Barbera is probably not the sexiest grape to write about. It’s not the kind of trophy wine you see on top of wine tasting lists. And yet, it’s one of Italy’s most-planted native grapes. You can find it in many regions but it’s in Piedmont that it shines. Or should I say, tries to shine? I suppose nebbiolo will probably always be the first grape that springs to mind when you think of Piedmont. But nebbiolo and barbera are two very different grapes and produce very different wines. Nebbiolo is late ripening, while barbera is earlier ripening (still later than dolcetto though). Barbera wines are often very dark, while nebbiolo is very transparent. And barbera is low in tannins, while nebbiolo tends to produce very robust and tannic wines. The only thing they have in common is the high acidity. So all in all, despite the fact they are grown in the same area, there is very little common ground.
The reason why I find barbera interesting, however, is because it occupies a place where you don’t find many other grapes. Just think of the usual suspects in red : cabernet sauvignon or franc, merlot, syrah, grenache. Or popular Italian grapes, such as sangiovese, nebbiolo, and montepulciano. None of them really has the same characteristics as barbera. Barbera’s ripe but juicy black cherries, its freshness and virtual absence of tannins make barbera worth investigating. On top of that, barberas are normally not too expensive and can be enjoyed while young. The acidity of the grape is also a grateful partner for tomato based sauces. Think bolognese or puttanesca sauces with pasta. For me that’s comfort food with comfort wine. Perfect for those evenings when you want to treat yourself with a nice meal without having to spend hours in the kitchen…
I focused a bit on barbera in the past few months to explore the grape. In general I found that I prefer the Barbera d’Asti over the Barbera d’Alba. In Alba we are in Barolo territory, so it’s nebbiolo that is in the spotlight here. It’s therefore no wonder that wineries choose to use their best vineyards for nebbiolo, as Barolo can be sold at much higher prices than any barbera. In Asti things are different, because barbera does not have to share the attention with nebbiolo. In general I found that Barbera d’Asti is a bit more full-bodied and with more pronounced acidity than Barbera d’Alba, the latter being a bit warmer, rounder. Of course it’s difficult to generalise not having tasted dozens of barberas from Alba, but the Albas I had were not from obscure unknown wineries, so I suppose they were representive for Alba.
The second conclusion I draw from my experience is that barbera is a winemaker’s grape. Despite my feeling that barberas are best when they are juicy and fresh, some were very modern, with very strong wood aromas, obviously more geared towards an international palate. Those are not bad wines per se, but they loose their unique selling proposition. However, the grape allows it, contrary to terroir grapes such as nebbiolo or pinot noir, which need very cautious extraction and use of wood.
So here’s a few barbera’s I can recommend…
If you’re looking for good, textbook barbera :
Tre Roveri 2011, Barbera d’Asti Superiore, Pico Maccario
The nose is loaded with ripe dark cherries, yet at the same time it has a spicy freshness. The fruit is evolving towards dried fruit, showing a bit of evolution. The wine is rather full-bodied, but has the typical barbera acidity that keeps this wine fresh, nicely covering the 14% alcohol. Actually, this wine was best on day two, showing more elegance and perfect balance. So no hurry here.
If you want to show off :
Vigna Scarrone 2012 Barbera d’Alba, Vietti
Beautiful, well integrated nose with cherries and a whiff of chocolate. Elegant and complex, with multiple layers and very long finale! No doubt that barbera transcends its peers here, but it also costs more than 30€. That’s a price point where the competition with premium wines from other grapes starts getting really tough. I know that that is comparing apples and oranges. But in the end, isn’t that what everyone does? Nevertheless, great effort.
Nizza 2011, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza, Dacapo
Picture courtesy of the Associazione dei Produttori del Nizza
This is a barbera from the subzone of Nizza which was in 2011 still a part of the denominazione of Barbera d’Asti, but exists separately as DOCG Nizza since 2014. Before that barbera could still be complemented by 10% other grapes. Now it is 100% barbera.
The wine is a bit evolved and the nose has become a nice bouquet where everything has blended beautifully together. The morello cherries stand out, together with a bit of coffee. The ripe fruit is balanced by a razorsharp acidity that might be over the top for some, but I like it. I had it with ragu alla bolognese and that went very well. But mind you, this is more than just a simple spaghetti wine!
If you’re looking for a good price quality ratio :
Soliter 2016, Barbera d’Asti, Pescaja
This is a barbera that can be found around 10€ and it gives very good value for money. It’s a modern barbera, the wood is still very noticeable, but then again it’s also a very young wine. Beautiful ripe cherries as well and a hint of black pepper. This is a very smooth wine that makes you grab the bottle as soon as your glass is empty. Dangerous stuff!
Piova 2014, Barbera d’Asti, La Montagnetta
Another pleasant easy-drinking barbera at around 10€. Graphite, black cherries, chocolate, and a hint of rose. Quite ripe and round, and the wood is very present. Good and lively acidity that give this wine freshness. Very modern style, but pleasant wine.
So these a couple of barberas that I liked. I did not post all the barberas I tasted here in order to avoid a too lenghthy post, but I started using Vivino to post my tasting notes there, so if you’re interested in the other barberas I tried, you can find them there if you go to my profile.