Barbera (from Piedmont) was always one of my favorite grape varieties. Historically, it was so fresh and friendly, vibrant and versatile, easy to drink but complex enough to tingle my wine nerd sensibilities. And yet, lately, something has been off with it. Gone are those impossibly bright reds, replaced far too often with flabby, flaccid fruit bombs. This perfect partner to pizza and pasta of a sudden seems to need instead a slab of beef to even attempt to tame its over-ripeness. And even then, it often falls flat.
While I was pondering this desire to uncover the meaning behind the banishment of my beloved historical Barbera style — and the fact that I didn’t have the time I would’ve liked to dig into the issue properly — I considered all the recent hype about ChatGPT. Why not, then, ask GPT to explain Barbera’s seemingly sudden change? It was worth a shot. I started with a simple prompt: “Explain why the ABV on Barbera wine has increased in recent years.”
Before I get to GPT’s response, two quick caveats: 1) of course alcohol by volume (ABV) is not the only thing that matters in a wine; one with high ABV might even be more balanced than one with lower. It is, however, often a good indicator of style. 2) the listed ABV on the bottle may not necessarily be accurate, as a range is typically allowed.
Now, to GPT:
Barbera is a red grape varietal that is widely grown in the Piedmont region of Italy. The wine produced from this grape is known for its high acidity and bright fruit flavors, and is often enjoyed as a food-friendly wine. In recent years, there has been a trend towards producing Barbera wines with higher alcohol content. The alcohol by volume (ABV) of these wines has increased from the traditional range of 12–13% to 14–15% or higher.
There are several factors that have contributed to this trend. One of the main reasons is changing weather patterns and the impact of climate change on vineyard conditions. Warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons can result in grapes with higher sugar levels, which can in turn lead to wines with higher alcohol content.
In addition, winemakers may be using different vineyard management techniques and winemaking practices to produce Barbera wines with higher alcohol content. For example, vineyards may be planted at higher altitudes or in cooler regions in order to retain acidity levels while still achieving higher sugar levels. Winemakers may also be using techniques such as extended maceration or oak aging to add complexity and depth to the wine.
However, there are concerns that producing Barbera wines with higher alcohol content can result in imbalanced wines that lack the acidity and freshness that are characteristic of the varietal. As a result, some winemakers and consumers are advocating for a return to the traditional, lower-alcohol style of Barbera wines.
Ultimately, the decision to produce Barbera wines with higher alcohol content is up to individual winemakers and the demands of the market. However, it is important for winemakers to maintain the balance and quality of their wines while adapting to changing conditions and trends in the industry.
So, decent stuff there. It’s generic, like a lot of AI-generated stuff, but seems like a reasonably accurate overview of the topic. But I wanted to go deeper, so I followed up by building on something GPT had mentioned: “Write more about the winemakers and consumers who are advocating for a return to the traditional, lower-alcohol style of Barbera wines.”
In recent years, there has been a growing movement among winemakers and consumers to return to the traditional, lower-alcohol style of Barbera wines. This movement is being driven by a desire to create wines that are more balanced and food-friendly, as well as a recognition that higher-alcohol wines can be detrimental to health and enjoyment.
Many winemakers who are advocating for a return to lower-alcohol Barbera wines are those who have a deep respect for tradition and history. They believe that the true essence of Barbera lies in its ability to express the unique terroir of the region, and that this can only be achieved through careful attention to detail and a focus on quality over quantity.
At the same time, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the negative effects of high-alcohol wines, both in terms of health and overall enjoyment. Many are seeking out lower-alcohol wines that are more refreshing and easy to drink, and that can be enjoyed with a variety of foods.
The movement towards lower-alcohol Barbera wines is not without its challenges, however. Some winemakers are reluctant to abandon the modern techniques and practices that have led to higher-alcohol wines, which can be more profitable and easier to produce. Additionally, some consumers may be resistant to the idea of lower-alcohol wines, which they may perceive as being less intense or flavorful.
Despite these challenges, many winemakers and consumers remain committed to the return to traditional, lower-alcohol Barbera wines. They believe that by focusing on quality and balance, they can create wines that truly represent the best of the Barbera grape and the Piedmont region.
