How Barbera Grew in Barolo – A Little History

Luca Currado, winemaker/owner at Vietti

Luca Currado, winemaker/owner at Vietti

Vietti’s Alfredo Currado, father of current owner/ winemaker Luca Currado, was famous for being one of the first in Barolo to bottle single-vineyard wines and for saving the region’s native white grape, Arneis, from extinction.

But within Piemonte, he’s also revered for being one of the handful of grower/winemakers in the 1970s who believed in the potential of Barbera.

Hard Times. After WWII, times were hard in Piemonte, and Nebbiolo – the region’s greatest grape – was expensive to grow, required long aging in the winery, and hard to sell. Growers turned to planting acres and acres of juicy, tangy, and – most importantly – productive Barbera across the Langhe’s rolling hills.

By 1970, Barbera had become the everyday wine of both farmers and the workers who flocked to Alba’s Fiat and Ferrero Rocher factories. “Barbera” was synonymous with “cheap, working class” wine; a bottle cost a little less than a loaf of bread.

As demand for Barolo and Barbaresco finally began to revive in the late 1970s and early 1980s, growers across the region quickly moved to uproot Barbera growing in top vineyards and re-plant to more respectable and lucrative Nebbiolo. Except for Alfredo Currado, whose winery in Castiglione Falletto practically overlooked the famous Barolo Cru of Brunate and the small vineyard right next to it known locally as “Scarrone.”

A Scarrone Gamble Pays Off. Alfredo’s father-in-law, Mario Vietti, had planted Barbera in Scarrone at the beginning of Piemonte’s economic struggles in the mid-1920s. By the 1970s, these vines had produced wine very different from the common, working-man’s Barbera – a wine of intense, dark color, gutsy black fruit, and a natural spicy note never seen in more common wines. Like all Barbera, even these old vines couldn’t give wine with the tannic structure needed for aging and improving in bottle, but Alfredo realized that he could “borrow” tannins from oak barrels – if he was willing to take on the expense. He took the gamble.

Beginning in the late 1970s, Alfredo became one of the very few Piemonte winemakers to attempt to make fine Barbera – reducing yields, farming with the same care and effort as given to Nebbiolo, and investing in oak casks to shape and structure the juicy, dark fruit. In the early years, Vietti could only sell Scarrone Barbera at a loss – because the notion of paying more than $10 retail for Barbera seemed simply crazy!

By the late 1980s, Alfredo’s son Luca had joined the team and they faced a new challenge: While the old vines at the very core of Scarrone continued to thrive, disease set in around the vineyard’s perimeter. The vines had to come out – presenting the opportunity to put much more profitable Nebbiolo into this very fine Barolo vineyard. So, of course, Luca and Alfredo ripped out about 80% of their Barbera – and, as neighbors watched with gaping mouths and shaking heads – planted more Barbera.

Today, Luca makes two Barberas from Scarrone – the “regular” wine from the vines he and his father planted in 1988 and one of Italy’s more famous and respected wines, the Barbera Scarrone Vigna Vecchia from the less than two acres of vines planted by his grandfather in the 1920s. They always get great reviews from the critics and both are nicely priced right now – reason enough to grab a dozen or half-dozen.

But we love both of these wines because they are that rarest of rare bottlings: wines that are “important” – connected to history and a great site, deeply complex, and age worthy – and also simply stupid fun to drink.

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