Barbera: A Wine for All Purposes

Barbera is a wonderful wine, versatile and enjoyable and affordable. Perhaps the wine’s greatest virtue is how well it plays with all sorts of dishes, so when Diane and I find ourselves trying a new recipe – a pretty frequent occurrence here, given Diane’s weekly food posts – and uncertain what wine will pair with it, Barbera is often our go-to grape.

 

Lots of people, both consumers and growers, love Barbera: It’s one of the most widely planted varieties in the world and stands third among red grapes in vineyard space in Italy. From the grower’s point of view, Barbera has many virtues: It thrives in all sorts of conditions, bears heavily – sometimes too heavily – and almost invariably yields a wine that is at worst quaffable and usually much better than that. From the wine drinker’s point of view, Barbera’s rich, dark color, its bright fruitiness – usually described as some variety of cherry – and its zingy, lively acidity make it a delight at dinner. And it hardly hurts that most Barberas are inexpensive: It rates very high on the pleasure-for-dollar scale.

Outside of the Italian Piedmont, Barbera has become a workhorse variety, used frequently to blend with other varieties that need a splash of color and a jolt of acidity to brighten them. It was even customary to use it that way with the austere Nebbiolo grapes in prestigious Barolo and Barbera. But the workhorse can turn into a thoroughbred when it’s planted in the right places and treated with respect.

Giacomo Bologna was the first to make that clear in 1985, when he released the first vintage of his then-iconoclastic, now-iconic Bricco dell’Uccellone, a monovarietal Barbera aged in barriques. That wine, still made by his family on their Braida estate, showed for the first time how much breed and finesse Barbera possessed and began the trend toward treating Barbera as the noble grape it apparently is capable of being.

Naturally, many winemakers immediately went too far with this process – siamo in Italia!  They over-extracted and over-oaked their grapes and worked very hard to diminish, if not entirely remove, Barbera’s acidity, which for many wine lovers was and is the defining characteristic of the variety. So for some years in the 80s and 90s, it became far too easy to find bad Barberas, wines wherein the grape’s lovely cherry flavors were submerged in a sea of oak-derived vanilla or toast or even coffee, and the wine de-acidified to the point of flabbiness. There are still a few of those around, but sanity has returned to most Barbera producers, and the vast majority of Barberas are once again bright, fruit-enlivened wines of charm and grace.

For all that Barbera is planted so widely, I have been talking here primarily of the Piedmontese wine. That’s because around Alba and in the province of Asti and the Monferrato hills, Barbera attains its best flavors and highest levels of quality.

 

 

This a little odd, because Barbera is entirely unrelated to any other Piedmontese variety. In fact, no one really knows where it came from. The earliest reference to what seems to be the grape we know occurs in the very late 18th century in the Monferrato area, but even that reference is uncertain.

What is sure is that Barbera came into its own after the devastations of phylloxera, when the great majority of Piedmont’s vineyards had to be replanted, and it hasn’t looked back since. Alba, Asti, and Monferrato can now be considered its heartland, and all three produce outstanding wines. Asti’s are the brightest, lightest, most acidic, and at their best the most elegant. Alba’s Barberas are fuller-bodied and more intense, with a bit more tannin showing. Asti makers think Alba’s wines are a bit rustic and “nebbiolized,” and they may be right – though both those qualities can be virtues. The Monferrato versions tend to combine the best traits of both other areas, and they can, at their best, be stunning wines, but they are the hardest to find on this market.

Over the years, I have drunk excellent Barberas from many great producers. Here is a very short list of the best. Please bear in mind that most of them make several versions of Barbera – multi-vineyard, single vineyard, selected vineyards, old vine, barriqued and not barriqued, et cetera – and their varying price levels usually indicate how the makers regard them. You may or may not agree: I find with Barbera that simpler is often better.

  • Braida: Asti, in several versions, including the famous Bricco dell’ Uccellone
  • Burlotto: Alba
  • Cascina delle Rose: Alba, two versions, textbook Barbera
  • Cerreto: Alba
  • Chiarlo: Asti; several levels, all good
  • Cogno: Alba, plus a superb wine from an ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vineyard
  • Iuli: from Monferrato, in several versions, and excellent
  • Marchesi di Barolo: both Alba and Monferrato, both fine
  • Renato Ratti: Alba
  • Roccheviberti: Alba; small producer, but well worth seeking out
  • Scavino: two versions of Alba, both very good
  • Vietti: several versions of both Alba and Asti, all very good

Any bottle from this array of star producers ought to provide a Barbera novice with a fine introduction to the breed; a tasting of several of them should show the range of styles and nuances the grape and its zones are capable of. Go to it, and enjoy!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.