It’s hard being the middle sibling, but in Piedmont, Barbera is making the best of it. Big brother Nebbiolo is a late-ripener that hogs the best vineyard sites (hilltops, south-facing slopes), and has a lock on the region’s most prestigious names, Barolo and Barbaresco. Meanwhile little sister Dolcetto ripens early, will grow just about anywhere – winegrowers usually plant it in lower elevations since it doesn’t need so much sun exposure – and also has its own little appellation, Dogliani, to the southwest. Barbera, however, is sold primarily under the broad appellations Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba; it gets the middle ground – not the hillcrest, but not the valley.
Traditionally Barbera and Dolcetto were both made in a lighter, easy-drinking style. Special occasions demand Barolo or Barbaresco, while the other two are for everyday drinking. Barbera in particular is very flexible with food; high acidity and low tannins mean it's able to stand up to meat but still pair well with fish and tomato sauces.
But about thirty years ago a few producers gave Barbera a chance to step out of Nebbiolo’s shadow. Giacomo Bologna’s “Bricco dell’Uccellone” was the first to gain critical attention, but Michele Chiarlo, Vietti, and others weren’t far behind. Most producers took two steps to bring the grape into the spotlight. The first was greater ripening, in most cases attained by planting the grape in choicer sites. The second key to success was to age the wine in French oak. Barbera makes dark wines that are low in tannins – an unusual combination, since both color and tannins come from the skin of the grape, and the opposite of the orange-tinged, paler Nebbiolo with its immense, weighty tannins. New French oak lends wine tannins of its own, giving this newer style of Barbera the balanced structure it needs to support the added richness. The new combination of acidity and tannins also makes these Barberas much more age-worthy than their predecessors.
The overall effect is like using a really good equalizer on your stereo; the rough edges are smoothed out and the bass becomes fuller, round, and rich. Many of the wines made in this newer style remind me of premium Zinfandel: dark fruits and creamy chocolate flavors, with gentle tannins. However, they aren’t so excessively alcoholic, and retain that characteristic acidity that means they can still find a variety of roles at the dinner table.
Here are six Barberas I especially enjoyed during a recent trip to Piedmont (I had planned to bring home a stash of Barolos and Barbarescos, but almost half my load turned out to be Barbera):
Michele Chiarlo “La Court” 2001 Michele Chiarlo’s first wines were Barbera d’Asti, and the wines remain an important part of his production. “La Court” is the premium bottling of the three currently in his portfolio, and the only one to receive barrique aging. The vineyard lies within an unofficial sub-appellation called “Nizza” which surrounds the town of Nizza Monferrato; makers of “Nizza” wines follow a strict production code and believe the area is capable of providing a distinct, high-quality Barbera. The 2001 “La Court” certainly qualifies; black cherry, cedar, clove, and cola on the nose receive added heft from a dark chocolate note on the palate; the wine unwinds slowly, elegant and round.
Coppo “Pomorosso” Barbera d’Asti 2001 The Coppo family has been making wine in Piedmont for several generations – primarily Moscato. In the 1980s the current generation began expanding their portfolio to include French varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay as well as their first single-vineyard Barbera, Il Pomorosso. Toastier oak elements lend touches of smoke and earth to the more usual dark cherry and blackberry aromas. It’s a rich, full-bodied wine, with a long, somewhat spicy finish.
Pico Maccario “Lavignone” Barbera d’Asti 2003 Barbera makes up the bulk of Maccario’s output; Lavignone is one of their higher-end bottlings, made exclusively from old-vine Barbera. This full-bodied wine is balanced and complex without the use of barriques; raspberry and cherry notes emerge over a base of chocolate, ash, and smoke. The tannins are light, and the grapes’ natural acidity keeps the wine fresh and buoyant. Pico Maccario is also a good place to visit, if a little off the usual Piedmontese route. Most local wineries own vines scattered throughout the region, so vineyard tours can be awkward. The Maccario vineyards, on the other hand, immediately surround the winery, and your hosts are glad to show you around outside (even in cold February weather). Local winemakers all agree about the importance of vineyard work in making a great wine, but few give you such an opportunity to see it firsthand.
Vietti “Scarrone” Barbera d’Alba 2003 Alfredo Currado, father of current owner Luca, ripped up the Nebbiolo in the Scarrone vineyard and replanted it with Barbera about 35 years ago; at the time his neighbors thought it a waste of a good vineyard. Vintages since then have proven them wrong, and Barbera ripens there as Nebbiolo rarely did. These days Luca ages the wine in barrel for about 12 months; the wine’s rich fruits – boysenberry, blackberry – are complemented by a swath of milk chocolate and wonderful fruitcake spices. The wine is full-bodied, with medium, well-balanced tannins and juicy acidity. Alfredo Currado’s appreciation for the qualities of individual vineyards went well beyond Barbera; in the '50s he was one of the first to bottle single-vineyard Barolos by name instead of blending them – par for the course these days.
Pio Cesare “Fides” Barbera d’Alba 2000 The “Fides” – Latin for “Faith” – is made exclusively from grapes from the Colombaro vineyard within the Barolo region and receives a surprising 20 months of aging in a mix of barrique and larger, more traditional casks. It’s earthier than some of the other Barberas here, with black cherry aromas and a dash of pepper. The mouthfeel is very elegant, with soft tannins and a long finish.
Ferdinando Principiano “La Romualda” Barbera d’Alba 2001 Ferdinando Principiano’s father and grandfather grew grapes and sold them to the local wineries; he decided he wanted to take those grapes and make wine himself, and the results have been fantastic. The La Romualda shows complex layers of cherry, red licorice, smoke, and milk chocolate. The wine is not as full-bodied as some, but certainly holds its own in elegance and balance. Ferdinando has the energy of an enthusiastic perfectionist; he hit the ground running with his first wine, a 1993 Boscareto Barolo, and is determined to push quality higher in the future. He told us that with today’s technology anybody can make good wines; as a small producer who wants to stay competitive, his eyes must be set on making great wines.