Barbera is probably the most widely planted grape variety in Italy. (It’s grown other places as well, including California, but I’ve tasted very few from outside Italy that were worth the trouble of uncorking.) While in most parts of the country it provides a service as a blending grape with other indigenous Italian varieties, in the north – especially in the Piedmont – Barbera really shows its breed and vinous potential. It does its very best work in the hills around the town of Alba, the heart of the growing area for the great Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as the white truffle capital of the universe. Soil that can make those intense fungi can also produce impressive wines – Barolo and Barbaresco are so impressive in fact that around Alba Barbera is mostly an everyday wine.
We should all be so lucky: Barbera, even in its simplest guises, is delicious, bracing, and welcoming. It offers itself to the drinker easily. You can quaff it by itself or all through a meal without thinking any more about it than that it’s good. But if you choose to notice it, it will give you something to think about. Pay attention to what’s in your mouth, and you’ll notice that Barbera’s flavor isn’t simple. First you’ll taste its fruit, cherryish and winy at the same time. Then you’ll be aware of its acidity, almost but not quite separable from the fruit. Then you’ll perceive different sensations; first tactile – a little combination of prickle and smoothness on the tongue and cheeks – then flavors – some earthy notes, hints of mineral, or similar reminders of the soil that all grapes ultimately draw their character from.
This is a wine you can have fun with, and a wine you can learn from. If you’re in the process of introducing yourself to wine, Barbera can be a whole tutorial by itself. Because of its peculiar properties – it’s very high in acid and very low in tannin – Barbera can be drunk young as well as aged long. (Acidity is what lets wines age. Alcohol and tannin merely help – sometimes.) Because it lacks strong tannins of its own, it can be fermented and/or aged in small oak barrels and still emerge drinkable, which is more than can be said of most Chardonnays and Cabernets (but that’s a subject for another post). These small oak barrels – barriques – are the darling toy of modernist winemakers everywhere, and the Piedmont is no exception. Barbera’s oak-tannin-tolerance has meant that many winemakers are producing upscale, barrel-aged, Super Barberas, very stylish bottles that are a whole wine and price realm away from everyday drinks. Some of them are gorgeous; some are merely expensive.
If you’re exploring Barbera for the first time, stick with the simpler ones till you get the hang of them. Once you acquire the taste, which is easy to do, you’ll probably continue drinking them the rest of your life, no matter how much farther afield you eventually go, Barbera being that pleasing and food-friendly. There are three key zones in the Piedmont: Alba, Asti, and Monferrato. The Asti Barberas are normally the brightest, most acidic, and lightest-bodied. Alba’s are fuller-bodied, a touch less acidic, rounder in the mouth. The Monferrato Barbera stands about midway between, but with some distinctive mineral notes in its aroma and taste because of its very different soil. All are enjoyable, and all will match splendidly with a whole range of foods – literally from soup to nuts. Do yourself a favor and try one or two. Tasting different wines – even two different Barberas – side by side is the quickest and surest way to learn wine and discover your own taste preferences.
Here are some good names to know for quality Barbera. It’s important to bear in mind that almost every serious winemaker in the Langhe (the larger zone around Alba) produces a basic Barbera and often a barriqued, more costly one. The “basic” Barbera almost invariably offers very good value.
Bersano: Producer of a whole gamut of Piemontesi wines, including several Barberas, all from the Asti zone, but with slight variations in style (e.g., Costalunga, Superiore Nizza, Superiore Generala). All represent solid value.
Braida: This estate created modern Barbera with its oak-aged Bricco dell’ Uccellone (expensive, but still a benchmark for the grape). It now makes many Barberas in different styles and price points: Barbera del Monferrato La Monella (inexpensive and charming), Barbera d’Asti Montebruna (fragrant and vivacious), Barbera d’Asti Bricco della Bigotta (a big, polished Barbera), and Barbera d’Asti Ai Suma (for lovers of powerhouse wines: a big, almost super-ripe Barbera).
Chiarlo: Michele Chiarlo produces two distinctive Barberas. Barbera d’Asti Superiore La Court takes all the prizes and commands a prize price, while Barbera d’Asti Superiore Le Orme sells for a fraction of its price and provides solid Barbera character and pleasure.
Einaudi: Another producer of the whole range of Piemontesi wines, at almost every price point. Its basic Piedmont Barbera is a particularly notable value.
Marchesi di Barolo: This distinguished large firm makes, in addition to several excellent prestige bottlings, a lovely Monferrato Barbera called Maraia: a real bargain.
Renato Ratti: Famous for its lovely Barolos, this house also produces a classic Alba Barbera labelled Torriglione.
Revello: Very sleek and stylish Barbera d’Alba Ciabot du Re (expensive), plus a very moderately priced basic Barbera d’Alba.
Vietti: This long-established firm makes several top-flight Barberas: to wit, Barbera d’Alba Scarrone and Scarrone Vigna Vecchia, and – especially — Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza La Crena. The “basic” Barbera d’Alba Tre Vigne and Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne present superb value.