Barbera, Versatile Italian Wine Grape
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Barbera: Versatile Italian Wine Grape

Barbera, native to the northwestern Italian region of Piemonte, is the third most planted red grape variety in Italy after Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Barbera vines generally produce good yields that result in high acid, low tannin wines, often with aromas and flavors of blackberry, blueberry, and cherry. Barbera is fairly prolific, and, as is the case with many grapes that grow widely, quality levels vary greatly. Old vine Barbera, sometimes centuries old, has a naturally low yield and is sometimes worthy of aging in toasted oak barrels. Oak tends to add ligneous wood tannins that give structure to the otherwise low tannin wine, without the astringency of the phenolic tannins derived from the grape. Some producers use yield reduction techniques such as green harvesting, which involves removing clusters of unripe grapes from the vine, to enhance the quality of their Barbera harvest. Barbera ripens a full two weeks before its Piemontese competitor Nebbiolo, in late September and early November, leading to an uneasy coexistence among these grape varieties. Barbera would be ready to drink while the fussy Nebbiolo was still aging. Outside of Piemonte, the prolific Barbera is found all over, usually as a component in inexpensive vino da tavola. Some Barbera is now grown in California and Australia. I've always tended to enjoy Barbera, even in its New World manifestations, feeling that there was something in it that qualified as “happy juice.” A good wine, beyond the alcohol, should make one happy.

Barbera has been known in the hills of Monferrato in central Piemonte since the middle ages. It grows in a variety of soils but prefers calcareous and clay loam soils as are typical in Monferrato. The best known appellation is the Barbera d’Asti DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). Barbera d’Asti wines tend to be lighter colored than Barbera d’Alba, which generally has more intense fruit. Barbera is less cultivated in Alba, however, because the best sites there are usually dedicated to Nebbiolo. Barbera del Monferrato may be blended with up to 15% Grignolino, Freisa, or Dolcetto and may have a light sparkle. I tasted a number of Barberas during my December 2015 tour of Monferrato.

The Garrone 2014 Barbera del Monferrato wine sees three months of oak and carries a light sparkle, which I found played nicely with the acidity and would make this Barbera versatile with much food. It has a clean attack, a good deal of ripe berry aromas and flavors, and a long finish laced with fruit tanginess.

The Garrone 2014 Barbera d’Asti has more body that the Monferrato, moderate tannin and acidity, plum, black cherry, and geranium notes and is the beneficiary of a four month stay in large oak barrels.

The Garrone 2012 Barbera d’Asti Superiore is produced from hilltop grapes, is aged a year in an immense 2700 liter oak barrel, then waits two years in bottle before release. At 14.5% alcohol, the nose brings blackberry and vanilla. Tannins are soft but lasting, with some heat on a dry finish.

The organic Poggio Ridente Barbera d’Asti DOCG “Vallia” 2012 is fermented in steel tanks over an eight to ten day period using only naturally occurring yeasts. A very deep red in color with aromas of red berries, flavors of red plum, almonds and dried cherry, full-bodied with nicely integrated tannins and acidity. The fruit lasts into a lengthy finish.

The organic Poggio Ridente Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG “San Sebastiano” 2011 is the product of a selective manual harvest and natural yeast fermentation. The wine is 14.5% alcohol, a deep purple in color, with a nose of red fruit and vanilla, flavors of well-extracted blackberry, dried cherry and vanilla, sassy acidity, and a warm patient finish.

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food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

The Barbera Grape

A cluster of Barbera grapes on the vine

Barbera Wine

Piemonte showing Barbera regions

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