Barbaresco wine estates to watch

Sarah Heller MW explores why Barbaresco is no longer just the younger brother of Barolo, recommending five ‘under the radar’ producers, and which of their wines you should be paying attention to

Words by Sarah Heller MW

Giuseppe Cortese
Giuseppe Cortese

As the wines of the Langhe have secured their spot in the pantheon of collectable wines, ‘under the radar’ producers become ever more elusive. Beyond the normal mechanisms of discovery, collectors have organisations like the Cavalieri del Tartufo e dei Vini d’Alba (informally, the ‘Knights of Alba’), a confraternity that promotes Alba’s wines through worldwide delegations (a strategy cribbed from the French) and exposes them to producers they might not otherwise encounter.

Barbaresco, despite boasting a handful of revered names – Gaja and Giacosa, more recently joined by Roagna – still provides more fertile ground for the value hunter. Whether because it lacks Barolo’s historical ties to the aristocracy and large, storied winemaking firms, being populated instead by small growers, Barbaresco’s land and wine prices remain lower on average. The UK market has also tended to import less Barbaresco than Barolo, even as a percentage of their respective total productions. JC Viens, Maestro of the Ruling Council of the Knights of Alba, emphasises that Barbaresco has been equally appreciated by the Barolo-based Order of Knights since its inception in 1967, but concedes it is still somewhat overlooked.

Attitudes in the region suggest a new confidence is brewing. Gabriele Occhetti of Giuseppe Cortese notes that over the past ten years, collectors and the press have ‘finally understood [Barbaresco’s] role as the twin brother and not the younger brother of Barolo.’ Jeffrey Chilcott of Marchesi di Gresy says global shifts towards lighter, more elegant and perfumed wines have served Barbaresco especially well and that young producers are also conscious that they don’t need to (or even shouldn’t) follow exactly what their parents did given the changing climate.

Alan Kwok, Master of the Knights of Alba Hong Kong, suggests that rising stars in Barbaresco are likely to be those using certain techniques (shorter maceration, semi-carbonic maceration, soft pressing) to make more Pinot Noir-like wines, some even actively drawing the link between themselves and Burgundy. The best producers avoid dogmatic positions: Gaja, for example, has reduced its use of whole berries to encourage a vigorous fermentation. Stems, which have become popular for reintroducing some tension into lower-acidity wines (and sometimes for absorbing alcohol), are best used lightly.

Along with this overall softening, oak regimens have been carefully re-examined (or reaffirmed in the case of traditionalists like Cortese, which has always chosen botti as its vessel of choice). At Massimo Rattalino, this has meant largely abandoning small French oak barrels, while at Mura Mura, time in moderate-scale wooden casks is followed with a sojourn in neutral ceramic vessels.

We’re experiencing a golden age for Barbaresco; a time when its natural proclivities are being embraced but it has (thankfully) not yet quite become a caricature of itself

However, the most notable change is perhaps the de-prioritising of winemaking entirely in favour of viticultural interventions (or lack thereof). Driving through Barbaresco last spring with Aldo Vacca of the hallowed Produttori del Barbaresco, it was striking how many vineyards were lush with florid inter-row grass and herbs; 10 years ago, only Roagna’s vineyards looked so feral. Where in extreme cases bunches were once carved down to perfect spheres, yields are now less rigidly controlled (or rather, growing conditions now provide all the yield reduction anyone could wish for) and ripeness is being moderated. Carlo Manera of Manera Fratelli says they have reduced their de-leafing, focusing instead on bunch shading and acidity retention. At Mura Mura, shoots are wound around the top wire instead of hedged. Though some of this is simply a pragmatic reaction to climate change, it also feels like we’re experiencing a golden age for Barbaresco; a time when its natural proclivities are being embraced but it has (thankfully) not yet quite become a caricature of itself.

Five Barbaresco estates to watch

The Cortese family
The Cortese family

Giuseppe Cortese

Of the wineries represented here, Cortese is probably the least ‘up and coming’ in that they have been at this for quite some time (they bottled their first Barbaresco in 1971) and that, among a certain set, they’ve been a known commodity for over a decade. They are also the largest landholders in Rabajà, which is widely considered a top Barbaresco MGA (possibly the best).

