Have a Barbera

Paul Blow

As more Americans are drinking wine that suits food, pinot noir—with its velvety texture, suave fruit flavors, high acid, and low tannin—has hit big. Pinot noir is so popular in California that during harvest, almost every pinot noir grape is already spoken for. It’s become what you want to drink with dinner.

High acid and low tannin? That also nails Barbera, one of the world’s most widely planted grapes. While some good varieties come out of California, Argentina, and Chile, the acknowledged home of Barbera is the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont. After the grape languished for decades as a low-cost local standby, its potential is now being recognized.

To many, Piedmont begins and ends with the sophisticated—and overpriced—Barolo and Barbaresco, both made from the Nebbiolo grape. But if those two wines are John and Paul, Barbera is George—solid, unspectacular, yet satisfying. (Ringo? That would be Dolcetto, another Piedmontese red.) The locals drink—and always have drunk—Barbera. As Pio Boffo, the head of the estate Pio Cesare, once told me, “Barbera is Piedmont.”

Being a low-cost local wine may have compromised Barbera’s wider prospects. After Piedmont’s vines, like those of the rest of Europe, were devastated at the turn of the 20th century, as much as 80 percent of the region was replanted to the highly productive Barbera vine. The point was quantity, not quality. Winegrowers had no reason to risk rains and mold by harvesting it later and riper, much less treating it with care in the winery. The result was often a wine that was thin and weedy with uncomfortably elevated acid levels—a farmer’s wine, more valuable at the end of a long day for the alcohol it contained than for any sensual pleasure.

“Barbera is Piedmont.”

Some Recommended Barberas

In wine stores, the vintages of many of these wines will vary. In general, 2002 was a poor vintage, with lots of rain and less concentrated and ripe wines; if you’re still seeing 2002s, they’re probably getting a bit long in the tooth. 2003 was extremely hot and dry, leading to powerful, rich, low-acid, high-alcohol wines that in some cases are out of balance. 2004 was generally good, producing high acid and tart, racy fruit with good balance.

2003 Aldo Conterno Barbera d’Alba “Conca Tre Pile” ($30). From 50-year-old vines and aged in barriques, this is a big, powerful wine from a big vintage. Blackberry, chocolate, and coffee come through in the nose with a dense, lush presence on the palate.

2003 Vietti Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne ($18). Creamy texture and sweet, chewy tannins. The aromas of rich, brambly berries suggest pairing with braised meats.

2004 Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti ($14). A low-key but very pleasant Barbera. Lighter in color, it’s still an excellent value, with fresh acidity and a tangy berry flavor. Good with lighter meats, poultry, and pâté.

2003 Pio Cesare Barbera d’Alba ($20). From this esteemed house in Alba, the 2003 is classic, with generous scents of wild herb accompanying bright red fruit, chocolate, and a lush, mouth-filling goodness.

2003 Rinaldi Barbera d’Asti La Bricca ($40). From 30-year-old vines growing in parsimonious, calcareous soils comes this voluptuous beauty with a nose of rose, violets, cherries, and spice. Silky on the tongue and good now, though it will improve if it stays in the cellar for a few years.

A few producers in the United States are starting to dial in the right growing and winemaking formulas for Barbera. Here are a couple of wines to try:

2004 Di Arie Amador County Barbera ($18). From the Sierra foothills in the eastern part of California comes this bright version with licorice-tinged raspberry flavors. Round and mouth filling, the wine is not too complex; extremely gulpable.

2005 Palmina Santa Barbara County Barbera ($22). A big, friendly wine, the Palmina is in my opinion the best Barbera made in North America. Layers of raspberry upon blackberry and currant, with hints of orange zest. Peppery herb notes bring it down to earth. Great with grilled meat.

The Barbera miracle has largely been a redressing of these factors. Today, Barbera accounts for no more than 50 percent of the plantings in the Piedmont, occupying many more prime spots in good soils with lovely sun-drenched exposures.

Barbera’s Big Moment

Barbera’s swerve toward respectability came in 1982 with Bricco dell’Uccellone. Winemaker Giacomo Bologna used grapes taken from a prime hilltop location near the town of Asti, aged the resulting wine in expensive, small French oak barrels, and released the wine for a higher price than had ever been asked for a Barbera. It was a move that shifted the perception of the grape. Uccellone is Piedmontese for the male member, which fully indicates that Bologna was aware of the chutzpah needed to release such a wine.

The wine was a sensation: plushly textured, with sweet, soft aromas, remarkable concentration, and a depth of color rarely seen in Barbera. In the last 20 years, especially in the ‘90s, many have emulated Bologna’s wine—some going too far in the other direction. These days it’s not difficult to find a Barbera that is too ripe, too soft, and overwhelmed with oak. But these style divisions are par for the course. David Lynch, general manager of New York’s Italian restaurant Babbo and coauthor of Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy (Clarkson Potter, 2002), says, “Barbera styles can be confounding. As is the case with a lot of Italian wine right now, there’s an ongoing debate between modern and traditional.” Traditional styles, says Lynch, are typically fruity, but with tangy acidity, lighter color, and less new wood. Modern styles are fruity, darkly colored, rich, soft, and woody. After the extremes of the 1990s Barberas, though, Lynch sees a return to moderation. “I think people are turning back a little towards tradition,” he says. “The ‘90s were a period of a lot of experimentation, and the majority has now settled into a style that’s more restrained than what they were doing.”

The grape has also benefited from an emphasis on improved viticulture. Alberto Chiarlo of the Michele Chiarlo estate told me that “the challenge has been extending the harvest by 10 or 15 days.” Without a long maturation on the vine, says Chiarlo, Barbera’s acidity level can be closer to a white wine’s than a red’s. In an average year, Barbera grapes would approach ripeness in mid-October. But, Chiarlo says, “to leave the bunches on the vine until the 15th of October is hard because the skin of Barbera is very thin. In October, statistically speaking, we have double the rain that we have in September. You have to work in the vineyards to have heavier skin, and you do this by green harvesting, having smaller yields, which produce tougher grapes.”

What to Look For

On store shelves, most bottles you encounter will more than likely be Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti. The consensus these days is that the best Barberas come from Asti. The hills around Alba are a great growing region, but that is where the finest, high-priced Nebbiolo wines come from, and the producers focus less on Barbera. In Asti, however, great Barbera has become a point of pride—so much so that producers there have created an unofficial sub-appellation centered around the town of Nizza. Producers who make wines from this appellation can call their Barberas “Nizza” if they follow the strict, self-applied production code and submit their wines to a panel of peer-judges before release. It is an assurance of quality.

Lynch says that at Mario Batali flagship Babbo, Barbera is selling very well these days. “It’s so versatile with food,” he says, and “there are a lot of great values out there” for Barbera, unlike Barolo and Barbaresco. Fran Kysela, a Virginia-based importer of European wines, agrees but thinks that Barbera will always remain “a wine sought after by just a small group of people who are knowledgeable and drink a lot of wine—so-called wine geeks.” Why? “Because the acidity is just too high. Most American drinkers just won’t go for wines that sharp.”

Kysela may be right, but right now there’s a lot of 2003 Barbera sitting on shelves. A hot vintage that resulted in naturally lower acidities and fruitier wines, it might be a good Barbera entry point for Americans to start acclimating their palates. And for those looking for a high-acid, low-tannin fix that’s not pinot noir, it might just be the right thing.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.