Barbera, the Lady in Red from crisis to rebirth
- Written by Francesco Falcone
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From the tables in countryside osterie to excellence in expression, the Barbera has passed through a long history and crisis to its rebirth as a wine with true character.
The same name of Barbera the wine and barbera the vine - a distinction between capitalizing the first letter and not that will be used in this article to avoid confusion - evokes a sonorous echo heard throughout all of Piedmont. Not an angle of vineyards in the region lacks this red grape.
From its original soil in Monferrato to the Langhe, where it contests with noble Nebbiolo and historic Dolcetto for the honor of being the zone's most widespread vine; from the Roero of high Piemonte to the mountain peaks of Susa Valley and Pinerolo (in the zone of Torino, where barbera is grown in few and isolated vineyards), dozens of denominations of origin are permanently linked to this variety, including the Barbera d'Alba and Barbera d'Asti, both prestigious and productive.
Barbera is conspicuous even outside of Piedmont. In the same way that Sangiovese dominates the entire wine basin of central-west Italy with an additional presence in wine areas of the South, barbera prevails in the North. Its presence extends from Lombardy (particularly the district Oltrepò Pavese) to Emilia Romagna, especially in the Piacenza area, and continues to the Pliocene terraces of the Bologna hills.
Returning to Piedmont, barbera covers about half of the entire vine-cultivated region. This vast diffusion was stabilized during the viticultural reconstruction after the Phylloxera crisis that destroyed Piedmontese viticultural production between World Wars I and II. Its robust productive capacity, ease of cultivation, and consistency of yield were the reasons for its great success.
From popularity to crisis
From a commercial point of view, Barbera’s production was strengthened in the following years. A straightforward and vigorous wine, simple in structure and gifted with great drinkability, it was long considered the go-to red for meals of par excellence. It was sold to a healthy market and frequently described as lively or even rough-edged. Tradition has it that a bottle of Freisa should be added to the demijohn of Barbera to help the sweet Freisa ferment more.
Often rustic, Barbera lends itself to being a staple at every day meals and in the piole, or the small osterie of the countryside, for its ability to accompany the intense flavors that characterize Piedmont's traditional food (such as anchovies).
But if this levity, so distant from that unreachable austerity of Nebbiolo, was Barbera's fortune that helped it reach its popularity, in some ways it was also the root of its problems. From the 1960s until a few decades following, Barbera was negatively affected by a mediocre production, often by wineries who valued quantity over quality and by certain political choices in the wine world that lead to inadequate control over production.
The result was disastrous. The loss of credibility distanced consumers, sellers, and, even worse, serious producers who were resigned to consider Barbera through the lens of a relentlessly degrading reputation.
Rebirth and transformation
The Barbera that we know today began its turnaround in the first half of the 1980s, thanks to the intuition of Giacomo Bologna, the winemaker and innkeeper of Rocchetta Tanaro. Interpreter of the most charismatic Piedmontese wines in that historical period of fervor, he developed a Barbera d'Asti of great quality, matured in new oak barriques and capable of competing with the best national reds out there: the Bricco dell'Uccellone. This wine and its charming creator had other merits: they drastically reshaped the organoleptic profile of the denomination (flashing its hidden talents until it was again considered popular) and opened the eyes of a new generation of passionate winemakers, persuaded by the integrity of the project.
Barbera wine was long considered the go-to red for meals of par excellence, sold to a healthy market and frequently described as lively or rough-edged.
From that point on, this wine and vine were in excellent standing and obtained the appreciation of critics and experts. Barbera d’Alba Larigi ‘86 by Elio Altare, Conca Tre Pile 1989 by Aldo Conterno, Barbera d’Asti Pomorosso ‘90 by the Coppo brothers, and Barbera d’Alba Marun 1998 by Matteo Correggia – to name just a few splendid bottles drunk by yours truly – demonstrated how Barbera, if well-conducted in the countryside, could extract profound texture and richness of sensation from new oak that’s in line with the parameters of ambitious Italian reds.
The requirements of the vine
For barbera to produce at its highest potential, being a late-maturing vine, it needs the sunlight. It is not by chance that, among the many Italian varieties cultivated in California, this is the most diffused, particularly in the boiling temperatures of Central Valley.
Its need for heat – barbera loves constant, hot temperatures – is satisfied along well-exposed, elevated hills with little wind, not too high an altitude (ideally around 300 m (984 ft) above sea level), and in old, well-drained soils. Only in these conditions can the natural acidity and fruity vivacity develop in structure fully and evenly.
It is for this reason that, in spite of its ubiquitous productivity, it was able to prove its most distinguished aspects in only three districts: Monferrato Astigiano, particularly in its Pliocene soils that characterize the surroundings of Nizza Monferrato and Agliano Terme (where Barbera has a higher density and captivating mineral nuances); on the powerful chalky marl of the Langa (the zone that gives Barbera its optimum phenolic attributes); and in the sandy plots of the Roero, where it expresses warm, juicy wines with defined fruity notes.
Barbera at her best
The acidity is the cornerstone around which the most-defined Barberas are based, able to express itself as full-bodied and juicy, generous and alive, flavorful and refreshing at one time.
Once the maturation in oak is carried out with mastery and the concentration of its elements are well-proportioned (in these last years, unfortunately, many selections are too heavy with extract and alcohol, losing its nuance), the main characteristics of the wine are represented in a solid, intense aroma with a modulated potency, a captivating tactile fullness, and a pleasant acidic tension that makes up for the physiological lack of tannins.
The acidity is Barbera's cornerstone around which the most-defined Barberas are expressed as full-bodied and juicy, generous and alive, flavorful and refreshing at one time. Hence, a red wine of value that for all of its distance from the complex, graceful evolution of its Nebbiolo cousins (Barolo, Barbaresco, Ghemme, Gattinara, and Roero), Barbera knows how to compete with the most prestigious wines of the world for its sheer drinkability and easy food pairing potential.