However, their staunchly traditional style – which has always involved large wooden vessels (though both French and Slavonian wood have been used) and spontaneous fermentations – has made for wines that non-Nebbiolo diehards may have found too tannic and forbidding. A greenish herbal tone – apparently not the result of whole bunches, though it has that timbre – is another factor that can make their wines an acquired taste (though evidently not too acquired: the estate has had to tightly allocate its wine for years). The arrival in the 2020 vintage of a blended Barbaresco – made from a small amount of Rabajà fruit plus grapes from Trifolera, a somewhat cooler MGA just to the south of Rabajà – seems poised to propel them to still broader success with its delicacy and fragrance that charmingly envelope the green.

The winemaking, Gabriele Occhetti insists, has not changed substantially over time, but the viticulture has become more ‘responsible’, now certified organic. The focus on vine health and combatting climate change has led them to retain higher yields and minimise defoliation, all of which will hopefully ensures the azienda continues in the ascendence.

Try this wine: Giuseppe Cortese Barbaresco DOCG 2020

Manera Fratelli is a small winery run by the three grandsons of its founder, Lorenzo Cesare Manera

Manera Fratelli

This small, family-run winery in San Rocco Seno d’Elvio was born in the ’40s when founder Lorenzo Cesare Manera arrived in the area from nearby Mango. They only bottled their first wine, however, in 2005 when the eponymous Fratelli (Gabriele, Carlo and Daniele, grandsons of Lorenzo Cesare) had finished their studies at the Alba wine school. It is now a medium-sized winery, making 50,000 bottles a year, mainly using native grapes Nebbiolo and Barbera. An eclectic mix of ‘modern’ (i.e. barriques) and ‘traditional’ (i.e. 10hL botti) techniques are employed, which Carlo Manera says have changed little since their first vintage.

The biggest shift at the winery (other than viticulture, which has generally moved towards preserving acidity and moderating ripeness) is a new limited-edition range of three wines: il Cipresso, a Barbera d’Alba Superiore; La Croce, a premium Nebbiolo d’Alba; and a Riserva Barbaresco from Treiso’s Rizzi cru. All come from the estate’s oldest vines on higher sites (350-450m above sea level) with impressive diurnal range. Fermentation is longer (35 days on average) and warmer for more serious extraction, while maturation is relatively short, at only 12 months in new barriques (though they are Slavonian and therefore presumably somewhat less aromatic). There is a brightness and vivacity to the fruit that outshines this not entirely subtle winemaking, most likely a reflection of the underlying fruit quality and Treiso’s comparatively cooler sites.

With this range, Manera has clearly taken strides towards a more premium market, having grown substantially over the start of the pandemic but then experiencing something of a ‘stalemate’ over the last six months, according to Carlo Manera. Having been concentrated in markets like Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, the winery now seems ‘camera-ready’ for especially prestige-focused markets like Hong Kong and the coastal US.

Try this wine: Manera Barbaresco DOCG Riserva Rizzi 2018

The commanding view over Massimo Rattalino vineyard

Massimo Rattalino

Massimo Rattalino was probably my biggest surprise of the tasting for the Barbaresco Report 2023, being a name I had heard little about previously and about which I could find very little information (to its credit, Tom Hyland’s 2013 book on Barolo and Barbaresco mentions their Barbaresco Quarantadue42). However, Rattalino’s four wines – a Barolo and Barbaresco and Riserva versions of each – were some of the highest-scored in our report, a rather striking result given the overall quality of the line-up. The wines shared a certain luminosity and dazzling complexity; iridescent butterflies that fluttered out of the glass but left behind a deep, soulful perfume.

The winery was born in 1999 when passionate wine industry newcomer Rattalino moved to a site just outside the village of Barbaresco among the vineyards of Montestefano planning to make Nebbiolo-based wines. Though they do also make Barolo (from Novello and Monforte) the heart of this project is Barbaresco, particularly the eponymous village itself. The wines are rather unromantically named after their plot numbers in local zoning maps, eschewing the widely adopted practice of MGA (cru) labelling.

Though post-modern in certain ways (the Barbaresco Riserva was matured in tonneaux for 12 months after already undergoing 36 in Slavonian botti, a rather unusual sequence), the wines overall have a somewhat untrendy, classical vibe. They are truly traditional feeling in a way that many of the ostensibly ‘traditional’ but actually highly sculpted new-wave Barbareschi are not. Having gone through many iterations over the years, according to export director Mattia Benevello, the wines are now matured exclusively in 20/30hl Slavonian oak botti, typically third or fourth passage, to help avoid the ‘excessive aromas and potentially intrusive tannins’ of new French oak. Benevello notes that the wines have become increasingly popular in newer markets (namely Eastern Europe and Asia) but also with a widened range of consumers, including younger and more casual drinkers, an encouraging sign that great Barbareschi can flourish even outside the hallowed contexts in which they are now almost exclusively found.

