What might be the best descriptor to describe the Barbaresco wines of the Asili cru? If you listen to what the local producers have to say, the choice appears to be an easy one. Time and time again, when talking with the area’s winemakers (especially those among them who know the features of this cru particularly well), the adjectives that recur most often, by a wide margin, are ‘elegant’ and ‘refined’.
The entire Barbaresco denomination extends along a ridge that runs from Neive in the north to Barbaresco more or less in the middle to San Rocco Seno d’Elvio and Treiso in the south. The Barbaresco denomination can be divided into two halves: an eastern side that can be further subdivided into two subsectors, and a western side that is characterized by three subsectors. It is in this latter half of the Barbaresco denomination where we find the most renowned crus of this denomination; not surprisingly, it is where Asili is located, in the municipality of Barbaresco.
There are four communes or municipalities in the Barbaresco production zone: Barbaresco (the town that gives the denomination its name), Neive, Treiso and San Rocco Seno d’Elvio (the latter is at times referred to as Alba, but it is not a good idea to do so). Of the production zone’s four municipalities, Barbaresco is the most historic and important, despite it having the smallest vineyard surface of all four communes. However, it boasts the largest area planted to Nebbiolo, the grape from which Barbaresco can be made (Nebbiolo vines located outside of the Barbaresco denomination are used to make Langhe Nebbiolo wines, not Barbaresco). According to 2013 data, 27.4% of the total Barbaresco production area is planted to vineyards that can be used to produce Barbaresco, a much higher number than, for example, that of Treiso (8.4%) and Neive (7.7%).
Why is Asili called so? There are two possible origins of the cru’s name. One suggests that the name Asili dates back to Roman times and derives from the word ‘Asylum’. The story goes that, when the Roman soldiers arrived, the local populations fled and sought asylum right on this hill, which at the time was occupied only by forests. The second theory traces the origin of the name Asili back to the Piedmontese dialect ‘Asei’, the name used to indicate plots of vineyards at the time.
The Asili cru runs 360 degrees around the homonymous ‘bricco’ (local term for steep hilltop). It borders other prestigious Barbaresco crus, including Pora to the west; Faset to the west and north; Cars and Muncagota to the north; Martinenga to the south and Rabajà to the east. Asili’s altitude ranges from about 210 to 290 meters above sea level, and thanks to its position, offers very different exposures. The most valuable ones are located just above the Martinenga, facing south and southwest; slightly fresher but equally interesting sites (especially in recent years, with the effects of climate change) are those facing west, on the border with Pora and Faset. However, not all of the Asili cru is ideally suited for superlative Barbaresco production: the north-facing vineyards on the top of the bricco are the least valuable and interesting plots on the site, and have (at least up until now) always been planted to other grape varieties. That said, the vineyards facing full south can be penalized in very hot vintages (the achievement of an excellent technological maturity does not always mean an excellent phenolic maturity).
Because of its geographical location, the Asili basin is more protected from the influence of the nearby Tanaro River than its neighbouring crus, and hence is characterized by a less ventilated and warmer mesoclimate (especially at mid-day) making for structurally big, textured wines that have the potential to age extremely well.
Asili’s 14 hectares of vineyards are almost entirely planted to Nebbiolo (70%) which is a clear-cut sign of how well Nebbiolo performs there. Barbaresco producers confirm this: in fact, data from Barbaresco and Barolo – Listening to Nebbiolo and its Langhe terroirs (2020, in press), co-written with Ian D’Agata, shows that over 70% of all producers interviewed referred to Asili as one of the five best crus of the entire Barbaresco denomination. Importantly, its wines speak very much of the soil, the climate and the men and women who make them.
Asili’s soil is of Tortonian origin, characterized by bluish clayey-marls, rich in calcium, but with a significant sandy component (in addition, Asili’s soil contains a higher percentage of copper and zinc than the other crus). This soil type explains why, despite Asili Barbarescos boasting noteworthy power (and in fact, many producers choose to make Riserva wines with their Asili grapes), they are also remarkably approachable and velvety relatively early on. It is the soils of Tortonian age that normally give faster-maturing Nebbiolo wines, but a well-cellared good Barbaresco made from such soils will still have no trouble ageing 45 years.
Asili Barbarescos exude the tell-tale Nebbiolo-typical medium-red colour (which should never be especially dark), and aromas and flavours of sour red cherries, rose petals and a delicate spicy note. Tar nuances become evident only in wines that have some age on them. More than any other Barbaresco, the Asili Barbarescos magically combine power and refinement in a way that no other Barbaresco cru does. This is thanks to the specific Asili terroir that ’sets it apart from all other denomination’s many other valid Nebbiolo terroirs’.
A number of producers have contributed to the fame and notoriety of the Asili cru. The Cantina dei Produttori (which began to bottle single vineyard Asili Barbarescos back in 1967), Bruno Giacosa (who also did so, beginning in 1967) and the Ceretto brothers. That a super-talented producer such as Giacosa chose to produce single-vineyard Barbaresco wines from this site at a time when only a handful of producers were bottling single-vineyard wines (and to make his famous red label Riserva wines no less!) is a clear-cut sign of just how highly the ‘master of Nebbiolo’ thought of this cru. Similarly, Asili was the cru Ceretto decided to buy plots of vines in (in 1969), rather than rent as was customary at the time. Interestingly, the current generation at Ceretto considers the acquisition of their vineyards in the Asili cru to be one of the fundamental stages of their company’s development and growth. Since the late 1980s, another family-run company, Ca’ del Baio, has contributed to making the Asili cru known all over the world, making it the winery’s flagship wine since 2011 (an outstanding Asili Riserva).
Michele Longo is a Certified Sommelier and teacher. He writes for Barolo & Co magazine and is co-curator (with Ian d’Agata) of the Italy Section of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book. Michele’s latest book (also with Ian D’Agata) is Barbaresco and Barolo: Listening to Nebbiolo and its Langhe Terroirs is published later this year.