Ok, it certainly gave me more info, but it still felt rather generic, failing to dig below the surface. So I continued: “Who specifically is advocating for a return to the traditional, lower-alcohol style of Barbera wines?”
There are many winemakers and wine experts who are advocating for a return to the traditional, lower-alcohol style of Barbera wines. Some of the more well-known names in this movement include:
Roberto Conterno: the owner of the legendary Barolo estate Giacomo Conterno, who has been experimenting with lower-alcohol Barbera wines at his estate in the Piedmont region.
Gianluca Colombo: the winemaker at Cascina Garitina in the Piedmont region, who is known for his dedication to traditional winemaking methods and his emphasis on lower-alcohol Barbera wines.
Walter Massa: a well-known winemaker from the Piedmont region who has been a vocal advocate for traditional, lower-alcohol Barbera wines for many years.
Ian D’Agata: a wine critic and writer who has championed the cause of lower-alcohol Barbera wines in his writing and public appearances.
Alice Feiring: a wine journalist and author who has written extensively about the need for a return to traditional winemaking methods, including the production of lower-alcohol Barbera wines.
These are just a few of the many individuals who are leading the charge for a return to traditional, lower-alcohol Barbera wines. Their efforts are helping to raise awareness of the importance of balance and quality in winemaking, and to encourage a greater appreciation for the unique qualities of this historic and beloved grape.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this. On one hand, I appreciated the actual names. But it didn’t really say anything about what these people are specifically doing related to Barbera, did it? Other than “leading the charge.” How? Why? I wanted more detail.
Maybe, I thought, asking about specific wines would yield better results? “Can you.” I then wrote, “recommend some high quality Barbera wines that are lower in alcohol?” (Non-italics are my commentary)
Here are a few high-quality Barbera wines that are known for being lower in alcohol:
Walter Massa Derthona: This Barbera from the Piedmont region is known for its elegant, refined style and lower alcohol content. The wine is made using traditional winemaking methods and is aged in oak barrels for several months to add complexity and depth. (Dethona is a white wine made from Timorasso, but Massa does make excellent Barbera. The wood aged one, Monelale, is 14%, and consistently excellent. Massa’s Terra Rosso Barbera 2021 is listed at 13% and is a nice option for a lighter-style version.)
Cascina degli Ulivi Pèppoli: Another Piedmontese Barbera, this wine is made using organic farming methods and is fermented with native yeasts for a more natural, authentic flavor profile. The wine has a vibrant acidity and a lower alcohol content than many other Barberas on the market. (I couldn’t find this wine online. I found Cascina degli Ulivi winery, who uses Barbera in several blends, but no varietal wines that I could see. And Pèppoli is a Chianti Classico from Antinori.)
Braida Bricco dell’Uccellone: This Barbera from the Asti region is known for its intense, concentrated flavors and lower alcohol content. The wine is aged in oak barrels for 12 months and has a rich, velvety texture that is balanced by its acidity and minerality. (The 2021 is 14%, which is downright reasonable by this point, but it costs $80!)
Conterno Fantino Barbera d’Alba Vignota: This Barbera from the Piedmont region is made using biodynamic farming methods and is fermented with natural yeasts for a more authentic, terroir-driven flavor profile. The wine has a lower alcohol content than many other Barberas on the market and is known for its elegant, balanced style. (The 2021 is 14.5%)
La Spinetta Barbera d’Asti Superiore: This Barbera from the Asti region is aged in oak barrels for 12 months and has a lower alcohol content than many other Barberas on the market. The wine is known for its complex flavor profile, which includes notes of dark fruit, spice, and earth.(The 2019 is 14.5%)
I don’t consider 14% to be low in alcohol for Barbera. Maybe it’s on the lower side today, but if I want to find some stuff that truly takes me back, I clearly need to get more specific. I decided to go for broke: “Can you recommend some high quality barbera wines that are lower than 13% alcohol?”
