One of the questions I get asked a lot when I pour a Barbera d’Asti in a tasting is what does the word “superiore” mean?
Well, actually, people don’t really ask me that. But they do often comment on how superiore denotes a better or higher quality or superior (quote-unquote) wine.
It’s true that Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG is a technically higher quality wine than a classic Barbera d’Asti DOCG. But the difference isn’t just about quality. Part of the problem is that the Italian word superiore is often translated slavishly by English-speakers.
Yes, it’s true that superiore can mean better or higher quality in Italian. But the primary meaning of superiore in Italian is simply higher as in, for example, a piano superiore, the highest floor in a building (in English, the word doesn’t have that meaning or, at least, it doesn’t have that meaning anymore).
And that’s where the confusion comes in.
For a Barbera d’Asti D.O.C.G. to be labeled as superiore it must have a minimum alcohol content of 12.5 percent. A classic Barbera d’Asti D.O.C.G. only needs to be 12 percent. There are other requirements as well but the historical “red thread” here is the alcohol content.
What’s the big deal about 12.5 percent alcohol? I hear you ask.
And what’s the big deal when the difference is only one half of a percent?
Therein lies the rub, as it were.
In another era, before climate change and before the advent of modern winemaking technology, it was often immensely challenging to achieve even 12 percent alcohol. Achieving even 12.5 percent was an indication of a) a good vintage; b) the location of the vineyards; c) the grape grower’s and winemaker’s skills.
Today, it’s easy for winemakers to achieve 12.5+ alcohol in their wines. It’s sounds as counterintuitive today as it would have sounded implausible 40 years ago but many winemakers now try to restrain the alcohol in their wines.
In any case, that’s where the designation superiore came from: Higher alcohol and not higher quality per se.