Producer Spotlight: Produttori del Barbaresco

We sat down with Produttori del Barbaresco's Aldo Vacca to learn about the history of the winery, how they changed the perception of the cooperative model world-wide, and how they continue to produce some of the Italy's most saught after wines.



Winery: Produttori del Babaresco
Interviewee: Aldo Vacca
Role at winery: Managing Director
Tenure at winery: 32 years


Sociovino: Produttori del Barbaresco is a reference point winery in Piemonte, Northwest Italy, one of the country's most important wine regions. In your own words, tell us about the region and the style of wines from here.

Aldo: The name Piemonte means foot of the mountains - we are surrounded by the Alps. Piemonte is actually one of the few Italian wine regions which is completely landlocked. We have a continental climate, the high Alpine peaks protect us from Mediterranean influences, with cold winters and hot summers, and generally a lot of humidity in the air. This type of climate with extreme seasonal differences, makes wines with strong personalities. Which are sometimes not so easy to appreciate in their youth, quite high in acidity and tannins, but this makes them great for ageing, and really good with food. 


"Predominantly Piemonte is known for its red wines, and Nebbiolo is the most important grape."


Piemonte, like most Italian regions, is very diverse. Produttori del Barbaresco is in a subregion called the Langhe, where the most notable grape variety grown is Nebbiolo. This is the grape that goes into making the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, which the region is famed for. But we also grow many other native grapes here too, and we don't often blend them together like they do elsewhere. So, most of the wines of the Langhe and of Piemonte are monovarietal wines, all very distinct in their own personality and reflective of the regions character. One traditional white grape variety which is prevalent is Arneis. Of course, in the last few decades people have been planting some Chardonnay and some Sauvignon Blanc, but I feel this is more like experimenting than anything else. Predominantly Piemonte is known for its red wines, and Nebbiolo is the most important grape.


Produttori del Barbaresco Winery


Sociovino: The two big stars of the region are Barolo and Barbaresco. Barolo vs. Barbaresco, how do the wines compare?

Aldo: They are similar of course. Both made in the same region, from the same grape variety; Nebbiolo. But Barolo is generally a bigger wine, fuller, more muscular, while Barbaresco is gentler and more elegant. One difference between the two DOCG’s is the set of rules they must adhere to by law, Barolo requiring one extra year of ageing compared to Barbaresco, both in oak and bottle. I think these rules were set just to make a point of difference, rather than any real specific reason. In fact, we release our Barbaresco wines after the same ageing pattern as with a Barolo, later than the law allows us. So, some wines are ageing at the same rate, same vinification style, just 20km apart.  


"The major difference is the terroir of course."


The major difference is the terroir of course. Which is a combination of the soil, microclimate, and morphology of the land. It is clear when you visit the region. For example, the village of Barbaresco sits on top of a hill, if you look to the West, you look down into the valley and you have an open view to the Alps. In the village of Barolo, you are sat within a valley, surrounded by hills, no view of the alps. The two villages are exactly the same elevation, 273 meters above sea level, but Barbaresco is more exposed to external influences, and Barolo is more protected. The soil composition itself is different too, both Barolo and Barbaresco have calcium clay compact soils, but Barbaresco’s are higher in nutrients. Over millions of years, Barbaresco’s soils have been mixed with the rich and fertile valley floor, giving it a little more nitrogen, a little more potassium, and a little more magnesium. This increased nourishment is noticeable when you look at the canopy of the leaves of the Nebbiolo vines in Barolo compared to Barbaresco. In Barbaresco they tend to be a little greener, a little lusher, and a little taller.




