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…

Zero sulfite unfiltered Cortese, killer Ruchè and why they eat cat in Vicenza


One of the stand-out wines for me yesterday was the 2007 Ruchè by eccentric winemaker Marco Crivelli. I wish I had time this morning to report our philosophical confabulatio but I’m rushing to get ready for today’s tastings. Among other things, he pointed out to me that every Italian citizen owns Euro 40,000 worth of Italy’s cultural heritage. He’s as nutty as he looks and his wines are off-the-charts good.


But the wine that really, truly, and entirely rocked my boat, was this unfiltered, no-SO2 added (i.e., no added sulfite) Cortese by Paolo Marcarini. The wine will be filtered before bottling, but, man, I could drink it, as is, every day. I loved this wine and the only thing that could possibly make it better would be if I were to get to taste it with my Tracie P. Some day we will…

In other news…

Alfonso’s comment on the cat recipe scandal and Vicentine winemaker Fausto Maculan (who very publicly came to the cat-eater’s defense) brought to mind an old saying that they have in the Veneto: venexiani gran signori, padovani gran dotori, vicentini magnagati, veronesi tuti mati (Venetians are fancy folks, Paduans are learned folks, in Vicenza they eat cats, and in Verona they’re all crazy).