The Barbera affair: what really happened that snowy night in Nizza

The following is my account of the events that took place on Tuesday, March 9, 2010, during Barbera Meeting 2010. The facts, ma’am, just the facts. See also the account published by Tom’s Wine Line.

Bernard Arnould

Above: Even after they traded words more acidic than an unoaked Barbera, Belgian wine writer Bernard Arnould (left) and winemaker Ludovico Isolabella shared pleasantries during the aperitivo after the conference on the wines of Nizza last Wednesday.

The controversy really began before lunch, when Italian wine writer Carlo Macchi, Austrian Helmut Knall, and Americans Charles Scicolone and Tom Maresca asked some pointed questions during the Q&A following a presentation by professor of enology Vincenzo Gerbi (University of Turin) and legendary winemaker Michele Chiarlo in Canelli before lunch. The speakers had presented the results of the Hastae experimental laboratory project. Researchers were able to reduce levels of acidity by employing non-traditional vine-training methods they said. I had been asked to interpret.

Why, asked the attendees, would you want to reduce the acidity levels of Barbera when its bright acidity is it’s defining characteristic? The answer, said the presenters, lies in a desire to make a wine more palatable to a wider market. The same held for judicious oak aging, they said. A heated argument on what defines “recognizability” and “typicity” ensued. Frankly, I had an easier time interpreting for the Italian foreign minister’s delegation and a hostile group of Chinese officials when I worked at the United Nations some years ago.

Above: Charles Scicolone addressed Michele Chiarlo directly during the afternoon session.

But things really heated up after we had tasted roughly 50 wines in the afternoon session in Nizza and Belgian wine writer Bernard Arnould took the floor and openly challenged the winemakers present: the wines we had tasted, he told them, were so oaky and concentrated that they were barely drinkable. They did not resemble Barbera, he said, and he couldn’t help but wonder out loud where they expected to sell these wines.

To this, winemaker (and one of Piedmont’s foremost lawyers) Ludovico Isolabella, owner of the Isolabella winery, responded by asking: “Do you know anything, anything at all, about wine?”

Following this, Charles Scicolone addressed the winemakers, and Michele Chiarlo in particular. He asked them for whom these wines were intended. They did not taste like the wines he had tasted 20 years prior, he said. Why, he asked, did they change their winemaking style? Were they making one wine for their own consumption and another to sell to America? The Barberas he had tasted, he explained, were no longer the high-acidity, bright fruit, low-tannin, food-friendly wines of two decades ago.

Above: The Barbera 7 watched on as the volatile acidity flew. You can see Polish colleague Andrzej Daszkiewicz in the background with Charles and Tom Maresca to his left.

That’s all I have time for today. I’ll have more to report tomorrow and I know that my colleagues are also scribing posts on the fateful events of that day.

In the meantime, I’ve spent the whole day (and last night) stuck at JFK. I kinda feel like the Tom Hanks character in Spielberg’s Terminal. Ugh… Hopefully, I’ll make it back to that beautiful lady of mine tonight. I don’t think I can stand another day without her…

10 thoughts on “The Barbera affair: what really happened that snowy night in Nizza

  1. Pingback: The Barbera affair: what really happened that snowy night in Nizza « Barbera Meeting 2010

  2. Thanks for mentioning, Jeremy, but my role in this debate was pretty minuscule, if nonzero at all. Bernard, Denis and Charles said almost everything I would have said if I had been brave enough :-) I have something to add though, so please be patient, my post to the Barbera7 blog will come in due time.

  3. Hi Jeremy and all. From your characterization it seems to me that Ludovico Isolabella’s comment was far more inflammatory than that of Bernard’s. I suspect, too, that it was borne out of a sense of insecurity from surrounding himself with the law over wine, a subject of which Bernard is both well-steeped and well-versed. I hope his statements are better constructed than his website which, tellingly, lacks anything under the ‘philosophia’ section. Did their exchange end cordially? I’d like to read more of the debate overall.

  4. David, I think the closest to what Bernard said is the quote at Cory’s blog: “Why are you doing this to these wines? Why is there so much wood? Where is the acid, where is the beautiful simplicity of barbera? Are you going so far as to add tannins to these wines?” In fact he used the expression “enological tannins”. More on the debate is at Cory’s blog:

  5. @Andrzej :-)

    @David I was blown away by Isolabella’s question… There was an overall dismissive attitude among the producers but Isolabella crossed the line. By the same token, I did watch him approach Bernard afterward and exchange pleasantries (that’s when I snapped that photo).

    @Jury thanks again for the great interview!

  6. I was scribbling as fast as I could, and had Arnould as saying:

    “Why so much oak? Why so many uninteresting tannins? My quest is to find a wine with fruit, freshness, and tannins that are interesting and not dry, and…[there was a pause here, and while my memory is that he said “maybe” I did not write it down]…a little oak. If you think that putting oaky barberas on the market is a good idea, you only join the rest of the world in making big, oaky wine.”

    It was, I think, a little later that he got to the part that Cory transcribed.

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