Both wines can be more or less tannic, according to the style of producer and vineyard site, they can have more or less longevity, complexity too. If I have to compare Barolo vs Barbaresco I focus on the mid-palette, Barolo is larger and fuller and Barbaresco is lighter and more vertical. So I guess that's my tip to try and distinguish between Barolo from Barbaresco. But it could have been the same wine, if 150 years ago they had decided to make one DOCG with sub-zones like they do in Bordeaux, where you have Margaux and Pomerol, they’re different but they are all Bordeaux. Instead, we Italians tend to be very attached to our own villages, so when Barolo started gaining reputation, Barbaresco started to follow. In short, the two wines are very similar, but different, the king and the queen as they have been historically called.


Sociovino: Can you tell us about the history of Produttori del Barbaresco and how it became the distinguished winery it is today?

Aldo: The Produttori del Barbaresco is unique in that it was founded, by local priest, Don Fiorino, who was responsible for the parish of the village of Barbaresco in the 50’s. Back then the village was poor, with farmers struggling to make a living, facing the options of selling the grapes for very little money to larger wineries or selling the land itself. The priest started to encourage the local farmers to work together, to make wine instead of selling the grapes. When previously they could only wait a couple of days before having to throw away any unsold grapes, by making them into wine, they had time now to place their product on the market and reach a better price. For this same reason, many cooperatives were founded across Europe in the 50’s and 60’s, and governments began funding such operations to keep people on the land, avoiding mass exodus to the big cities. The combination of governmental funds and the priest’s vision helped the Produttori del Barbaresco form.


"Produttori took a different approach which really set them apart – a focus on quality over quantity."


In 1958 nineteen farmers agreed to join the priest and establish Produttori del Barbaresco as a cooperative. They bought a piece of land across the street from the church where the winery still stands to this day, in fact where I’m sitting right now, and started to make wine. It was a slow and difficult start to build a reputation, but thanks to the vision of the priest, they made one very important decision, which was to only make Barbaresco. In the years when most cooperatives were founded to make bulk, every day drinking wines, Produttori took a different approach which really set them apart – a focus on quality over quantity.



Sociovino: Talking about cooperatives, how does it work with your growers? Are there certain rules and standards they must follow to become and remain a member?   

Aldo: We now have 53 growers and they manage 120 hectares in Barbaresco. The total Barbaresco operation is 720 hectares, therefore we have a big chunk of the total Barbaresco appellation. Firstly, there are the DOCG set of rules which are very strict in terms of yield per hectare, minimum sugar, maximum acidity, etc. Outside of that, we encourage our growers towards a lower crop size which is more balanced, 90% of the maximum allowed by the DOCG. We hold regular meetings, with experts, to discuss various topics which could affect the harvest and grape quality. But our growers have also been cultivating here for generations now, so we are confident they know what they are doing and how to manage situations. With the current climate we are facing new challenges, so more recently the meetings have been how to tackle the affect global warming is having. These discussions are so beneficial for all, because we are a community, we can talk to each other and share our personal opinions and insights.


"The most important thing that we do with our farmers, and we have always done, is pay for the grapes according to the quality."


The most important thing that we do with our farmers, and we have always done, is pay for the grapes according to the quality. They know that the better quality they deliver to the winery, the more money per kilo they will be paid. It’s therefore within their best interest to focus on quality production. And, at the end of the day, as a true cooperative, all the profits of the business from making the wine, are shared between the farmers too. In terms of production, we require the grapes to be picked and transported to the winery in small 20-22 kilo baskets, so they don’t get crushed and spoilt in the process, this is important in preserving quality. Each load is weighed, crushed and sampled. We measure the quality of the fruit on three things, sugar, colour and tannin. The tone of the colour can be red, brown or green, brown when the grapes are over ripe, green when they're under ripe and red when they’re perfect – this is directly related to the aromatic complexity of the grapes. And then we measure the phenolic quality, which is basically the ripeness of the tannins. Only at that point do we send the must down into the fermentation vats, based on different vineyard sites, and quality levels. Where through the years we have made extra profit, we give dividends to the farmers from previous vintages, but always based on the quality of the grapes that has been delivered. 



