Versatile barbera – from Italy to the world

An excerpt from Daring pairings by Evan Goldstein

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daring pairings by Evan Goldstein

daring pairings by Evan Goldstein


In the Piedmont region of northern Italy, they say barolo and barbaresco (made from nebbiolo grapes) are for selling, and barbera is for drinking. Piedmont’s most widely planted red grape, barbera comprises nearly half of the red-wine grapes planted in northern Italy. But the Italians have no monopoly on this wonderful grape, which is cultivated successfully in many other countries.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the grape is its climatic range: it is the world’s sixth most widely planted red-wine variety. It’s also versatile in the bottle. Depending on the age of the vines and the amount of oak aging, barbera can be light and tart or hearty and robust. While most wine drinkers think of it in its unblended form as an everyday wine, it can be a serious if not especially age-worthy wine, either blended or on its own.

Alternative Names Called barbera everywhere in Italy and identified by its place of origin – barbera d’Asti, barbera d’Alba, barbera Monferrato – or occasionally by style – barbera fina, barbera forte, and so on.

Styles Medium- to fairly full-bodied dry red wine; light- to medium-bodied, slightly pétillant red wine; medium-bodied dry rosato (not widely available)

Sometimes Blended With Bonarda, croatina, nebbiolo, other local grapes (Italy), bonarda (Argentina), various red grapes (U.S.A.)

Flavor Lexicon Fruit: Black cherry, black fig, plum, raspberry, red cherry, red currant. Wood: Cacao, spice. Earth: Dust, stones. Other: Red licorice

Similar Sips Bright, sharp reds with some body, such as ripe, full, high-acid Pinot Noir or Gamay

Where It’s Grown Argentina (San Juan), Australia (New South Wales: Hunter Valley, Mudgee; Victoria: Mornington Peninsula, King Valley; South Australia: McLaren Vale), Brazil, Italy (Piedmont: Alba, Asti, Monferrato; Lombardy: Oltrepò Pavese; central and southern regions), Uruguay (Canelones), U.S.A. (California: Central Valley [Lodi], North Coast [Lake County], Sierra Foothills [Amador County], Southern Central Coast [Paso Robles])

Along with sangiovese and montepulciano, barbera is one of the most widely planted red varieties in Italy, and for good reason. It provides growers with excellent yields while imparting deep color, soft to balanced tannins, and (unusual for a warm-climate red grape) high levels of acid.

The barbera from the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy, the area widely accepted as the grape’s birthplace, is the best. Once it was thought of as simply a good local wine for washing down the region’s rich cuisine, but today many winemakers have reconsidered barbera and are making it into a delightful though perhaps not serious wine.

Although barbera is ubiquitous in Piedmont, the commonest examples outside Italy are still barbera d’Asti and barbera d’Alba. The latter can come from any of more than fifty municipalities (called comuni in Italy) in the area, with the best being Monforte d’Alba, Novello, and Serralunga d’Alba. The best areas in Asti, to the east of Alba, include Castiglione Tinella, Santo Stefano Belbo, and Rocchetta Belbo.

Asti is considered real barbera country, as the best vineyard sites there are set aside for the variety, whereas in Alba the best sites are generally planted with Nebbiolo. Perhaps because of this vineyard selection and terroir, the barberas from Asti are riper and more powerful than those from Alba, which are more restrained and elegant.

Elsewhere in Italy, barbera is grown as much for its propensity to ripen predictably and produce abundantly as it is for its quality. In Lombardy’s Oltrepò Pavese, it’s made both as a pure varietal wine (ranging from the pedestrian to the pretty good) and as a blended wine incorporating the bonarda and croatina varieties.

In Emilia-Romagna’s Colli Piacentini, it is again blended with bonarda. It’s also grown and produced in the Bologna and Parma hills, the Colli Bolognesi and Colli di Parma, where it tends to produce a light varietal wine and is often made in a frizzante style. Almost everywhere else in Italy, barbera plays a minor role in blends featuring the local varieties.

Barbera likely arrived in California with the Italian immigrants who established themselves as vintners. It is a very important grape throughout the Central Valley, where most of it ends up in generic table reds; quality improves farther north, in the Sacramento River delta near

Lodi, and in the Sierra Foothills, including Amador County. Although the wines tend to lack the electricity of their Italian counterparts, they can be full bodied and well balanced when yields are controlled and care is taken in the winemaking process. Nice examples also come from Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley and from the Southern Central Coast around Paso Robles and Santa Barbara.

Not every Italian immigrant went to North America; plenty went south. Argentina has a substantial amount of barbera planted, especially around San Juan, and it is often blended with the local bonarda (which is not to be confused with Italian bonarda). Barbera is also planted in Brazil and in Uruguay’s impressive Canelones region.

Australia is also a source of good barbera. It’s a widely planted grape (grown in no less than seventy-five wineries across the continent), with the best examples coming from the Hunter Valley and Mudgee in New South Wales (which has some of the oldest plantings Down Under), South Australia’s McLaren Vale, and Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.

Vintner’s Choices Balanced vs. high-yield, oak vs. no oak, red. vs. rosato, single variety vs. blend, still vs. frizzante, traditional vs. modern approach

Barbera ripens relatively late. Its most notable attribute is its high level of natural acidity even when fully ripe, which has increased its popularity as a grape for hot climates. In these areas (including California’s Central Valley and much of central and southern Italy), the grape is grown for its high yields. It is used in blended table wines with the hope that its acidity will enliven the blend, though that’s rarely a successful strategy. There’s far more mediocre and poor barbera around than good stuff, so choose carefully. Fortunately for drinkers in the U.S.A., most of what’s brought in from Italy is awfully good and often a good value, too.

Although most barbera is made into still table wines, in Italy it is also made into a slightly sparkling frizzante-style wine that is a wonderful counterbalance to rich food, from salumi in Emilia-Romagna to hearty risottos in Piedmont. If you get the opportunity to try one, please do: you’ll forget about all but the best Lambruscos!

The main style choice among makers of barbera is whether to take a traditional or a modern approach. The traditionalists—as embodied by Agostino Pavia, Bruno Giacosa, and Giuseppe Rinaldi – vocate more and older wood, longer aging, and less bright extracted primary fruit. Modernists favor small French barriques, new wood, shorter aging, and powerful primary-fruit flavors. These wines are designed to appeal to the modern 'international' wine lover. Producers like Giacomo Bologna (with his trendsetting Bricco dell'Uccellone), Angelo Gaja, and Tenuta Garetto are prominent advocates of the modern style. A few, like Michele Chiarlo and Luca Currado of Vietti, are right in between.

Although I believe the best barberas to be unblended, barbera can contribute to successful blended wines. Piedmont's barbera d'Alba cannot legally be blended with any other varieties. In wines from Monferrato (rarely seen in the U.S.A.) and Asti, blending is permitted, and both regions produce some very good examples.

Finally, there are some 'super wines' that are blends of barbera with nebbiolo; these can be quite good, as can playful blends of barbera with dolcetto. Barbera can also make a nice rosato (rosé), which is produced in Italy mostly for domestic consumption.


Reproduced with permission of University of California Press © Evan Goldstein 2010


Read our full review of Daring Pairings here »

Daring Pairings by Evan Goldstein is published by University of California Press (Berkeley and LA; 2010; hb 353 pp) and retails for RRP US$34.95  or RRP A$55.95 in Australia.

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