Barbera, the wine of the people
Barbera can make light and easy porch pounders as well as age worthy wines. Historically, the Italians have kept it for themselves and made rustic, mass produced wines that are consumed throughout Italy. Barbera is known as “the wine of the people” thanks to its affordability and long history in Piedmont.
If you would like to sit back and watch a video to learn about barbera, I present to you, the Teakwood Tavern Youtube channel:
The Italian varietal barbera is known for its deep color, juicy acid and relatively low tannins. This makes it wonderful with food, or great by itself. With food, enjoy barbera with high acid tomato sauces to match the acid in food and wine, or, dare we say, pair it with seafood. WHAT?!!! The low tannins and high acid won't overpower heartier pieces of fish (e.g., tuna, salmon, etc.).
Barbera is fairly easy to grow and known for producing high yields. Most bottles you'll find are likely under $30, which is a win for the quality you are getting.
It is the 3rd most planted grape in Italy, after sangiovese and montepuliciano, respectively. However, it is not really grown in Europe outside of Italy. South America, South Africa, and the US have have had success growing barbera, thriving in the Central Coast of California.
Some historians estimate barbera was cultivated for wine production as early as the 800s. Wine produced from barbera has been confirmed as far back as the 13th century in today’s Piedmont region. However, the grape was produced in large clusters that lacked any depth. It was often blended with other grapes that had more tannin, leaving the personality of the grape unknown.
In the 1980s, production of barbera began evolving to increase quality. Wine-makers began experimenting with new French oak. In the 1990s, the grapes were grown in smaller clusters by pruning during the winter to further concentrate the flavors. Grape growers also experimented with harvesting later, which increases sugar and fruit flavors. By the 2000s, malolactic fermentation had become a mainstream technique to soften the acidity.
As barbera was beginning to get the recognition it deserved in the 1980s, disaster struck. In 1985, one producer contaminated their wine with methyl alcohol (methanol). The legal amount in wine is 0.3%, as it naturally occurs in fruit juice and wine production. However, Odore’s barbera clocked in at 5.7% and killed over 30 people while hospitalizing many more around the world. This is the same substance that makes up anti-freeze, which can make poorly made moonshine poisonous and cause blindness.
The bad publicity caused a rapid decline in sales of barbera in the late 1980s. It dropped from the #2 most planted varietal in Italy to #3, eclipsed by montepulciano. However, this has help keep prices down to this day, at no fault of barbera.
Barbera is from the Piedmont region, or Piemonte, as the Italians call it. Piedmont is home to another popular grape, nebbiolo (Barolo DOCG and Barbaresco DOCG), but is much more affordable.
Piedmont is nestled in northwest Italy between the Alps and the Mediterranean. This results in a cool but temperate climate with a morning fog that is perfect for grape growing.
Northwest Italy contains two major cities, Turin, in the heart of Piedmont, and Milan, just over the border from Piedmonte in Lombardy. Meaning there are two major airport nearby! And no shortage of restaurants since this area makes up 1/3 of the country’s population. Though Tuscany gets more love (and tourists), Piedmont has my vote for our next trip to Italy!
Barbera is the most planted varietal in Piedmont. Most winemakers have returned focus to the terrior to showcase the fresh acidity and fruity flavors. There are two regions within Piedmont where you are most likely to find quality barberas—Barbera d'Asti and Barbera d'Alba.
Barbera d’Asti DOCG
Covering the provinces of Asti and Alessandria, Barbera d’Asti happily takes credit for starting the barbera revolution—emphasizing quality over quantity. Surprisingly, it was Giacomo Bologna's trip to California wine country in 1978 that inspired the revolution.
When Italian immigrants came to the States, they brought barbera with them. But unlike the immigrants' kinfolk back in Italy, they focused on quality production techniques such as lowering yields, finding the right time to harvest, and aging in oak barrels. Bologna took these techniques back to Italy with him, as no way Americans should be producing higher quality barbera wines than the home of barbera.
