The Better Barbera

Barbera wines are one of my favorite wine varieties, spritely and delicious but generally are not on the radar screens of the general inebuying public. Although widely available, they are not especially well known in the U.S. and are genrally passed by in favor of Italy’s more popular Nebbiolo and Sangiovese-based red wines. They infrequently appear on restaurants’ wine lists — other than at pizza parlors — and when they are they appear to be mere afterthoughts which is puzzling since Barbera is probably the most food-friendly wine in the world.

Barbera is an unusual grape variety. It is an early-maturing varietal and its juice has a dark ruby color with high acidity and low levels of tannin. Vineyards around Castiglione FallettoWhile grown all over Italy, Barbera has been most successful in Italy’s Piedmont region where it is believed to have originated in the Monferrato hills around Asti.  Barbera is a vigorous varietal that adapts well to different climates and soils and is grown in many areas of the world — Brazil. Argentina, Australia and in several areas of the U.S., most notably California and Virginia.

But it is in the Piedmont region of Italy that Barbera does best and is the source of the world’s best Barbera wines. Barbera grows primarily in three provinces in the southeastern part of the Piedmont region that are anchored by the cities of Alba, Asti and Alessandria. There are three primary Barbera DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) denominations: Barbera d’Alba, Barbera d’Asti and Barbera del Monferrato. Although the three zones are contiguous and in some cases overlapping, there are some subtle differences between the Barbera wines produced in these zones

The Barbera d’Alba production zone includes the rolling hills around the town of Alba, the Piedmont’s unofficial wine capital. It overlaps the Barolo and Barbaresco zones and most of the Barberas from this zone are by vintners that also produce Barolo or Barbaresco wines. In the Barbera d’Alba zone, the wine is made entirely from Barbera and is typically deeply colored and robust with ripe plum and cherry flavors.

The Barbera d’Asti zone is centered on the town of Asti, the town famous for its sweet, sparkling wines – Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti. This zone is quite large, covering most of Asti province and extending into Alessandria province to the east. The Barbera d’Asti zone also contains three Barbera sub-zones.

The Barbera del Monferrato zone is also large and includes the provinces of Asti and Alessandria but most of the Barbera production is centered around the town of Alessandria.

In contrast to the Barbera d’Alba zone, where Barbera has to compete for prime vineyard space and attention with the more prestigious and pricier Nebbiolo-based Barolo and  Barbaresco wines, in the Barbera d’Asti and Barbera del Monferrato zones, Barbera is the major red wine varietal and is generally the best red wine produced in these zones.

Barbera from both the d’Asti  and Monferrato zones are blended wines with a minimum of 85 percent Barbera grapes and optional additions of lesser percentages of other local red varietals. Barberas from the d’Asti zone tend to be light-bodied with tart fruit flavors and lively acidity.  Barbera wines from the Monferrato zone generally produce light and lively wines but have in recent years undergone a change in style to more structured and complex wines.

Since Barbera is a hardy, vigorous and low-maintenance varietal that can be grown almost anywhere, it historically did not receive a lot of care and attention from producers.  With a long and warm growing season, the easy-going Barbera varietal can produce copious quantities of slightly spicy grapes with zippy acidity.

The resulting wines were uncomplicated, sometimes fizzy, and easy-drinking. Most Barbera was consumed locally and seldom exported other than in bulk for use as a blending wine to other areas of Italy or Europe where local wines were in desperate need of additional acidity or color. They were rustic wines that were meant to be drunk young and frequently.

However, beginning in the 1980’s a small group of producers independently began tweaking various aspects of the Barbera production process to see if they could make more interesting and serious Barberas. They began experimenting with better sites for Barbera plantings, use of single vineyard designations, selective pruning to limit yields and, in general, just giving the Barbera varietal the same care and attention they lavished on their prestigious Barolo and Barbaresco wines. They also began experimenting with ageing Barbera in new, small (approximately 60 gallon) French oak barrels (called barriques) instead of the traditional, larger oak barrels (called botti, plural of botte) that can hold hundreds of gallons.

Because the smaller barriques facilitate more wood-wine contact, they can have a fundamental impact on the chemistry of the wine being aged. The result can be a better balanced wine with a deeper, darker hue and enhanced aromatics and flavors. Because Barbera is inherently low in tannins, use of barriques can impart some wood tannin to the wine and thereby enhance the wine’s structure and complexity. It can also soften and take the burr off Barbera’s tart acidity. The net result can be a less acidic, better balanced, softer and somewhat more tannic, cellar-worthy wine.

However, barriques also have a dark side in that if not used judiciously they can have a negative impact on the wine. Too much wood ageing can produce wines whose aromatics and taste are so “woody” that they obscure the essence of Barbera – which is its bright fruit flavors and bracing acidity.  It’s a delicate balancing act. While you want to enhance the  wine’s structure and complexity, you don’t want to overwhelm Barbera’s inherent fruity and generous character. Wines should be true to the grape varietal and not the oak containers in which they are aged.

Perhaps the person most responsible for bringing about the Barbera revolution was the colorful and flamboyant Piedmont producer Giacomo Bologna. In 1985 he  released his first bottling of Bricco dell’Uccellone, a wine made entirely from Barbera grapes from a single prestigious vineyard in Rocchetta Tanaro that were harvested in 1982 and aged for 18 months in barriques.  The resulting wine was a delight – intense with generous fruit flavors, a tannic backbone but also with Barbera’s benchmark crisp acidity – and it garnered immediate and favorable critical attention.

