A Tasting of Barbera Wines
Barbera is an unusual grape variety. It is an early-maturing variety and its juice has a dark ruby color with high acidity, wonderful berry-like aromas and flavors and discret tannins. It is a vigorous, hardy variety that adapts well to different climates and soils and is grown in many parts of the world such as Brazil. Argentina, Australia and in several areas of the U.S., most notably California and Virginia.
But the best Barbera is from the Piedmont region of Italy and it is the most widely planted grape in the region. While there are Barbera DOC-denominated zones in the Piedmont region, the two primary ones - and the ones most commonly available in the U.S. - are Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti. Although the two zones are contiguous and in some cases overlapping, there are some subtle differences between the Barbera wines produced in these zones although some of the differences have become blurred with the passage of time.
The Barbera d’Alba production zone includes the rolling hills around the town of Alba, the Piedmont’s unofficial wine capital. Since the Barbera d’Alba zone overlaps the Barolo and Barbaresco zones Barbera from here has to compete for vineyard space and attention with Nebbiolo grapes used in the production of the more famous - and more expensive - Barolo and Barbaresco wines. Barbera d’Alba wines typically are deeply colored and robust with ripe plum and cherry flavors.
The Barbera d’Asti zone is centered on the town of Asti which is famous for its sweet, sparkling wines – Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti. This is a large zone, covering most of Asti province and extending into Alessandria province to the east. While Barbera has to compete for prime vineyard space and attention with with other prominent grape varieties in the Barbera d’Alba zone, this is not the case in the Barbera d’Asti zone. Here Barbera is the major red wine varietal and is accorded prime vineyard locations and special attention and is the best red wine produced in this zone.
Barbera d’Asti wines are generally considered livelier and more subtle than Barbera wines from the Alba zone.
Barbera d’Alba wines have to have at least 85 percent Barbera grapes with Nebbiolo grapes eligible for up to 15 percent of the blend. However, many - if not most - Barbera d’Alba wines are made entirely of Barbera grapes. The superiore designation may be added to the label if the wine is aged for at least 12 months of which at least 4 months is spent in oak barrels.
Historically, Barbera generally did not receive a lot of care and attention from producers. They were uncomplicated, easy-drinking wines meant to be drunk young and frequently. These rustic wines were generally consumed locally and seldom exported
However, beginning in the 1980’s a small group of producers independently began tweaking various aspects of the Barbera production process to see if they could make more interesting and serious Barberas. They began experimenting with better sites for Barbera plantings, use of single vineyard designations, selective pruning to limit yields and, in general, just giving the Barbera varietal some of the same care and attention that Barolo and Barbaresco wines received.
They also experimented with different regimes for ageing Barbera such as in new, small French oak barrels (called barriques) instead of or in conjunction with traditional, larger oak barrels (called botti, plural of botte) that can hold hundreds of gallons of wine. Because Barbera is inherently low in tannins, use of the smaller oak barrels can impart more wood tannin to the wine and thereby enhance the wine’s structure and impart nuances of toast and vanilla. It can also soften and take the burr off Barbera’s tart acidity. The net result can be a more balanced, softer, more tannic and cellar-worthy wine.
Perhaps the person most responsible for bringing about the Barbera revolution was the colorful and flamboyant Piedmont producer Giacomo Bologna (now deceased). In 1985 he released his first bottling of Bricco dell’Uccellone, a wine made entirely from Barbera grapes from a single prestigious vineyard in Rocchetta Tanaro and aged for 18 months in barriques. The resulting wine was astonishing – intense with generous fruit flavors, a tannic backbone balanced with Barbera’s benchmark crisp acidity – and it garnered immediate and favorable critical attention.
Although Giacomo Bologna was not the first to bottle a single-vineyard, barrique-aged Barbera, his Bricco dell’Uccellone became a model for other winemakers who utilized some of Bologna’s techniques as well as some innovations of their own to create other interesting versions of Barbara. In the space of a decade Barbera’s status was indelibly changed from that of a rustic, country wine to a serious, cellar-worthy wine that quickly gained favor with wine enthusiasts around the world. The entire concept of what Barbera is and what to expect from a bottle of Barbera was fundamentally changed for the better.
The fruit and crisp acidity of Barberas in all styles goes remarkably well with a wide range of dishes. But generally, the high acidity, low tannin Barbera made in the traditional fashion are great with pasta, rice and tomato-based dishes and is the favorite wine in the Piedmont to accompany the region’s robust specialty dish, bagna cauda. The more full-bodied, rounder, more tannic barrique-aged and Superiore Barberas are well suited to grilled and roasted meats and aged cheeses.
I recently particiipated in a tasting of Barbera wines. It was an informal, walk-around tasting and the wines were not tasted blind i.e., they were identified in advance. Listed below in alphabetical order by producer are the wines that were served. After some breif comments on the producer and style of wine are listed my comments from tasting notes. All of the wines tasted are generally available in any well-stocked wine shop.
