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Home | Red Grape MP | Barbera


August 14, 2013

Popularity and reputation shouldn't be a problem when you're the 3rd most widely planted red grape in Italy.  Yet for most of its existence, Barbera has been viewed as inferior to its sibling that shares the hills on its ancestral home.  Nebbiolo, the dark red grape made to use world renowned wines in Barolo and Barbaresco in the Piedmont region of Italy, has had admirers fawn over it for quite some time, relegating Barbera to play second fiddle.  But recently Barbera has begun to make a name for itself and may prove to best its sibling yet.

Where Does Barbera Grow?

Italy - Although Barbera has been transplanted to other countries, the vast majority of the wine made from the grape still comes from the Mediterranean nation.  And, the best examples come from the northwest region of Piedmont.  In the undulating countryside of northwest Italy, vintners planted Nebbiolo in the best vineyards they could find, south-facing slopes that enjoy the cooling cover of morning fog.  Barbera, respected but not revered, was used to cover the rest.  In fact, about half of the vines planted in Piedmont are Barbera.  For much of its existence, Barbera was the less-serious of the two main reds of the region.  While Nebbiolo was aged in the cellar, Barbera was enjoyed young as a casual wine for everyday drinking.  But over time, as vintners learned new viticulture and enology techniques, the quality of the wines made using Barbera from Piedmont gradually rose.  Nowhere has this been exemplified better than in the two DOCs of Barbera d'Asti and Barbera d'Alba, especially the former.  While the hillsides of Alba have proven to be the best sites for Nebbiolo, thus relegating Barbera to lesser real estate, some of the best vineyard space in Asti was available to plant its roots.  Outside of Piedmont, Barbera can be found scattered throughout Italy including Emilia-Romagna, Puglia, Campania, Sicily, and Sardinia.

Italian Producers to Look For:  Barbera d'Asti- Giacomo Blogna Braida Bricco dell'Uccellone, Vietti Tre Vigne, Pico Maccario Lavignone, La Spineeta Ca di Pian, Michele Chiarlo, Hastae Quorum, and Vietti; Barbera d'Alba- Bartolo Mascarello, Bruno Giacosa, Cigliutti, Elio Grasso, Giacomo Conterno, Pio Cesare, Oddero, and Luciano Sandrone.

The Rest of the World - As with many other winegrowing regions, the arrival of Italians (mostly towards the end of the 19th century) marked a boom to locales previously devoid of vines.  The spread of Barbera mirrors the exodus of Italians from the homeland, and can be found in almost every New World winegrowing country.  In the US, Barbera adapted to the California climate quite well, as its ease of cultivation led to its use as a blending partner in jug wines coming from the Central Valley.  More recently, vintners in more prominent winegrowing regions (such as Napa Valley and Sonoma County) have attempted to showcase the heights Barbera can reach.  The grape has also made it to the Pacific Northwest and is grown in the Umpqua Valley of Oregon and Red Mountain, Walla Walla, and Columbia Valley AVAs in Washington State. In Australia, the grape has been cultivated since the 1960s when cuttings from the University of California were imported.  Regions such as Mudgee, Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale, and King Valley have all shown promise with its cultivation.  Barbera also made its way to South America where Italian immigrants first planted it in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.  It eventually made its way westward through Uruguay and Argentina where vintners continue to work with the grape today.  Barbera has also found a home in South Africa, especially in the warmer growing regions of Paarl, Wellington, and Malmesbury.

Producers to Look For: California- Palmina, Sebastiani, Jeff Runquist, Boeger Winery, Eberle, and Unti Vineyards; Australia- Margan Family Wines and Brown Brothers; Argentina- Bodega Herrero Cerezo; South Africa- Fairview.

Barbera Styles

The traditional style of Barbera in Piemonte was one that embraced the grape's natural high acidity and light fruity flavors and aromas.  This light style was widely appreciated throughout the region for centuries.  Yet in the 1970s and 1980s, as winemakers in Piemonte took notice of the “Super Tuscan” revolution, Barbera began to be treated differently.  Vintners slowly started experimenting with fermenting and aging in barrel to impart more complex flavors to the wine.  Many found that the oak imparted desirable attributes to the wine, balancing high natural acidity with tannin and making the wine softer and richer.  Descriptors of Barbera's aromas and flavors are varied with bright fruit (strawberry and cherry), dark fruit (boysenberry and blueberry) herbal or floral (lavender and dried leaves; violet), and spice (vanilla, nutmeg, and anise) all showing up in examples from Italy and the New World.  And with vintners continuing to cultivate and experiment with the “second fiddle”, its best concert may yet to be played.

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