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What Is Barbera?
Barbera (sometimes spelled “barbara”) is a red wine grape variety widely planted in northern Italy. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was the third most-planted red grape in Italy, but its acreage is diminishing, as smaller quantities of higher quality wines are being made than in the past.
What Is the History of Barbera?
Barbera vines have grown in the Piedmont region of Monferrato for centuries. Barbera does not appear to be genetically related to the other main red grapes of northern Italy, such as dolcetto and nebbiolo, so it may have originally come to the region from elsewhere.
Traditionally, barbera was used to make inexpensive, easy-drinking everyday wines that are bottled and sold in Italy but rarely considered special enough to be exported to elsewhere in Europe or the world. Often, barbera was blended with more tannic red grapes from southern Italy in bulk wines, meaning that consumers didn’t have a good idea of what barbera tasted like on its own. Barbera’s reputation is improving slowly as the Italian government introduces new DOCs for barbera and producers experiment with different winemaking techniques to bring out the grape’s charms.
In the mid-1970s, Michele Chiarlo in Asti was one of the first growers to attempt to elevate barbera from a bulk wine grape to a varietal worthy of consideration. Barbera has naturally high acidity, so Chiarlo used malolactic fermentation on his wines, a technique that turns harsh malic acid into softer lactic acid. This process is standard on premium red wines, but hadn’t been used on barbera in the past. Rather than blend the barbera with other grapes, Chiarlo produced barbera as a varietal wine, which increased its name recognition and popularity.
Where Does Barbera Grow?
Barbera is a very vigorous, adaptable vine which can grow in various soils from calcareous clay to limestone to sand, and can withstand hot climates. The grape’s naturally high acidity means that it can achieve full ripeness without tasting flabby or unbalanced by alcohol.
The majority of barbera is planted in Piedmont. Barbera ripens before the nebbiolo grape, which goes into Barolo, the long-aged king of Italian wine. Many Barolo producers also make a less-expensive barbera-based wine to drink, they joke, while waiting for the Barolo to mature. A few acres in other areas of Italy like Emilia-Romagna, Puglia, and Sardinia, are also devoted to growing barbera.
Because of its heat tolerance, New World growers have begun planting barbera grapes in warm wine regions like South Australia (for varietal wines), Argentina (as a blending grape), and in California’s Central Valley (for bulk wines) and Sierra Foothills (oaked varietal styles).
What Kinds of Wines Are Made with Barbera?
Barbera is usually made into dry, still red wines. For Italian Vino da Tavola (meaning “table wine”), barbera will be blended with more tannic grapes from southern Italy to make cheap bulk wine. Most barbera consumers see on shelves, though, will be varietal barbera wine, sometimes blended with a small percentage of the French grapes cabernet sauvignon or merlot.
- Barbera d’Asti: Barbera d’Asti, a DOCG wine from the town of Asti, and Barbera d’Alba DOC, from the town of Alba and surrounding area in the Piedmont hills, are the quintessential barbera wines of Italy. Asti is thought to be slightly more delicate and feminine, while Alba barberas should be aged a little longer to mellow their acidity. The “superiore” designation, for example in Barbera d’Asti Superiore, indicates at least 12 months of aging before release. The Nizza subzone of Asti, centered around the town of Nizza Monferrato, is the newest DOCG for barbera wines.
- Sparkling barbera: West of Piedmont, the wine region of Emilia-Romagna is home to a unique sparkling version of barbera that is similar to Lambrusco. It is produced in very small quantities and is rare to find outside of Italy. Look for wines labeled Colli Piacentini DOC. Another slightly sparkling (“frizzante”) barbera is produced in the Barbera del Monferrato DOC, but again, this wine is rarely exported.
How Does Barbera Wine Taste?
The barbera grape makes wines that are juicy and relatively light-bodied despite its bold, deep purple color. Barbera is extremely drinkable due to its refreshingly high acidity, low tannins, and moderate alcohol.
Barbera tasting notes often include:
- Red cherry
- Black cherry
Barbera wines grown in Italy’s cooler areas can be more herbaceous and tart than those grown in warmer climes.
How to Serve and Pair Barbera
Barbera is usually drunk young in Italy, but good examples, especially those aged in oak barrels, can be cellared for up to ten years.
Barbera’s acidity makes it extremely food-friendly, especially to rich traditional cuisine from Piedmont like pasta with parmesan or risotto with truffles. Try it with lighter meats like duck, game birds, or rabbit rillettes. As proof of its versatility, Barbera is also a great picnic wine paired with charcuterie and cheeses.
Learn more about wine appreciation in James Suckling’s MasterClass.