Sociovino: In the past the reputation of cooperatives has not been always so positive, but this viewpoint seems to have really transformed thanks to producers like Produttori del Barbaresco. In your opinion, what is the general market perception of cooperatives today and how has this changed over the years?

Aldo: Yes it is true. For many years we were considered an anomaly, like I said earlier, a stand out example of how a cooperative could actually operate and produce fine wines - with the exception perhaps of those in the Alto-Adige region where cooperatives have been strong for many years. But in the rest of Italy, due to market demand in the 60’s and 70’s, most cooperatives were funded to make simple everyday wine, where quantity out played quality. Consumption in Italy back then was huge, about ten times of what it is now, people were drinking because they were thirsty, with less regard for what was actually in their glass. So it makes sense that most cooperatives steered in that direction, and this in turn led to the not so positive reputation of the cooperative model. In fact, not only cooperatives, but some historical wineries in the region kind of lost their reputation in the 60s, because they geared their model towards mass production too.


"I always give credit to the priest, for his strong set of ideals, and for disrupting the market to take the winery in a different direction."


I always give credit to the priest, for his strong set of ideals, and for disrupting the market to take the winery in a different direction. Produttori’s founding farmers all grew Barbera and Dolcetto grapes in addition to Nebbiolo, but the priest said: “I know you grow those grapes. Keep on selling those grapes to whoever or wherever. But here at the Produttori del Barbaresco, you bring only the Nebbiolo. Because we have to focus on bringing Barbaresco back where it belongs, side by side with Barolo”.




Sociovino: Produttori del Barbaresco wines are some of the world's most sought-after. For those who have never tasted them before, tell us about the style of the wines and what readers can expect from them.

Aldo: Our classic Barbaresco, is always very representative in style, it reflects the DOCG as a whole - a quintessential Barbaresco you would say. If you’re not familiar with Barbaresco and want to try and understand what it’s all about then start with this wine. It’s a blend of Nebbiolo grapes from across Barbaresco, multiple vineyards, exposures and altitudes, rather than a single vineyard or single producer. If you want to explore the terroir of Barbaresco, then try one of our nine single vineyard wines. That’s another unique thing about Produttori del Barbaresco, we release nine single vineyard wines from some of the most historical vineyards in the Barbaresco DOCG, all vinified exactly in the same way. A unique insight into Barbaresco’s terroir, the different hills, soils etc, each imparting unique characteristics on the resulting wines. It’s very educational, like a guided tour through the vineyards of Barbaresco. In terms of winemaking style, it’s classic and very gentle. We take a hands off in our approach with minimum manipulation in order to showcase the characteristic of the grape, the terroir, and the vintage year on year. So simple, but very precise and focused, of course with state-of-the-art equipment and traditional techniques.


"That’s another unique thing about Produttori del Barbaresco, we release nine single vineyard wines from some of the most historical vineyards in the Barbaresco DOCG"




Sociovino: How many years you've been working in the wine industry and how did you end up working for Produttori del Barbaresco?

Aldo: For me it’s basically a family affair. We joke that my family doesn’t own Produttori, Produttori owns my family. When the winery was founded in 1958, two of my grandfathers were among the founding 19 families. Of the 19 families that founded Produttori, the only person connected to it with a university degree was my father, so, they all agreed that my father would run the company. At first he did this as a part-time job, but with growing success, in 1972 he took over full-time. I grew up with my father as Managing Director, uncles who were farmers, so Produttori has been a huge part of my life for as long as I have known - I spent all my summers helping my uncles tend to the vineyards and picking during harvest time.


"We joke that my family doesn’t own Produttori, Produttori owns my family."


