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.
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.
Just to the east, Barbera d’Asti wines also come from hilly terrain, but the vineyards tend to be more open. Barbera is the main grape planted around here. The DOC laws require at least 85% Barbera. The other 15% may be Freisa, Grignolino or Dolcetto grapes. Much of the Barbera produced here is unfortunately the thinner characterless plonk that gave Barbera a poor reputation. There are also some excellent wines produced. There is a superiore designation that calls for 12 months of additional ageing before release with a minimum of 6 months in wood. These wines are perhaps a bit more feminine in nature than the Alba wines. There are also three sub-zones within Asti that make superiore wines. Colli Astiani, Nizza, and Tinella. These wines are aged an additional 24 months before release.
Barbera del Monferrato is also the largest of the zones and encompasses the Barbera d’Asti zone. The laws again require at least 85% Barbera with the remaining up to 15% being either Freisa or Grignolino. It is also available in a frizzante (sparkling) style. The superiore designation calls for 12 months of additional ageing before release with a minimum of 6 months in wood. These wines, at their best, tend to be a bit more aromatic. They may lack some of the structure of the Alba wines but can be quite good.
So, which wine should you buy? I tend to prefer the Barbera d’Asti’s, but I know many who swear by the ones from Alba. There is a debate over which areas style is truly more masculine or feminine. Producer is probably more important than DOC designation. Many wineries now make Barberas from each area.
Which producers should you look for at the store? As a start, look to your favorite Barolo or Barbaresco producers. Many have a house style and if you like that style, you will probably like their Barberas. Off the top of my head, in a more fruity style I would recommend Barberas from Pio Cesare, Bovio, Bartolo Mascarello, Vietti, Renato Ratti, Ceretto, and Giuseppe Cortese. In the denser and often oak driven wines look for Pasquero, also Conterno, Prunotto, Michele Chiarlo, Domenico Clerico, Elio Grasso, E. Pira, Paolo Scavino, and especially Giacoma Bologna (the late vintner who was a pioneer of this style wine). Finally, the wine wines of La Spinetta are perhaps the poster child for the full throttle oak driven modern internationally styled Barbera. They are delicious wines that will age wonderfully. I will pour La Spinetta Barberas for friends who insist they only like Californian wine.
You can expect to pay between $20 and $50 for most of those wines. Barberas by some of the pricier Barolo producers including Voerzio and Giacosa can run significantly higher. I am not sure they are worth it though.
As for vintages, we are lucky as Piemonte has had a particularly good run of vintages. 2006 is a good vintage. 2005 was even better. If you can find a 2004, this was one of the best Barbera vintages ever in my opinion. Those should be drinking quite well right now. As for older vintages, with the exception of 2002, any that you find are likely to be good although some age better than others. Provenance (how the wine has been stored since release) is always an issue with older wines. Early reports on 2007 are very favorable.
Barbera is a great food wine. The wonderful acidity pairs great with almost any food at the table. The foods of northern Italy are a classic match. Meat dishes, pasta in cream or tomato sauces, and especially dishes featuring mushrooms or TRUFFLES are wonderful. The later is especially true with a Barbera with a few years of age on it. No need to stop there though. This is a great pizza wine. About the only food I would not match it with would be seafood. Even then, depending on the sauce and type of seafood, this might work.
There are so many Barberas on the market and at so many price points. I urge you to try a few. As I said, stay away from the bargain pricing and you increase your chances of finding a truly enjoyable bottle. Please let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.