Italy designates over 300 production areas as “Denominazione di Origine Controllata” (DOC) – classifications that specific wines come from specific regions and follow tightly-controlled standards. Only thirty-two areas are considered “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita” (DOCG), meaning even lower yields and stringent tasting evaluations. Barbaresco is one of them, and to be labeled such is to be given a name and reputation known throughout the world.
Founded in 1859, the Gaja Winery has seen four generations of ownership. In Barbaresco alone, winemaker Angelo Gaja oversees three particular sites planted with the Nebbiolo grape: Costa Russi, Sori Tildin, and Sori San Lorenzo. A fourth vineyard had been replanted in 1978 with Cabernet Sauvignon, soliciting the comment from his father, “What a pity,” or “Darmagi,” the wine’s current name. That the wine is called “Darmagi” reveals Angelo’s character: confident in his defiance of parochialism and comfortable that the consumer won’t regret it. Not only was he the first to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the region but he also brought Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (French varietals) along with French winemaking techniques such as aging in the barrel. (Winery information courtesy Vendemmia International Wines.)
In 1996, Gaja declassified Costa Russi, Sori Tildin, and Sori San Lorenzo from the famous “Barbaresco DOCG” to the lesser-known “Langhe DOC.” The machinations of a renegade paisano? Hardly. Gaja is a star. These three wines sell for over $500 – his Barbaresco DOCG for a mere $220. Barbaresco producers don’t consider declassifying their wines, because a consumer would consider a Langhe DOC to be a basic Nebbiolo and nothing compared to a Barbaresco. And for a Langhe DOC to be valued at over twice a Barbaresco DOCG? This is backward thinking, unless the producer is saying something about his own style.
The story can be told through the lens of another producer, Paitin, whose estate is in Neive near Barbaresco. Only one wine has been declassified, and it’s a white: Arneis. Throughout the world, the reputation of Arneis has grown, and with it the name of a specific region within Langhe: Roero. Paitin’s Arneis vineyard is planted in Roero, and it has the right to label its wine “Roero Arneis DOCG.” Paitin doesn’t. Instead, the 2008 label bears “Langhe DOC.”
Giovanni Pasquero Elia of Paitin affirms the conundrum: “Our Arneis is coming from the Roero area, but we decided not to call it Roero Arneis DOCG but Langhe Arneis DOC (declassified wine).” Why declassify? “We do not care. Gaja did with his best Barbaresco years ago. All our customers love our Arneis.” It was possible that Paitin did something outside of DOCG laws, forcing them to declassify to Langhe DOC. Elia refutes this and says that their yields were even lower than required for Roero Arneis DOCG. “Langhe instead of Roero – it is only our decision.”
In the same e-mails, Elia claims that “in the Langhe area, the Arneis is not great.” The difference, for a consumer, between Langhe Arneis and Paitin Langhe Arneis? The name “Paitin” itself. As winemakers declassify their wines to regions of greater obscurity, consumers have to place more trust in the name of the producer alone. Elia says, “We also prefer the name Langhe,” adding, “It is not a trend; it is just a winemaker decision. I think the people have to taste, drink wines, and trust in the producer more than appellation.”
The act of declassification can be seen as a demarche by the very best, most forward-thinking producers: to pull away even from the elite. Importer Michael Skurnik calls Paitin “one of the most venerable Barbaresco estates,” producing “wines with uncommon flavor, silkiness and power.” Does Paitin’s 2008 Langhe Arneis match the reputation it presupposes? Very seriously.
Stringent melon and white pear. Some young peach. Combined elements of a young and old perfume. Shaved fresh hothouse cucumber skin. A hint of cinnamon. A very generous opulence in the mouth, without fruit. Mineral pungency and saltiness. ($20)
Elia contributes: "Our Arneis is made in a really different way with cold maceration and 6 months sur lie." “Lie” or “lees” is sediment and yeast that falls to the bottom of the tank. Aging on the lees (as opposed to “racking” – removing wine from the lees) can create complexity and body but also side effects in the hands of the wrong producer. Here, with the help of the sandy soils of Roero, sur-lie aging adds body and a bright, toasted, spice-like yeast to the nose. As I said, this wine has no fruit, so you’ll need a good food pairing: sweet shellfish, young trout, lightly herbed cream pastas. Parmigiano-Reggiano. The minerality comes at you like a brick wall – be prepared.