Piedmont's Barbera Wines: History, Regions, and Top Producers

The fourth most widely planted grape in Italy is Barbera.  In the Piemonte, it is the most widely planted grape and accounts for over 50% of the annual DOC red wine production and 35% of the vineyard area.  Thought to be native to the Piemonte, Barbera has been grown there for centuries.  It is most likely the grape written about by Paul the Deacon in his description of the Battle of Refrancore in 663 when the Longobard troops of Grimaldo defeated the Franks after getting them drunk on wine.  He confirmed that the Longobards filled amphorae with wine and scattered them around the surrounding fields.  The Franks found these jugs and drank voraciously from them making them unfit for battle. 

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There is a document from the 16th century in the city hall of Nizza Monferrato which mentions the growing of the grapes.  In 1798, Count Nuvolune, in his duties as the deputy director of the agrarian society of Turin indentified Barbera in his writings on the varietals grown in Piedmont.  He listed it under the name Vitis vinifera Montisferratensis which basically meant the grapes grown in the hills surrounding Monferrato.  That area is still today one of the principal growing regions for the grape. 


When Phyloxera hit the Piemonte in the late 1800’s requiring substantial replanting of vines, Barbera was the choice for many new plantings.  It grew easily and abundantly.  A favorite of the local farmers as much for its ease to grow as its performance at the dinner table.  It became the everyday choice for a simple inexpensive wine for the locals to drink.  Barbera drinks well young but also can age for  a decade easily.  Some would say it does not begin to reach its peak until six or eight years from the vintage.  Some producers, however, saw the potential of Barbera planting the grapes in some of their choicest vineyard locations that normally would have been reserved for Nebbiolo.  The results proved that Barbera could produce wines of uncommon quality.  Still, it has always taken a back seat to the more honored nebbiolo wines especially Barolo and Barbaresco.  The result is that there are some wonderful Barberas that are affordable too.  

Barbera is made in many different styles.  The best Barberas are deep ruby in color with some purple hues.  The wines have lush plum and cherry flavors with hints of spice and black pepper.  They are higher in acidity than many wines making them ideal counterparts for the food of northern Italy.  Interestingly, these wines tend to be lower in tannins than one might expect and readily accessible on release.  Above all perhaps, they are almost perfect food wines. 

There are some “uber” Barberas being made now that are inky purple in color.  Although these can be delicious wines, sometimes they are quite “international” in style (for lack of a better word) and lose some of their fundamental enjoyment.  They can be (over?) oaked which provide plenty of wood tannins and require some ageing to mellow out a bit.  Ample fruit is there to hold up as these wines age.  The big question is whether these are the kinds of wine you want to drink when you reach for a Barbera?  

That is not to say being vinified in oak is bad for Barbera.  Many of the best wines produced are allowed to age in small French oak barrels.  The judicious use of oak mellows the harshness of a wine and can provide subtle nuances in color, aroma and taste.  At the same time, there is a lot of lean and insipid Barbera produced.  While Barbera is not an expensive wine, it is also probably not a place to be buying deep discount wine.  It is usually these under $8 Barberas that are tart, acidic and leave people convinced that this is not a wine they want to drink much less purchase.  

Barbera is made in a variety of places throughout Italy.  The best ones made in the Piedmont come from three different DOC’s created in 1970.  They are Barbera d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba and Barbera del Monferrato.  There are in fact differences between the three areas.  Which you may prefer depends on the winery, vintage and most of all, your personal tastes.  

Barbera d’Alba vines are planted on steep sloped hills made up of chalky clay.  The area surrounds the town of Alba.  Most of the top vineyards in this area are dedicated to nebbiolo used in Barolo and Barbaresco.  The wines tend to be more dense and masculine.  These wines are 100% Barbera.