Try this wine: Massimo Rattalino Barbaresco DOCG Quarantadue42 2019

Mura Mura as seen from the air

Mura Mura

The birth story of Mura Mura – its first wines bottled in 2017 – is not quite the stuff of collector fantasies, which tend (at least in recent years) to value history, heritage and tradition above innovation and, frankly, commercial success. The commercial success to which I refer occurred outside the wine world (as it so frequently does); Mura Mura’s founders are Guido Martinetti and Federico Grom of Grom gelato, which the pair sold to Unilever in 2015, at which point Grom had grown from a single shop in Torino in 2003 to 60 outlets spread across Italy and 15+ countries worldwide. In addition, Mura Mura is not a pure wine project, instead being part of a larger hospitality project, including a hotel (Relais Le Marne) and vegetable-oriented restaurant (Radici).

However, it would be rather unfair to characterise this as the vanity project of two hometown boys made good. Martinetti, for one, is not new to wine, having served as winemaker at Barbaresco’s Cascina Bruciata. His father, Franco Martinetti, also produces wine in Serralunga, where Mura Mura too owns a small plot of land. The winery of Mura Mura, which means, roughly, ‘take it easy’ in Malagasy, sits in Costigliole d’Asti in Monferrato, which has had a much sleepier winemaking scene than its astronomically successful neighbour, the Langhe. A major goal of the pair is to spotlight Grignolino, a prized native grape of Monferrato.

The Barbareschi – from the MGA’s Faset, Serragrilli and Starderi – comprise the brand’s Rigore range, while the Monferrato wines are in the ‘Fantasia’ range. The two are supposed to represent the dichotomy of the human spirit – loosely, Rigore is the Apollonian and Fantasia the Bacchanalian. However, I’d say there is plenty of ‘Fantasia’ about the Barbareschi, which are uniformly airy textured and charged with almost hyperreal red fruit sweetly enhanced with oak aromatics. They sit just this side of too much, though the Starderi in particular has the acidity and structure that help it better live up to the ‘Rigore’ concept.

Try this wine: Mura Mura Barbaresco DOCG Starderi 2020

A picturesque vineyard near Neviglie


Rapalino, located outside the Barbaresco DOCG in the town of Neviglie, began bottling Barbaresco in 1998, making them somewhat ‘new’ in the regional context. However, they have been growers since the late 1800s, with a particularly tortuous set of vineyards, some of which belong to the Sorì Eroici, a collective brand created by the Associazione Comuni del Moscato (but applicable to wines of other DOC/DOCGs). The brand identifies vineyards with slopes of 40º or more that are managed sustainably. Rapalino’s vineyards are also strikingly high for the region, averaging 400m above sea level, which would have made reliable ripening a challenge in earlier times (possibly explaining why Giacone and Ferrere, the two Treiso MGAs blended to make their Barbaresco, are not especially well-known and don’t often appear on vineyard labels).

The property, originally 4ha of vineyard surrounding the winery, has swollen to about 40ha, some of which are in the Barbaresco municipalities of Neive and Treiso. The site in Giacone, on the southern slopes of Treiso, has more robust Lequio formation soils, while Ferrere, on the northern slope, has Sant’Agata marls, which tend to give a more perfumed, delicate style. Both sites are south/southwest facing, lending a certain generosity.

Current proprietors Claudio and Marco Rapalino, once frustrated by their grandfather’s insistence on manual inter-row weed management and rejection of chemicals, now express gratitude for his stubbornness and the healthy state in which it has left the land. Clay-calcareous soils, particularly vulnerable to compaction, have doubtless benefited from the lack of mechanisation. The winemaking is relatively low-touch, using some tonneaux along with 25hL botti for the Barbaresco and only botti for the prestige Selezione Rapalin, with infrequent racking once the wine is in wood. This makes for young wines that, while not hugely showy, give a good account of themselves and their ability to persist.

Try this wine: Rapalino Barbaresco DOCG 2020