Barbera wine has received a bit of a bad rap in the past. Connoisseurs and consumers alike have labelled it too coarse and common, with a sharpness that tends to overwhelm any hidden complexities. While it’s true that Barbera was once one of the most over-produced wines in Italy, various producers are trying to clear up its name and give it the turn-around it deserves. Indeed, reduced yields and more stringent production measures have shown results, bringing forth Barberas that are deliciously plummy and gently aromatic.
Piedmonte, in particular, currently produces the best Barberas in the country. Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti both boast a DOCG accolades and have their fair share of admirers. These wines are particularly good because they are grown around the same slopes of the Nebbiolo grape, the prime producer of more prestigious Barolo and Barbaresco wines. These are unusual locations for the Barbera grape, a black-skinned variety that was once labelled as “Spartan” because of its resilience and ability to grow anywhere with sunlight and water.
Indeed, it is the tough nature of the Barbera grape that caused it to be overproduced in the first place. In the early part of the 21st century, Barbera was the most ubiquitous wine in Italy, with vineyards appearing in Emilia Romagna, Puglia, Campagnia and even Sicily and Sardinia. The grape also proved to grow well in international soils – Australia, Argentina, South Africa and even the States manufactured their own Barbera yields, with mixed results. This surge in Barbera eventually led to a slide in production standards, culminating in the wine’s relatively lacklustre reputation.
However, Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba both demonstrate that with a good location and a little care, Barbera wine can proudly feature on any Italian dinner table. They are now aged in toasted oak barrels, which lend enticing vanilla notes to the predominant flavours of raspberry, cherry and plum. Barbera d’Asti is a lively wine, with a notable tang and floral aroma. Barbera d’Alba is bolder, with more vigorous flavours that liken it to the region’s more prominent Barolos and Barbarescos.
The tannins are relatively low, making it necessary to drink the wine at a young age. High levels of acidity make it perfect for dining, and enable it to be paired with a variety of Italian dishes.
Medium-bodied Barbera can complement meat dishes, like slow-cooked lamb or veal – making osso buco a particularly delectable choice. Its inherent fruitiness harmonizes beautifully with tomato-based pasta dishes or roast duck with a sweet plum sauce. In fact, it is so versatile that it can complement most courses of the meal. Note that Barbera is usually too acidic to pair with cream-based dishes and pasta sauces. Its sheer drinkability means that it is perfect for a casual dinner party with simple dishes and lively conversation.
Experience Piedmonte’s Barbera revival for yourself by taking a drive to Altavilla d’Alba, where the vineyards gently overlook the Nebbiolo slopes of Barbaresco. Lush purple Barbera vineyards are to be found throughout the hilly provinces of both Asti and Alessandria.