No Respect: Barbera Bursting Out

By Craig Camp
Monday, November 3, 2003

I WENT to a Rodney Dangerfield performance the other night and a barbera tasting broke out.

The wine that Piemonte produces of more than any other is an afterthought for most consumers and a nightmare for importers and distributors. Everybody wants to buy Barolo and Barbaresco and in order get their allocations they also buy the barbera and dolcetto wines of those producers. If you are an importer and decide to carry 5 Barolo producers and 3 Barbaresco producers that can mean you have 14 or so Barbera wines and 10 or so Dolcetto bottlings. They are usually all very good wines, but how many Barbera and Dolcetto selections can your customers put on their wine lists or on their shelves?

In northwestern Italy barbera is everywhere. It is a cheap, often fizzy and mostly thin acidy wine with barely more color than a dark rose. The Italians love it and fill up their shopping carts when it’s on sale at the Ipermarket at € 4.00 for a four liter jug. My neighbor buys it even cheaper as he heads out to a cooperative and buys a demijohn (56 liters -- sort of an Italian kegger). Some Italians will even splurge spending as much as 4 or 5 Euros for a single bottle.

To most Lombards and Piemontese the concept of an expensive Barbera is – well laughable.

The combination of a local market that won’t take you seriously and an overloaded export market can make life tough for serious barbera and dolcetto producers who don’t own Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards and so have no leverage.

Yet like the Union troops at Fredericksburg, serious Barbera producers keep charging the wall of trade and consumer resistance: often with similar results. In spite of this, barriques are purchased, gorgeous labels designed, heavy bottles ordered and old vineyards acquired all with the goal of making great barbera.

All this investment and attention has changed the entire concept of what barbera is and what you can expect when you pull the cork. Famed for its tooth jarring acidity, producers have taken to the barrel to soften out their barbera wines. Barriques combined with lower yields and old vines are producing wines that are lush, giant, deep purple that are out-and-out soft. The 11% and 12% alcohol levels of the grocery store brands become 14% or higher in these new style barbera wines.

Nebbiolo and barbera have opposite attributes. Nebbiolo has low color and high tannins. Barbera has high acids, low tannin and high color. Perhaps this is why they follow each other so well. The naturally low tannin of barbera means that this variety has a totally different relationship with aging in barriques made of new oak than the tannin laden nebbiolo. Oak aging can soften the sharp acidity and add a dose of needed tannic structure.

Giacomo Bologna changed everything for barbera when he released his Bricco dell’Uccellone in the early eighties. He selected grapes from the best vineyard and aged them in new French barriques and the results started a revolution in Piemonte.

This means that there are basically two types of barbera available in the export market as the cheap stuff fortunately tends to stay in Italy. The first is a fresher, fruity style that is aged in stainless steel. The second are the barrique aged powerhouses. Which one to pick depends on what is on the table, how much is in your wallet and your deep personal feelings about strong oak flavors in wine.

I say basically two types because there is in fact a third type: many producers are blending nebbiolo and barbera. It is in these blends you will find the Piemonte answer to the super-Tuscans. These super-Piemonte wines, that fall under the Langhe Rosso DOC, tend to be around 60% barbera and 40% nebbiolo and feature loads of toasty new oak flavors from many months in new barrique. Another thing they have in common with the super-Tuscans are their super prices and they often cost as much (if not more) than Barolo and Barberesco. Famous examples include the Sandrone Pe Mol and Altare La Villa, but take the time to search out the Suo di Giacomo of Eugenio Bocchino as it delivers the same punch for much less money. There is yet another dimension to blended barbera to be found in the various L’Insieme bottlings – some of which include dolcetto, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

It can’t be denied. Good barbera is fun to drink. A wine full of life, zest and just begging for a good meal to be paired with. I know that some producers want to make a wine to challenge nebbiolo, but for me the pure joy reflected in the flavor of barbera is what makes it a wine I go back to again and again.

Few wines match so well with food. The fruit and structure of barbera in all styles lends itself remarkably well to a wide range of dishes. The fruity stainless steel wines are one of the best choices you can make for classic Italian-American cuisine and the oaky bottlings take on grilled and roasted meats in ways most merlot wines can only dream of all the while offering the same lush fruit that has made that variety so popular. Wine lovers outside of Italy are always in the hunt for search for the perfect pizza wine -- a concept Italians don’t understand. There are few better matches for pizza than a zesty barbera.

Eating in Piemonte is similar to running a marathon: you have to pace yourself. The antipasti can seem endless. At one restaurant when we ordered the house antipasti assortment they brought an extra table to hold them -- not a cart a whole extra table. If barbera did not exist the Piemontese would have had to invent it to handle this onslaught of appetizers. The refreshing acidity of barbera is just the thing you need to keep that palate in shape for the main course – and the Barolo.

The vast majority of the best Barbera wines come from three DOC’s: Barbera d’Alba, Barbera del Monferrato and Barbera d’Asti. Barbera d’Alba tends to be what you most frequently see in export markets as these are the Barbara wines made by the Barolo and Barbaresco producers. However, in the other two zones barbera is king and produces the best wines from those zones. It is in Asti and Monferrato and from small Alba producers that are without Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards that “bountiful barbera bargains” (©) can be found – by bargains I do not mean low prices, but that you get a lot of wine for the money.

Some barbera recommendations:

Big and Rich

-Roberto Ferraris, Barbera d’Asti, La Cricca

-Scagliola Barbera d’Asti, SanSi

-Sciorio Barbera d’Asti, Reginal

-La Zucca Barbera d’Asti, Martizza

-Alfieri Barbera d’Asti Superiore, Alfiera

-Arbiola, Barbera d’Asti, La Romilda

-Martinetti Barbera d’Asti Superiore, Montruc

Zesty and Fruity

-Destefanis Barbera d’Alba

-La Zucca Barbera d’Asti, I Suli

-Arbiola, Barbera d’Asti, La Carlotta

-Bricco Mondalino, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore

-Vinchio-Vaglio Serra, Rive Rosso, Barbera del Monferrato

-Tenuta La Tenaglia, Barbera d’Asti, Bricco Crea

There are literally dozens and dozens more. Every year there are more and more producers improving both their basic barbera for everyday drinking and their top-of-the-line barrique aged old vine cuvee.

Barbera may not get the respect it deserves, but at least no one is laughing anymore.