Here are a few high-quality Barbera wines that are known for having an alcohol content lower than 13%:
Oltretorrente Barbera Colli Tortonesi: This Barbera from the Colli Tortonesi DOC in the Piedmont region of Italy has an alcohol content of around 12.5%. It is made using organic farming methods and traditional winemaking techniques, resulting in a wine with a balanced acidity and soft tannins.(2019 is actually 14.5%)
Giuseppe Cortese Barbera d’Alba: This Barbera from the Alba region of Piedmont has an alcohol content of around 12.5%. It is made using sustainable farming practices and minimal intervention in the winemaking process, resulting in a wine that is fresh, vibrant, and fruit-forward. (2021 vintage is actually 14%)
Castello di Neive Barbera d’Alba: This Barbera from the Alba region of Piedmont has an alcohol content of around 12.5%. It is made using traditional winemaking methods and is aged in oak barrels for 12 months, resulting in a wine that is complex and full-bodied, with a long finish. (2019 vintage is actually 15.5%)
Vajra Barbera d’Alba: This Barbera from the Alba region of Piedmont has an alcohol content of around 12.5%. It is made using organic farming methods and traditional winemaking techniques, resulting in a wine that is elegant, balanced, and fruit-forward. (2021 vintage is actually 14.5%)
Marchesi di Gresy Barbera d’Asti: This Barbera from the Asti region of Piedmont has an alcohol content of around 12.5%. It is made using sustainable farming practices and traditional winemaking techniques, resulting in a wine that is well-structured, with notes of dark fruit and spice. (2020 is actually 14.5%)
So, after all that, what did we learn?
In GPT’s favor, it provided a relatively clear overview of a moderately complex wine-related topic. Yes, it was stiff and repetitive, but one could say that about a lot of human writing. This could serve as a wake up call for wine writers and bloggers, knowing that AI can already put out the basic facts about a wine, region, etc. reasonably well. Assuming it will continue to improve rapidly, we must constantly ask ourselves: how are we adding deeper insight to our writing? (If we don’t know, we may already be obsolete.)
All that said, when I tried to get more specific, GPT clearly stumbled, either repeating vague generalisms or providing inaccurate, outdated or misleading information. For a nuanced topic like this, it’s obvious that a human can still — for now — provide more credible information. (Although, the GPT has likely improved more than this human since the latter requested this information, so much so that his evaluation may too already be obsolete.)
The other thing we learned, of course, is that it is damn hard to find a recently released Piedmont Barbera that is lower in alcohol. Even 13.5%, which I would have considered high a decade ago, seems like a major score today.
I was actually able to find one bottle at 12.5% — without the help of GPT! — Ercole Barbera del Monferrato 2020 ($15 for 1L), a private label wine produced for importer The Piedmont Guy by a Monferrato co-op. It starts out plummy and relatively simple, but picks up some interesting spice and earth notes with some air. While certainly not the most interesting 100% Barbera in this ABV range I’ve ever tried, I’ll take the juicy freshness here over stewed fruit or plodding oak notes any day.
Another — and perhaps even better — way forward here is through blending; using grapes like Dolcetto and Nebbiolo to mitigate Barbera’s newfound desire to over-ripen. Cantine Elvio Tintero Vino Rosso 2021, for example, offers a unique mix of 50% Barbera, 40% Dolcetto, 5% Nebbiolo and, oddly, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, that clocks in at 12.5%. Although this wine is relatively basic and primary, it’s also fresh and easy going, like the Barbera of old.
So maybe there is hope for lovers of old school Barbera (blends) after all?
This article was originally published on Medium
This post was part of the #ItalianFWT group’s November 2023 theme on Piedmont and Val d’Aosta. Here are the other articles:
- Grosjean Fumin Valle d’Aosta DOC with Carbonade Valdostana & Polenta Concia by Crushed Grape Chronicles
- Nebbiolo delle Langhe DOC from Vietti 2020, A Symphony of Flavor by Avvinare
- Simple, but Seriously Delicious: Lasagne alla Valdostana + Grosjean Vallee d’Aoste Gamay 2022 by Culinary Cam
- Sweet Surprises Pairing Brachetto and BBQ by The Quirky Cork
- Two Cru Wines that Celebrates the Accomplished Viticultural Heritage of Piemonte by Grapevine Adventures
- Valle d’Aosta Co-op La Kiuva Rouge de Vallèe paired with Mushroom Soup by Vino Travels
- Wine Braised Pork Loin and a 2019 Travaglini Gattinara by A Day in the Life on the Farm