Iuli Barbera Umberta
Fabrizio Iuli calls himself a barberista, for his love, focus and dedication to the Barbera grape. Located in the small town of Montaldo in Monferrato, which is the home of many of Piedmont's top Barbera's, the Iuli estate is organically farmed by Fabrizio, and his old vine vineyards have a strong core of limestone which adds a distinctive terroir. We had the incredible opportunity to visit Iuli, hike around the vineyards and taste wine out of barrel and bottle with Fabrizio. His wines clearly have a purity, honesty and joyfulness to them that we just love. They are also seriously complex at the same time.
This 'Umberta' is the first wine of the estate; the name comes from the fact that 'Umberto' is one of the most common names in Piedmont. 'King Umberto' who was born in Torino was the son of the first King of unified Italy in 1861. The 'Umberta' is made of 100% certified organic Barbera and aged in stainless steel. Unfined and unfiltered, Fabrizio only makes about 1000 cases per year. Rich, ripe and zesty red and black fruit aromas lead to plush black raspberry, licorice and plum flavors on the palate. This is one of my house reds to serve with just about anything calling for a red. I have officially become obsessed with Barbera, naturally from Piedmont, and I hope the world will discover its virtues!
Quick note on the label: Fabrizio decided in the 2013 vintage to finally stop the exhausting process (aka madness!) of proving to the Italian government that his wine was 'real Monferrato'. Maybe his tiny hometown of Montaldo is too small for even fellow Italiano's to know about! But we were there, and we walked his vineyards, and this wine is indeed made of 100% Barbera in Monferrato, regardless of the VdT designation versus the DOC.
Iuli is set among the last band of dramatic hills and valleys before descending into the rich flatlands of the Po river valley, with the Alps as a backdrop on a clear day. If you're headed to Montaldo, chances are it is to see Fabrizio Iuli. His family figures prominently and colorfully in the town's history. In the 1920s, his grandfather, Gioacchino Natale Iuli, like many young men from the countryside, was courted by a factory job in Lombardia. In a twist of fate, Gioacchino heard that a burgeoning marching band had been formed in Montaldo, so he packed his bags and headed back to become its clarinetist and to start a family. The first vines were planted around 1930. Fabrizio's grandmother, Ernestina, established a little osteria in their living room, a place with warm food and warm hospitality that became a gathering point for the village. There was much conviviality and Iuli Barbera flowing. Though no longer an official restaurant, the feeling continues to this day with Fabrizio and his wife, Summer Wolff, cooking up a storm and popping bottles. It is a place that sucks you in, where time seems to stand still, if only temporarily.
Today, Fabrizio is the only winegrower in the town. His first commerical vintage was 1998, with his Barbera called Rossore. The grapes found in his vineyards are Baratuciat (a nearly-extinct white variety from the Val di Susa), Slarina (a red Monferrato variety also almost lost), Grignolino, Nebbiolo, Pinot Nero, and, of course, Barbera. There are 35 contiguous hectares of land in one valley, with 16 hectares planted to vine. Certified organic, the land has never seen any chemicals. Despite being ridiculed by neighbors, Fabrizio's grandfather and father never succumbed to pressure to buy products they felt were meant to fix something that wasn't broken. The isolation of the place suits Fabrizio's desire to instigate and protect biodiversity. The thick surrounding woods keep the prospect of a monoculture at bay. They contain many white truffles in the season; they also house many wild boar, who can and do devour a crop of grapes. Some end up at Cascina Iuli in the form of 'Barbera Pig' stew.
The wines are Piedmontese to the core, ultra-reflective of the poor, but limestone-rich soils and northernly climate with cool nights. Each wine has a reason for being; each wine has extreme drinkability without losing seriousness or intrigue. They are concentrated in their fruit, but also have a lightness and florality that feel very "Iuli." In the cellar, Iuli's trajectory over the years has become increasingly non-interventionist. Fermentations are carried out spontaneously, with a little so2 added after malolactic fermentations. The tradition in the area is to use concrete tank and large oak cask. Fabrizio wouldn't dream of deviating from that lineage. He adores, collects, and restores small concrete vessels. There's a room in the cellar in which they're lined up like little misfit robots waiting to be deployed. The wines are aged slowly and statically, bottled unfined and unfiltered, when taste and an auspicious moon deem they're ready.