Bologna’s release of his 1982 Bricco dell’Uccellone shocked the wine industry. He produced a barbera that was both rich and structured, while maintaining its signature acidity. Soon, other winemakers followed his lead. For his efforts, Bologna is considered the father of barbera's emergence as a quality wine.
Today you will find two styles from this region. Barbera D’Asti is fermented in steel tanks and produced for immediate consumption. Babera d’Asti Superiore is aged at least 14 months before release with 6 months being spent in oak. Both styles must be made from at least 90% barbera. Both styles boast barbera’s signature deep color and fresh fruits: cherry, raspberry, blackberry, and plum. You will also find spicy notes of white pepper and licorice.
Asti has sandy soil, which helps keeps the yields lowers, allowing for more concentrated grapes. It is is relatively warm compared to other Piedmont regions, keeping the acidity in check.
In many Piedmont regions, barbera competes for the best hillsides against nebbiolo, which usually brings a higher price tag. But not in Asti. The Superiore gets planted on the prime south facing hills.
Asti is also famous for a sparkling wine. You may have heard of Asti's off-dry to sweet Asti Spumante made from moscato. I certainly enjoyed some in my younger drinking years.
Barbera d’Alba DOC
The town of Alba has always focused on nebbiolo. It’s tucked between Barolo and Barbaresco, both famous regions for their nebbiolo production. Therefore, nebbiolo often gets the best vineyard locations. Nebbiolo is particular on where it likes to be grown. Many producers grow barbera right along with it to fill their vineyards.
After taking notice of Asti’s success, wine makers in Alba began producing the same mix of light, easy drinkers and more-structured Superiores. The Superiores must be aged for a year, 4 months of which must be in wood.
Alba's soil has more clay than Asti's. Clay soil is full of nutrients and therefore, grows happy grapes. Producers in Alba must work to prune the vines properly to prohibit the yields from getting out of control. High yields diminish the quality of the juice coming from each grape and add to the already high acidity of the grape.
It’s a few degrees cooler here, allowing barbera to be planted on the lower parts of the slopes. The slightly warmer weather because of the lower elevation, which Nebbiolo does not like, helps keep the acidity from overwhelming the wine.
Some barbera d'Alba vines get into “old vine” territory, being 70+ years old, giving both depth and concentration to the wines produced. Barbera d’Alba is known for being more full-bodied than Barbera d'Asti, and showcases flavors of black cherry, raspberry, blackberry, and freshly ground pepper.
Let's taste some wines!
Vietti Barbera d’Asti 2017, 100% Barbera. $19
The nose is full of fresh raspberry and violet. The fruity palate brings black plum, red cherry, blackberry, blueberry, and strawberry. We got herbaceous flavors of licorice and eucalyptus. The wine making process left flavors of cedar and toast. This wine had high acid and medium tannins. The high 14.5% ABV gave the wine a medium body feel. There was a medium finish coming in at 22 seconds.
G.D. Vajra Barbera D’Alba 2017, 100% Barbera, $27
On the nose we got fennel and ripe strawberry. The palate exploded with all types of cherry. We were also hit with red plum, blackberry, and cranberry. The wine continued to grow in complexity with licorice, black pepper, wet stones, and mint. This wine came in at an impressively hot for a barbera of 15.5% ABV. There was medium high acid with medium smokey tannins, resulting in a medium plus body. There was an enjoyable 30 second medium plus finish.
Carlo Revello & Figli Barbera D’Alba Superiore 2017, 100% Barbera, $20
On the nose, we smelled delicious blackberry, lavender, and anise. On the palate, there were fruity flavors of red plum, black cherry, and fig. Beyond that, we tasted butter, violet, and eucalyptus. This wine was fairly hot at 15% ABV. It boasted medium plus acidity, medium spicy tannin and a medium body. There was a 22 second medium peppery finish.
I will note, these wines were more tannic and full-bodied than your typical barbera. All 3 are from the 2017 vintage, which had a very dry and hot summer. That vintage produced highly concentrated and tannic grapes that resulted in high ABV wines with full bodies. If this is more your style, all the more reason to get out there and stock up on the 2017s while you can.