The Barolo winemaker who invented Amarone
by Cesare Pillon
Ernesto Barbero knows very well that he was born in Canelli on 12th March 1933, but last winter, pretending to ignore the fact that he was about to turn 82, he won six skiing competitions at Champorcher, Bardonecchia, Bormio and Cortina d’Ampezzo. He says it is all thanks to his elixir of long life: Amarone. He’s only joking, because it’s actually the other way round: it is he (as a wine technician) who has ensured long life to Amarone, and this is why on 1st May 2014, Giorgio Napolitano, the President of the Republic at that time, awarded him the Order of Merit for Labour, a title he is understandably very proud of.
How could a wine from Valpolicella make such a mark on the life of a man from Canelli in Piedmont and vice versa?
It was destiny. It all started at the beginning of 1960, when Guglielmo Ber- tani summoned me to the Villa Novare winery, in Grezzana, in the Valpantena, to give him my opinion on wines preserved in a series of barrels that he was concerned about: inside was Recioto wine referred to as “scapà”, (out of hand) i.e. dessert wines made with dried grapes to produce a sweet wine, but as fermentation didn’t stop at the right moment, the sugars were virtual- ly totally converted into alcohol and the wines became dry.
The question was: what to do with them.
You were a wine technician, ok, but what did you know about wines from Verona?
Actually I didn’t know much about them at all, though I had heard about them while studying at the Agricultural Technical Institute in Conegliano Veneto, where I got my diploma in 1953. The reason Guglielmo Bertani was interested in my opinion was because I had been working at Luigi Bosca & figli in Canelli since 1954, where they produced 3 million bottles per year, sold in Italy and abroad, and where I had gained vast experience about what the market appreciates most about each type of wine.
And what was your impression of those Recioto wines that had turned out badly?
Turned out badly, my foot! The more I tasted them the more they thrilled me. But I did my utmost to hide my enthusiasm: if I could find a way to give all that wine a commercial outlet, Bertani would offer me a job at his winery and I wanted to think long and hard about it.
But at the end you decided to accept…
Yes, after consulting my family, I left Bosca at the end of 1960 to start working for Bertani on 1st February 1961. I stayed on until 31st December 1989, when I retired. But in the meantime my job title had changed: from top level technician, I became winery manager in 1973.
It’s easy to see why you were promoted: you had found a way to turn un- sellable Recioto wine into successful Amarone.
It was a complicated business: I knew nothing about Amarone, I couldn’t use my knowledge gained in other wineries. But Guglielmo Bertani had asked me to develop a similar wine to a Barolo that he knew well. Research in the cellar, laboratory analysis, blending, experiments… I subjected them to various solutions. It took endless tasting sessions at the Osteria del Tenente Attiglio, in Nogara square, in Verona, in order to select the best ones and here we compared our samples with the bottles the owner sourced from the hills.
Opening photo: Gaetano Bertani, Gilberto Formenti, director of the Arena in Verona, Ernesto Barbero, the director of Spiegel and his wife, the German Ambassador’s sales consultant and Guglielmo Bertani in a photo from the 1970s
This article is from Italian Wine Chronicle 2/2015. Read it for free
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