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Natale Simonetta is a Barbaresco outsider-insider. In 1969, his family bought Cascina Baricchi in Neviglie, an outcropping a few steps on the wrong side of the redrawn Barbaresco growing area of 1975. The family didn’t have producer aspirations; they were looking for a summer house at a good price. This was lucky and unlucky for Natale (yes, his name means Christmas in Italian). Little did his family of humble tile layers know then that their youngest child, of seven children, would want to branch out on his own to become a Barbaresco producer. At 26 years old, Natale asked to take over the Cascina Baricchi – a hill on the outside edge of the Barbaresco DOCG growing – a to do all the work and make all the decisions for himself. He had to find vineyards inside the Barbaresco growing area now, even though he was grandfathered in to be able to vinify the wines in his historic winery.* The family laughed and said good luck, as they drank Gaja’s Barbaresco.
Gaja and Bruno Giacosa
Natale’s family was originally from a town called Cazzago Brabbia in Lombardi’s alpine lake district, nestled between Valtellina and Alto Piemonte. So, they knew something about elegant alpine Nebbiolo. Yet, it was Gaja’s Barbaresco that was served in 1954 for his parents’ wedding celebration, and it was always the wine that was served for all subsequent anniversaries. The family got introduced to Gaja’s wines through Angelo Gaja himself (not the current Angelo but his grandfather), he would bring jugs of it to drink at the Cazzago town hall as they all discussed politics. Natale didn’t want to just follow advice, he wanted to spar. You see, he found himself actually being a gifted taster. He was also starting to come under the spell of the attenuated elegance a properly made and aged Barbaresco can provide. Those were the wines he wanted to produce, he said to himself. All paths led him to a guy named Bruno Giacosa. Bruno found an eager and talented young taster, and Natale found a mentor of sorts.
Unicorn vineyard and Nebbiolo Rosé
Bruno used to use Nebbiolo Rosé from the Casasse vineyard in Barbaresco to give an extra degree of elegance to his Barbaresco bottlings. Nebbiolo Rosé has nothing to do with rosato, and was once thought of as a biotype of Nebbiolo, such as Michet. Today we know that it is another variety, in fact the same called Chiavenesca in Valtellina. Ian d’Agata has an especially intriguing entry on it in his book Native Grapes of Italy:
I love this grape…wines born of Nebbiolo Rosé have an utterly compelling, mesmerizing perfume that is truly unforgettable. Francesco Versio of Bruno Giacosa said ’We have a little Nebbiolo Rosé, and are happy to use it. In fact, I really like Marchesi di Gresy’s entry-level Barbaresco bottling, where 20 to 30 percent Nebbiolo Rosé is used: sure, it’s lightly colored and not hugely structured, but it’s a wine of amazing grace and refinement.
Bruno Giacosa gave Natale an amazing gift in 2005: the rights to work the historic old-vine vineyard of Casasse in Neive (part of the Barbaresco growing area).** The only condition was that Natale would bottle a hundred percent Nebbiolo Rosè, thus giving us the Cascina Baricchi Barbaresco Riserva ‘Rose delle Casasse’. Natale has recently bought this historic vineyard. There is only one other producer that makes a hundred percent Nebbiolo Rosé, and it is in a much different style, but worth checking out.
Barolo vs Barbaresco
It’s admittedly difficult to say what is the quintessential Barolo, since there are so many extremely different growing areas. Perhaps Barbaresco can be better pegged against all of those different Barolo types. Barbaresco doesn’t get as frigid cold as Barolo, which acts as a backdrop to cold wind coming from the Alps. Barbaresco is always 5-7 degrees warmer at night than Barolo, allowing the tannins to mature also at night. One always has to manage the tannins with Nebbiolo, but in Barbaresco, the tannins are much more suave and lignified when harvest comes (which is also usually a bit earlier than Barolo). So, I am not so sure about Barolo as King and Barbaresco as Queen, but it is true that the Barbaresco climate allows for more elegant wines that still age.
Soils, wines, winemaking
Natale decided from his first bottling in 1980 that he would produce only wines 1) made for ageing 2) supremely elegant. Obviously, Nebbiolo Rosé fits that bill, but so too did Nebbiolo from the Michet clone if grown on what Barbaresco locals call terre bianche, white soils of composed of chalk, sand, and limestone.
Both the Barbaresco Riserva Fifteen year-er (the Quindicianni) and the Barbaresco Riserva come from the Barbaresco vineyards of Roncaglie in Barbaresco, Bricco di Neive and Casasse in Neive, and San Stunet in Treiso. All the grapes are vinified together with native yeasts, with 3 to 6% as whole clusters. Fermentation takes place in steel and then racked to fiberglass tanks, letting Nebbiolo on terre bianche shine through. A Barbaresco Riserva is aged a minimum of 5 years before release, his Quindicianni Riserva is produced only in the best vintages. The ‘Rose delle Casasse’ has a different fermentation and vinification, as it is most delicate grape variety, and oxidises easily. Natale uses a sommerged cap here, so no oxygen touches the skins.
You’ll recall that Natale’s parents would always have Gaja Barbaresco for their anniversary celebrations. In 2018, his parent were to celebrate their 60th anniversary, and the family was curious to see if they would be serving Gaja Barbaresco or Cascina Baricchi Quindicianni Riserva from the 2001 vintage. As Natale tells it, his father gave him the last laugh, and died right before the anniversary. His father may have seemingly got the last laugh for now, but I think leaving the question open was probably fitting for a Barbaresco outsider-insider like Natale.
*Yet, being an outsider can be disorienting. Here’s some convoluted Italian logic, so hold tight: you see Nevgilie was historically part of the Barbaresco growing area until 1975, but the community sold the rights to bottle the wine as Barbaresco in 1975 for much needed money. We often think of Barbaresco and Barolo as historic growing areas, and they are, but the value of the wine was much less than what it is today. In 1996, since the winery was considered historic, the Italian government allowed Baricchi to vinify Barbaresco from vineyards in Barbaresco in his cellar. The vineyards around his farmhouse and cellar wouldn’t be allowed by law. So, from the 1980 vintage and onwards, he searched for and found long-term fifty-year old contracts to work the land himself himself and vinifiy the grapes in his farmhouse cellar at the edge of Barbaresco.
** Casasse has Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo Rosé grapes. Giacosa gave Baricchi the rights to the Nebbiolo part of the vineyard in 1995, then he gave the rights over to the historic old vine Nebbiolo Rosé in 2005. The first year of Cascina Baricchi Barbaresco ‘Rose delle Casasse’ was in 2005.