Leaving school, I decided to study Viticulture and Oenology at the University of Torino, and do a six month stage at UC Davis in California. One night, at 1am US time, I received a phone call and it was Angelo Gaia calling and offering me a job! So upon my graduation I started my career in the wine business at the Gaia winery. Now, that’s like being in the car industry and starting at Ferrari! Meanwhile, at the end of the 80s the export market was really exploding for Barbaresco, and they were totally taken off guard. They didn’t have anyone in the company who could speak English, and no one with knowledge of selling wine outside of the local market, so they asked me if I would be interested in returning home and working for Produttori del Barbaresco. After four years with Gaia, I did just that, and started with Produttori in 1991 as Export Manager, then Managing Director, which is where I am today, 30 plus years later!





Sociovino: Let's talk about something that is very relevant nowadays and you touched on earlier; Climate change. How is climate change affecting growing Nebbiolo in Piemonte?

Aldo: Climate change is having an impact indeed. We started to feel it in 1997, at the beginning it was actually a beneficial impact for us because with global warming all of sudden it was getting easier to achieve the ripeness we needed in the grapes. September used to be a month of fall, where the vines were susceptible to rot due to rain and fog, but now it’s hot and sunny so harvest is actually much easier. The concern now is having too much sugar in the grapes rather than not enough. This is why the wines are always 14 plus in alcohol level, because sugar converts to alcohol when making wine. It means the wines are much rounder, the tannins are riper and the quality has never been so good. But of course, the trend is not stopping, and winters are increasingly dry, so water supply in the subsoil is a concern which stresses the vines. So we are managing our vineyards in order to avoid too much sun exposure, rather than maximising it like 20 years ago. We leave more grass on the ground in order to keep a little more moisture in the soil. These are among the things that need to be done in order to survive in this new climate. If the trend remains like this and if we don't have enough water supply in the winter, then it will be a problem.


Sociovino: Could anything be done, in terms of changing the DOCG laws, in order to make it easier to grow Nebbiolo in Barbaresco and Barolo in the future?  

Aldo: It’s difficult to change the law, you need the majority of the producers to agree. But there are things that could be done to assist the region through the climatic changes. For example, in Barbaresco and Barolo, vineyards cannot be planted facing North, you must plant East, West or South facing, anything planted North facing must be labelled as Langhe Nebbiolo. Now this is something which could and may change, because North exposure, which has historically been deemed lesser quality, is actually cooler, a little fresher and retains more water. You could also consider expanding the appellations, going higher in altitude where its cooler, but you would need all producers to agree and I see that very unlikely. To give you an example, there are some great vineyards in Monteforte, but there is a piece of Monteforte which is higher in altitude so it was left out of the Barolo appellation in the 60’s, because it was considered too cold to grow quality Nebbiolo. Now would probably be the time to include it in the Barolo DOCG, the soils are good, it’s no longer as cold as it was, there are some good producers up there making Nebbiolo but they cannot legally call is Barolo, its Langhe Nebbiolo. So even if technically laws could be changed, it has to be in agreement of all the producers, we will see, but I don’t think it likely.



Sociovino: Piemonte is a region to watch in the fine wine market. How do you see the future shaping up for market demand and global sales?

Aldo: The market demand has been very solid and very strong for Nebbiolo wines for 20 years now and it doesn't seem to diminish. The reputation is strong, both in traditional and expanding markets. In fact, I can really see that in terms of wine appreciation, we were behind Tuscany 20-30 years ago, but now Piemonte, I must say, I believe it's ahead of Tuscany. There's a feeling that Piemonte has been consistently attached to its roots and to the quality of its wines in a stronger way than many other places. Barolo and Barbaresco remain loyal to the 100% Nebbiolo philosophy and I think that will pay in the long term. All producers are aware of the challenges, and they are aware that in order to maintain this reputation in the global market, they have to remain strict and loyal to their roots. So, I think the future is positive, but of course as we discussed earlier, global warming is the big challenge.


"Barolo and Barbaresco remain loyal to the 100% Nebbiolo philosophy and I think that will pay in the long term."


Discover Produttori del Barbaresco's range of beautiful wines with Sociovino. If you have any more questions surrounding their collection - or want a recommendation for where to start, get in touch with the team via email.
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