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Climate Change Coping: Will Barolo & Barbaresco Plant Their Northern Slopes?
By Roger Morris
Apr 3, 2024
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Sometimes the simplest solution may also be turn out to be the most difficult. And maybe not even the best one.

With global warming, most wine regions have been searching for ways to combat increased heat and sunlight in their vineyards as well as learning to cope with changing weather patterns, especially when it rains more or less than it historically did and does so during the wrong seasons.

Yet for Barolo and Barbaresco, the famous Nebbiolo twins from the Langhe region of Piemonte in northwest Italy, the answer would seem to be easy. Why not gradually begin planting Nebbiolo on the cooler, northern slopes of the region’s famous hills to blend into fruit currently being grown in the famous vineyards of the eastern and southern slopes?

In fact, that proposition is now officially being considered. And, in fact, not everyone in the land of truffles is happy about it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in New York for the big blowout tasting staged by dozens of Barolos and Barbaresco producers, and planting Nebbiolo on the northern slopes was the one thing many winegrowers wanted to talk about – until they didn’t.

Matteo Ascheri heads the Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Dogliani as well as owning an eponymous winery and hospitality center in Bra. “Let the community decide whether planting on the north of the hills is a good option or a bad one,” he told me, explaining a pending plan was now being voted on by the membership. “It’s our duty to talk about these kinds of things.”

But it is also clear that Ascheri’s feelings aren’t entirely neutral on the subject. “We’re talking about a real problem – global warming,” he says. “This would be a simple solution in the short time.”

I cornered several other B&B producers when they weren’t pouring wine and discovered considerable resistance to Ascheri’s viewpoint. One of the most outspoken was Federico Ceretto, whose historic, family-owned wineries are both well-known and well-respected. “They are using global warming as a red herring to plant the north slopes,” he said. “And why did they wait until the last minute to propose it?” he continued, claiming the ballot issue was slipped into a larger package of reform measures. “It will need 65 percent approval. It will never pass!” He thinks there are potential answers in vineyard management that haven’t been totally explored.

And what exactly is being voted on? Vainly trying to get a copy of the exact language of what was being proposed. or how the vote was being conducted, or when the results would be announced made me feel like a failure as a reporter. No one knew – exactly. Seeking more information, I eventually again caught up with Aschieri while he was on the road after leaving New York.

“The information you are asking for are not available for communication,” he replied by email. “The vote is still open (in the way that wineries need to sign each proposal in a specific form as we need to count surfaces and bottles produced to reach the quorum), and this is not correct and legally compliant for who already voted and for people will vote in the future. I hope this is understandable.”

Even allowing for language differences – and Ascheri’s English is admittedly far superior to the eight words of Italian I know– it was clear that he didn’t want to say anything more to clarify the subject. (European journalists, I discovered, were similarly experiencing frustration.)

Whichever way the vote – or votes – turn out, it must be said the Piemontese brought much of this on themselves. By trying to protect the B&B brand over the past decades, they have made any change both difficult to execute as well as certain to be financially painful for groups of growers yet to be determined.

By establishing MGAs (crus) among vineyard designations in addition to traditional blends, they dictated that only expensive Nebbiolo wines would be made in the Barolo and Barbaresco appellations. Unlike other premium wine areas, no provisions were made to provide lesser or entry-level Nebbiolos made from grapes coming from lesser vineyards. With no option of planting Nebbiolo there, the north slopes are now planted only with other varieties, notably Chardonnay. If Nebbiolo is now allowed to be planted in the north, these other vines will have to be ripped up and Nebbiolo started from ground zero with young vines. As a result, there is no experience as to how Nebbiolo will fare on the north slopes, which clones will give the best results, or what the wines will taste like.

Additionally, years ago the Consorzio pressed for planting certain clones that were more robust with darker colorings urging that other be pulled out. For example, the lighter but aromatic Nebbiolo rosé clone (considered by some as a related but distinct variety) was virtually banished in B&B except for a few grandfathered vineyards. The best known existing example of what Nebbiolo rosé tastes like is Elvio Cogno’s Vigna Elena (about $150). Could the Nebbiolo rosé provide some value in dealing with climate change?

Anthony Vietri probably has more experience with Nebbiolo and its many clones and its history than any other grower outside of Langhe. Over the past two dozen years at his Va La Vineyards in Avondale, Pennsylvania, Vietri has experimented with many Nebbiolo clones, both as a farmer and as a winemaker, and closely follows what is happening in Italy.

“Migration to the northern slopes does offer one potential solution,” he wrote to me in an e-mail exchange after I had debriefed him on my interviews. “If northern slopes do become permissible, the richest estates will of course grab up all of the best available land, leaving dog-ends (if anything) for the rest. In fact, I would be surprised if much of that land hasn't already had handshake deals in place waiting on the potential that the rule change to be made.

“I do wonder, though, how such a northern migration will impact the entire current hierarchy that has developed over decades. If you currently are a top estate that owns 25 acres of hallowed south facing vineyards, and you don't purchase 25 acres of similar northern slopes, you will lose your status as a top estate. Even if you do purchase in the north, you then will have to spend decades planting and proving that these new sites are top growths in a whole new world order.

“I also wonder if grafting over to old clones and massal selections that ripen later, have more vigor, lower brix, larger berries, etc., may offer a more elegant solution for many. These selections and clones have already been proven to make great, long-lived wines for many years, and some even privately feel that getting away from them has been a mistake. Perhaps re-purposing researchers like Ms. [Anna] Schneider to identifying and releasing later ripening, more drought resistant clones, rather than the opposite, as has been the current fashion, would be of great potential to addressing the issue.”

Later, he added, “Just one other thought. Nebbiolo Rosé is considered to be more drought and heat resistant than its brothers. Perhaps the law of replanting [it] should be amended?”

True, some of these objections have been anticipated. Dr. Scheider, one of the most-revered Nebbiolo authorities, presented a seminar on Nebbiolo clones at the meeting, although not addressing the issue of global warming and the north slopes.

Before her talk, I asked Schneider about the north slope and what clones she would recommend be planted there if the idea is accepted. She clearly did not want to get into a political subject, but she would say any north slope Nebbiolo would have to be blended with existing vineyards for some years to come.

In our conversation, Ascheri did try to diminish the controversy. “It won’t be an expansion of Barolo,” he cautioned. “We won’t be making more Barolo – 200 to 300 hectares [about 500 to 750 acres] would be all that would be possible. And it doesn’t mean we would have to use it.”

Some opponents have an added reason to reject the proposal – the fear that whatever biodiversity the region has will further disappear, particularly if currently wooded slopes would start disappearing in favor of vineyards.

So, will we get a definitive answer this summer from the current referendum, however it is worded? Don’t expect it to be that simple.  

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