The history of the official alphabet of stratification of Italian wines–VdT, IGT, DOC, or DOCG (Vino da Tavola, Indicazione Geografica Tipica, Denominazione di Origine Controllata, and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)–does not inspire confidence. When Sassicaia, now an iconic Italian wine, was first released, it barely registered on the official scale, being relegated to a lowly VdT designation. The top Soave Classico producers have either opted to label their wines as an IGT (Anselmi) or refused to use the DOCG designation to which they are entitled. For a time, Angelo Gaja, certainly one of, if not THE, star Italian producer, opted to label some of his wines with the less prestigious Langhe DOC instead of the Barbaresco or Barolo DOCG because he felt he could make better wines outside the rules of the DOCG. Regions making distinctive wines, such as Chianti Rufinà, have no official recognition while the less prestigious greater Chianti area carries Italy’s highest ranking, DOCG (Rufinà’s official categorization is, in fact, Chianti DOCG).
So why am I trumpeting the emergence of another DOCG to add to Italy’s 73? Because the wines from this enclave in Piedmont deserve this special recognition. The Italian wine authorities have taken a historically important area with a track record for fine wine and added vigorous regulations to ensure quality.
The new Nizza DOCG, which consumers will see on the label starting with the 2014 vintage, was formerly one of the three subzones of Barbera d’Asti (For completeness, the other two are Astigiani Colli and Tinella.) Prior to the 2014 vintage, the wines from this area were labeled Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza. Since many of them are still on retailers’ shelves, consumers are well advised to remember the old name, especially since the 2013 vintage was exceptional in the area. Nizza, which represents only about 10 percent of the entire Barbera d’Asti DOCG, is home to about 47 producers, including 4 co-operatives, according to Gianni Bertoli, a spokesperson for the association of Nizza producers.
Part of the reason the wines from Nizza outshine the wines from the Barbera d’Asti DOCG is because this small area is exceptionally well suited to the Barbera grape. Barbera in Nizza is like Pinot Noir in Burgundy or Nebbiolo in Barolo or Barbaresco. Bertoli explains that since Nizza has always been revered for its Barbera, more than half of the total vineyard area has vines that are over 50 years old. Indeed, the grapes from Nizza have historically commanded a premium.
Moreover, the regulations for the new DOCG actually assist in achieving the goal of producing very high-quality wine throughout the zone. Only vineyards with the best exposures–those facing southeast or southwest–are included in the new DOCG. Allowable yields are about 75 percent lower in Nizza compared to Barbera d’Asti (3.1 versus 4.0 tons/acre). If growers opt to make a single vineyard wine and put the vineyard name on the label, the yields must be another 10 percent lower.
Nizza wines must be made exclusively from the Barbera grape–growers there realize they don’t need international varieties to make impressive wines–whereas in the Barbera d’Asti zone, producers are allowed to use up to 10 percent of other red varieties. Additionally, the grapes need to be riper (Nizza wines need to achieve a minimum of 13.0 percent alcohol compared to 12.0 for Barbera d’Asti). Although no chapitalization is allowed in Italy, growers can add concentrated grape must to increase minimum alcohol in poor years. Not so in Nizza. If grapes don’t ripen naturally to achieve the minimum level because of poor weather, no Nizza will be made that year. Nizza wines are required to undergo longer aging (18 versus 4 months minimum) 6 months of which must be in barrel. (There is no barrel-aging requirement for Barbera d’Asti DOCG.)
The soils in Nizza have been carefully mapped and are quite varied even in this small area, with lighter sandy soil in the northern part of Nizza giving way to sandy clay and sandy marl as you move south. Bertoli explains that the soil differences account for lighter, more elegant wines to sturdier and more structured ones moving from north to south within Nizza. In my experience, from a tasting of about 40 wines from about a dozen producers, the viticultural and winemaking techniques far outweighed any sense of where within the zone the grapes grew.
Nizza is clearly popular among Piedmont winemakers, with many high-profile producers buying land, which is still far less expensive than in Barolo or Barbaresco. Ignazio Giovine from L’Armangia noted mournfully that land values in Nizza have already gone up three-fold in the last two years. “Last year land that sold for 40,000 € per hectare ($19,000/acre) is now 80,000 € per hectare.” Bertoli predicts than land prices will increase further over the next several years as people see Nizza DOCG on labels and taste the wines.
The important takeaways from my tastings were these: First and foremost, Nizza stands head and shoulders above Barbera d’Asti in general. They are big, juicy wines with balancing acidity that show surprising complexity and suaveness. In my mind, the best examples emphasize the wine’s savory and spicy side, restraining their natural power. Nizza produces none of the lean, acidic wines that may have soured consumers in the past on Barbera. The Barbera grape is a “sugar machine,” but its inherently high acidity helps balance whatever sweetness alcohol provides, so the wines can carry a 15.0 percent alcohol effortlessly.
A constant thread in Nizza is spicy acidity, but producer style–especially the use of oak, the amount of extraction and overall ripeness–is highly variable making it difficult to generalize beyond that. Some producers believe Barbera’s inherent acidity and spice can balance full-blown ripeness, extraction and oak aging. Sometimes it does, but often times it doesn’t. Oak, per se, is not the demon in Nizza. Rather it’s how the winemaker opts to use the oak that can be the problem.
The wines generally have low tannins and high acidity–it is Barbera–but with an appealing generosity and suaveness that is unexpected from that grape. Prices currently run anywhere from $20 to $50. I suspect that, like land prices in Nizza, these retail prices will rise over the next several years.
For me, part of the definition of a great wine is its ability to develop with bottle age. Judging from Berta’s 2008, Riserva de la Famiglia’s 2007, and two single vineyard wines from 2001, Bava’s “Vigneti Bava d’Agliano,” and Michele Chiarlo’s “La Court,” Nizza checks that box. (All of those wines are labeled Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza since the vintages preceded the DOCG.)
The producers are aiming high, hoping to put Nizza on the same exalted plain as Barolo and Barbaresco. To that end, they are identifying cru and the best vineyards, hoping for some sort of classification in the future. The market will determine whether they succeed. My bet is that they will.
Distribution in the U.S. is still spotty, but consumers should be able to find Nizza at their local retailers from some of the producers recommended below. As consumers realize the value these wines deliver, I predict they will become more readily available.
Recommended producers: Bava, Bersano, Borgo Isolabella, Michele Chiarlo, Coppo, Dacapo, Famiglia Berta, Garitina, Il Botolo, Ivaldi Dario, L’Armangia di Giovine Ignazio Domenico, Le Nizze, Olim Bauda, Riserva de la Famiglia, and Vietti.
Email me your thoughts about Barbera d’Asti or Nizza at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein
October 11, 2017