted. Villa Branca is in Mercatale Val di Pesa in the northern part of Chianti Classico. The estate contains about 6O hectares of vineyards. Its terrain is of the sort commonly found in the San Casciano area. The soil varies from place to place in its proportions of sand, lime and clay, and is of roughly the same chemical and physical composition as the soils in the alto Chianti, that part of Chianti Classico to the south which has higher elevations and rockier soils. The soils were founded during the Pliocene period when this part of Chianti Classico was underwater. Hence the albarese stone (a calcareous stone that, when given a whack, splits along convex and concave contours) has been rounded by centuries of movement. The Alto Chianti soils were formed during the Miocene period. The land since that time has been above sea level. Hence the rocks have sharp edges due to erosive splitting. The vineyards of Antinori abut those of Villa Branca and Tignanello, the famous Antinori vineyard, is not far away. Barbieri told me that although the Alto Chianti had growing conditions ideal for Sangiovese, Antinori had showed everyone that top-notch vineyard management could make wines every bit as good, if not better, in the Mercatale area. The reputation of the wines from the San Casciano and Mercatale areas has suffered because viticultural expertise of others lagged behind that of other areas of Chianti Classico. At Villa Branca, Barbieri had been hired, upon Tachis's advice to the Branca family.
At the end of my tour of the Villa Branca vineyards, I mentioned to Barbieri that despite the great investments of the owners and the talent of Barbieri and Tachis, the wines of Villa Branca were good, not great. Barbieri conceded, "The wines of Villa Branca are not yet great. It takes time - years - to improve the vineyards to the point at which they can produce great grapes. The new vineyards are only 3-years-old. In the next few years, when the grapes of these vineyards end up in the wine, you will see the improvement that viticulture has had on the wine."
The job of enologists is to preserve the quality of the grapes that viticulturalists bring to them. But the work of viticulturalists happens too slowly for we journalists to notice. We take great notice only of the "new", and we write about the "news". Despite this tendency, when the first glasses of great Villa Branca reach the lips of journalists and the public, I hope that Valerio Barbieri will get some credit.