Italy’s barrique stainless steel revolution

Above: Cory posed for me in front of an old large-format chestnut wood cask, once used to age Barolo at the historic Fontanafredda winery in Serralunga d’Alba. I highly recommend a visit there. The winery represents an important piece in the historical puzzle of the first Italian wine renaissance that began in 19th-century Italy.

One of the more interesting elements to emerge from my recent trip to Piedmont was one enologist’s observation that Italy did not undergo a “barrique revolution” in the 1980s but rather a “stainless steel revolution.” One of the results of the new trend of stainless steel aging introduced in Italy in the 1980s, he claimed, was that small-cask, French-oak aging soon followed as a natural and necessary corollary. Made from an impenetrable and inert substance, stainless steel vats do not allow for oxygenation of the wine. As a result, he claimed, the use of barrique aging expanded in Italy. The smaller cask size oxygenates the wine more rapidly and the more manageable format helps to maximize cellar space (among other efficacious aspects of the now overwhelming popular French format).

Above: Owner and winemaker Giovanni Rava at La Casaccia in Monferrato showed us this “vat,” carved into the tufaceous subsoil, once lined with glass tiles and used for vinification of Barbera (in the 18th century), now used to store barriques.

The day we visited the Marcarino winery and spoke with enologist Mauro de Paola, I was interpreting and so wasn’t able to take notes and photographs. And I will agree with colleague Fredric that beyond Thor’s account of the visit there couldn’t be “a more fair or thorough explication of our visit to this puzzling property.” (I will say, for the record, that I loved Paolo Marcarino’s wines, however manipulated the process to achieve no-sulfite-added expressions of Barbera and Cortese.)

Above: This patent, for “botti di cemento [cement casks],” dated 1887, is believed to be evidence that Fontanafredda was the first to use concrete vats to age wine in Italy.

A 1982 visit to Napa by Giacomo Bologna, Maurizio Zanella, and Luigi Veronelli is widely considered the “eureka” moment that led many of Italy’s foremost producers to begin fermenting in barrique (Zanella) and aging in barrique (Bologna). (I have written about in one of my favorite posts here, and Eric wrote about it here.)

Above: Cement vats used to make one of my favorite wines in the world, Produttori del Barbaresco. Stainless steel is also used today at the winery, even for some of its top wines. In the 1980s, a lot of Italian winemakers shifted from glass-lined and varnish-lined cement aging and large cask aging to barrique aging (not at Produttori del Barbaresco, however).

I had always assumed that Angelo Gaja had begun using barrique aging around the same time as Bologna (whom many credit as the first to use new cask aging in Italy). But when we visited and tasted with Gaja on our recent trip, he told me that his winery began experimenting with new, small cask aging in 1978. (I have a long backlog of posts but I’ll get to our Gaja visit, which was, as you can imagine, immensely interesting.)

Above: One of Gaja’s barrique aging rooms is dominated by this fantastic Giovanni Bo sculpture, an extension of the well, no longer in use, in the courtyard of the winery.

Honestly, I can’t say that I wholeheartedly agree with De Paola’s assessment that the advent of stainless steel is what made barrique aging necessary in Italy. But I do think that the introduction of stainless steel and barrique, together with a California-inspired approach to cellar management (prompted by the emergence of the Napa Valley fine wine industry) are all elements in the current renaissance of Italian wine (whether you prefer traditional- or modern-style wine). His observation that “stainless steel was the true revolution,” in my opinion, is a fair if atypical assessment: it’s not that Italian producers decided one day that they should age their wines in barrique.

Barrique and stainless steel were both part of the new and contemporary era of Italian wine.

So much (too much, really) of the wine we tasted during Barbera Meeting was dominated by new oak but we also tasted some fantastic stainless-steel aged and large-cask aged Barbera that really turned me on.

In other news… Man and husband cannot live by Barbera alone…

Last night we paired this wonderful Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Cerasuolo with Tracie P’s excellent slow-cooker braised pork chops smothered in cabbage. Check out the recipe and tasting notes here…

7 thoughts on “Italy’s barrique stainless steel revolution

  1. Damn Tracie can cook…lucky guy. My ex and still very good friend, she’s Persian and a great cook. Wouldn’t let me in the kitchen to help though:-)

  2. it was way too gulpable!

    2B–such an interesting take on the beginnings of an end! (no end of course, if y’all keep the world safe like you’ve been doin :)

    love all the pics of the various vessels too.

  3. Jeremy:

    You are right to question the enologist’s claim of barriques being a natural by-product of stainless steel. That’s like a film editor saying that because he can now edit a movie on a computer, he has to cut the film in a different way.

    If a winemaker wants to use barriques, they’ll do it and find reasons to tell the drinking public that it’s necessary. Yet if winemakers use large casks, they rarely feel that they need to explain this practice.

    Curious, no?

  4. I agree with Tom Hyland. It was very interested in to read the Barbera 7 blog posts and also think back to a wine trip I took to Piemonte the week before yours. It was with the University of Gastronomic Sciences (Slow Food) and I was in an Italian group because I couldn’t fit the English weeks into my schedule.

    Instead of defending their barrique usage they downplayed it big time, saying that it was time to go back to “traditional” methods and stop playing to “gli Americani”. I hear a lot of blame towards the USA when I’m embedded in a group of Italians and the winemakers don’t know an Americana is in the house. The enologist from Fontanafredda, after asking if there were any Americans in the room and then saying he would change his statement a bit since I was there, said that he was 100% sure that the reason Americans love barrique is because we are really used to whisky and it’s organolectic qualities from wood. Um… yeah, sure. You keep thinking that, buddy.

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