When Phylloxera devastated Piedmont in the late 1800s, Barbera was the choice for many new plantings. It grew easily and abundantly, quickly becoming a favourite for the local farmers. Both its ease of growth and its performance at the dinner table made it the drink of choice of the masses.
Today, with Barbera making up close to 50 percent of all plantings in Piedmont, it is still the most planted grape, and continues to be the bread and butter for many producers. By contrast, the region’s more famous varietal, Nebbiolo, accounts for only a fraction of its output.
For me, Barbera is the Gamay of Italy: much maligned and dismissed. Prone to naturally high yields, the renditions that we tend to find on liquor store shelves are thin, high acid, pale-coloured, strawberry fruit-filled versions.
Well, things have now changed for the workhorse varietal. Quality has never been better, and with a little exploration, there are many gems to be found. With this new generation, there is no need to follow the adage, “drink your Barberas while you wait for your Nebbiolo-based wines to mature.”
The first inkling of change started in the 1970s when famed Bordeaux oenologist Emile Peynaud suggested lower yields and small barrique aging as a means to add complexity, round out the wines and tone down the grape’s elevated levels of acidity. The other positive influence of barrel aging is the addition of wood tannin to the structure of Barbera, which is inherently low in grape tannin.
Needless to say, these recommendations warped the beliefs of traditionalists, who vinified high yields in massive botti (large old wood), which could hold thousands of litres.
Years later, with the success of the Super Tuscans, which saw new oak applied to another Italian grape, Sangiovese, the cracks soon started to appear in Piedmont. The person first credited with the elevation of Barbera was Giacomo Bologna. In 1985, he released his 1982 Bricco dell’Uccellone, a 100 percent Barbera d’Asti made from a prestigious single vineyard and aged for 18 months in barriques. Journalists and wine lovers were quick to extol its virtues.
With the acceptance of this modern style, the proliferation started en masse. Producers started slashing yields, choosing better clones and selected the warmest sights/vineyards. Within a very short period, the face of Barbera had changed forever.
The only knock against the style was that some producers over-indulged in the use of new wood. Today, there is a happy medium. The producers who use new wood tend to do so in smaller percentiles. Those who prefer old wood, still observe the mantra of low yields. Also, it is common knowledge, but seldom spoken, that some modern producers tend to de-acidify the wines to produce a softer texture.
Barbera’s natural acidity makes it pretty much a universal partner, especially with traditional Northern Italian cuisine. The lighter wines pair well with bagna cauda, tomato and cream-based pastas, antipasto and pizza. The heavier wines, especially Nizza, find their affinity with truffle-based dishes, braised meats and mushroom risottos, even more so if there is some age to them.
Origins and Appellations
There are three main appellations for the varietal. In order of importance, they are Barbera d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba and Barbera del Monferrato.
The majority is grown in and around the hills of Asti and Monferrato, with the latter being the birthplace of the varietal. 13th-century documents from the cathedral of Casale Monferrato detail leasing agreements of vineyard lands planted with “de bonis vitibus barbexinis,” or Barbera, as it was known back then.
The largest, Asti, incorporates 169 villages and it is widely regarded as the epicentre. Theoretically, anything labelled as plain Barbera d’Asti is an entry level offering with a minimum of 11.5 percent alcohol. In reality, the quality ranges from average to awesome. A step up, hierarchy wise, is Superiore, a wine that has achieved 12.5 percent alcohol and has aged six months in either small wood or old chestnut.
The pinnacle is Barbera d’Asti Superiore plus the name of a subzone, of which there are three: Nizza, Tinella and Colli Astiani. All are impressive, but for me, the spotlight is Nizza, which just recently received its own appellation: Nizza DOCG. This area encompasses 18 municipalities located in the heart of the Barbera d’Asti area, which are some of the warmest. By law, all the vineyards are on south facing sandy/marl slopes, providing maximum sun exposure and heat retention (sandy soils retain and reflect heat into the vineyard.) This combination of privileged exposure and naturally low yields creates a wine with a minimum natural alcohol of 13 percent. Aging for basic Nizza is eighteen months, of which six is in some form of wood. Riserva denotes a wine which has slumbered for a minimum of 30 months, including one year in wood, before release.
It is said that a great Nizza can age between 10 to 20 years. I discovered this to be true while visiting the region this past summer — I had the opportunity to taste many vintages. While the older wines did have poise, I felt that there was no complexity gained over a wine that had been aged for five years. Then again, it is all about personal preference.
Barbera del Monferrato is the smallest in terms of production. It also has one of those idiosyncratic Italian classifications for different tiers of quality. Basic Monferrato is classified DOC and supports the standard bearer red, semi-sparkling frizzante and rare off-dry versions. At the end of the spectrum is Superiore, with its DOCG status, which requires a threshold of 13 percent alcohol, 14 months aging, including a half year in barrel.
As for Alba, it is famous primarily for three things: white truffles, the hybridization of chocolate and hazelnut (Nutella), and Nebbiolo. The area incorporates the Langhe hills, home of the famed Nebbiolo trio of Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero. Logically, most producers have chosen to concentrate their plantings on Nebbiolo, especially in lieu of the terroir and the price that it fetches.
That said, some of my most memorable Barbera experiences started here. Powerful and concentrated, these Barbera wines exude cherries, blueberry and strawberry; the masculine version, closer in style to Nebbiolo, than the somewhat feminine style of Barbera d’Asti. Thus, it comes as no surprise that a few noted Barolo and Barbaresco producers have converted some of their prime Nebbiolo vineyards over to Barbera, e.g. Vietti.
As I was putting my final touches to this story, I received a press release stating that, after 11 years of petitioning, the region of Nizza has received UNESCO protected status. According to the press release, the area is, “An exceptional living testimony to the historical tradition of grape growing and winemaking processes, a social context, and the rural economy based on the culture of wine … [A]n outstanding example of man’s interaction with his natural environment.”
Do you need more proof that it is time to get your Barbera on?!
Top Barbera Producers
- Cantina Tre Secoli
- Bava Coppo
- Cascina Garitina
- Avezza Paolo
- Cascina La Barbatella
- Giacomo Bologna “Braida”
- Elio Grasso