Although Giacomo Bologna was not the first to bottle single-vineyard, barrique-aged Barbera, his Bricco dell’Uccellone became a model for other winemakers like Vietti, Giacomo Conterno and Michele Chiarlo, who utilized some of Bologna’s techniques and other “modern” procedures to update and create their own versions of Barbara. In the space of a few years Barbera’s status was indelibly changed from that of a rustic, country wine to a serious, cellar-worthy wine that gained favor with wine enthusiasts worldwide.  At long last, Barbera was getting some respect.

What Giacomo Bologna and the other pioneering “barbaristas” showed was that when Barbera is allocated prime vineyard sites, vineyard yields are reduced, the grapes hand selected at harvest for optimal ripeness and great care taken in the vinification process, the resulting Barbera – whether made in the “traditional” or “modern” style - can be nothing short of a decadent drinking experience. The entire concept of what Barbera is and what to expect from a bottle of Barbera was fundamentally changed and for the better.

Of course, it is not an either-or proposition with two clear-cut and competing approaches to making Barbera. Many producers have struck a middle ground and added some “modern” touches to their “traditional” approaches to making Barbera. For example, some producers age only a portion of their Barbera in barriques and/or for shorter periods than more committed “modern” producers.

Which type or style of Barbera is better has to be answered at the individual level and is a function of your financial and personal preferences. For example, do you have an aversion to strong oak flavors in wine? Or do you prefer a barrique-aged powerhouse as opposed to a light, lean and lively wine made in the traditional fashion?  Also, you have to consider how much you’re willing to spend on a bottle of wine as well as the food with which the wine will be paired.

The fruit and crisp acidity of Barberas in all styles goes remarkably well with a wide range of dishes. But generally, the high acidity, low tannin Barberas made in the lighter style are great with pasta, rice and tomato-based dishes and is the favorite wine in the Piedmont to accompany their robust regional specialty dish, bagna cauda. The more full-bodied, rounder, more tannic barrique-aged Barberas are well suited to grilled and roasted meats and aged cheeses.

Barberas made in the traditional fashion with little or no barrique-ageing generally retail in the U.S. in the $10 to $20 range while modern Barberas made in the barriqued style, which are more time-consuming and expensive to produce, generally retail in the $20 to $30 price range although some sell at prices considerably north of $30. As with Chianti or Barolo or any other serious wine, it all depends on the producer, his/her reputation and the care and attention paid to the varietal.

You can find many quality Barberas at most fine wine shops around the country. Because of their limited production, some top Barberas such as Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Nizza Fava” from Garetto, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore “Bricco Battista” from Giulio Accornero, Barbera d’Alba Superiore from Filippo Galliono and Barbera d’Alba “Preda” from Sergio Barale, to name a few, do not make it to the U.S. or, if they do, are stringently allocated and difficult to find.  

That’s our loss because they are some the best Barberas Italy has to offer. In preparation for this article, I raided my wine cellar for a bottle of Sergio Barale’s ’01 Barbera d’Alba “Preda”, opened it and let it breath for an hour. A lot of care and attention goes into the making of this wine. The Barale estate has less than 4 acres under Barbera vines but the vineyards are in prime southwest-facing hillside locations, yields are limited and the grapes hand-selected at harvest. It is also aged for a year in French oak barriques. The wine was every bit as good as I hoped it would be – richly concentrated with soft tannins, good acidity and a long, persistent finish that kept me coming back for more. But after this bottle, there is no more since I bought this one bottle on a recent trip to Italy and it is not available stateside.

Sergio Barale’s “Preda” Barbera notwithstanding, there is a good selection of quality Barberas that are generally available at local wine shops in most U.S. markets. Below are six generally available Barbera wines (ordered by price) that are definitely worth trying:

Prunotto, Barbera d’Asti “Fiulot” 2006 ($15)
Ripe fruit, perfectly structured, seductive.
A best value Barbera.

Vietti, Barbera d’Asti “Tre Vigne” 2006 ($17)
Richly textured, fresh and lively acidity, great value.
Loads of food-friendly personality.

Coppo, Barbera d’Asti “Camp du Rouss” 2004  ($19)
Full-bodied, soft tannins, unrestrained finish.

La Spinetta/Georgio Rivetti, Barbera d’Asti “Ca di Pian”  2005 ($26)
Intense aromas, mild tannins, a full-bodied beauty.
From one of the Piedmont’s most innovative winemakers.

Luciano Sandrone, Barbera d’Alba 2005 ($28)
Richly textured, complex, enveloping.
From a “modern” vintner that is attentive to tradition.

Braida-Bologna, Barbera d’Asti “Bricco dell’Uccellone” 2004 ($53)
Elegant, balanced, voluptuous
This is the wine that brought Barbera from neglected to the top of the wine list.

Note – prices indicated are averages of retail prices in most local markets in the U.S. but individual prices will vary from store to store. While in stock at time of writing, stores may sell out of the selections so availability is not guaranteed. Call to check on price and availability before making the trip.

© Richard Marcis

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