Brovia, “Sori del Drago” Barbera d’Alba 2011 (about $27)
Founded in 1863, the Brovia winery has over time acquired a number of prestigious vineyards in and around its hometown of Castiglione Falletto and neighboring Serralunga in the heart of the Barolo production area. Like most producers in the Barbera d’Alba zone, the Brovia estate produces a number of wines from the region’s primary varieties and only 10 percent of the estate’s total vineyard area is planted with Barbera.
The Sori del Drago Barbera wine is produced from grapes harvested from a small, prime south-facing estate vineyard. After fermentation the wine is racked off into stainless steel tanka where it is left to age for 18 months after which the wine is bottled without filtration.
Tasting notes: This was my favorite wine of the evening but not for the tasting panel as a whole. Good body, texture and balance with spicy, cherry flavors balanced with good acidity. Refined and subtle with a delicious and smooth finish.
Coppo, “Camp du Rouss” Barbera d’Asti 2008 (about $20)
The Coppo winery was established in the last decade of the 1800’s in the town of Canelli in the Asti region. Unlike most Piedmont producers that market a range of wines from all of the region’s primary varieties, the Coppo winery is what may be referred to as a “Barberista”, i.e., a Barbera devotee that specializes in the Barbera variety. The Coppo winery produces four distinct Barbera wines in addition to a Cabernet-Barbera blend in addition to a Barolo and some highly-rated white wines.
This family-owned and operated winery walks the line between the modernist and traditional approaches to winemaking. While respectful of traditional viticultural practices they have been willing to supplement them with modern new technologies and practices when they enhance the final product.
The Camp du Rouss is made entirely of Barbera selected from several of the estate’s vineyards. The wine is aged in small French Oak barrels for 12 months to add complexity and character.
Tasting notes: gentle swishing of the glass releases succulent dark berry and plum aromas. It is big and mouth-filling with soft tannins and lots of enticing, earthy fruit flavors. It’s hard to resist a second tasting sample.
Vigneti Massa, “Fuso” Barbera Colli Tortonesi2011 (about $16)
The Colli Tortonesi is yet another Barbera DOC-denominated zone. Located in the far eastern part of the Piedmont region close to the border with Lombardy, the zone is named after its principal town, Tortona. This area lhas a long history of producing quality Barbera and was one of the earliest areas in the Piedmont to receive DOC certification.
“Fuso” is produced and bottled by the Massa winery in the Colli Tortonesi zone. It is an organic, natural wine aged in stainless steel and bottled unfiltered. It is a relatively inexpensive, flavorful, food-friendly wine that could easily become your “go to” wine for informal, mid-week meals.
Tasting notes: Vibrant red berry aromas and flavors with mouth-watering acidity and modest tannins. While quite appealing on its own, its marked acidity makes it a palate-pleasing companion for almost any food.
Paitin, “Serra” Barbera d’Alba 2010 (about $19)
This is a wonderfully elegant and polished Barbera from the acclaimed Barbaresco-producers, brothers Giovanni and Silvano Pasquero-Elia. “Serra” is made entirely of Barbera grapes from the estate’s vineyards in the village of Serraboella, a short distance from the town of Nieve. The wine spends about 12 months ageing in large oak casks and an additional two months in stainless steel before bottling. It is bottled unfiltered and unfined.
Tasting notes: An elegant wine, soft and silky in texture with intense red fruit flavors with hints of cedar and kitchen spices. It is medium to full-bodied and nicely balanced with a great finish marked with lingering spice accents.
Paola Lanzavecchia, “Seta” Barbera d’Alba Superiore 2009 (about $40)
Paolo Lanzavecchia is a young, thirty-something winemaker who has spent the past 10 years working with her father in the family-run Villadoria winery near Serralunga d’Alba in the heart of the Piedmont region. Paolo has in recent years created a small line of regional wines that carry her own name.
The 2009 Seta is one of the wines that shows Paola’s handiwork. It is made entirely of Barbera and aged in small French oak barrels for 12 months before bottling. It is a medium to full-bodied wine, mouth-filling and well balanced with lots of dark fruit flavors. This gorgeous wine was the tasting panel’s favorite wine of the evening.
Tasting Notes: Soft and silky in texture as its name implies (seta means “silk” in Italian). Exhuberant blackberry and dark cherry aromas and flavors. It is soft and warm but with good acidity to maintain balance and a long, voluptuous finish that kept me coming back for more.
Vietti, “Tre Vigne” Barbera d’Alba DOC 2011 (about $25)
While located in the tiny village of Castiglione Falletto in the heart of Barolo country, the Vietti winery has over time acquired about 25 different vineyards in prime grape-growing areas of the lower Piedmont region. The winery produces a full range of red and white wines from the Piedmont’s principal varieties, including five different 100 percent Barbera wines. Both the “Tre Vigne” Barbera d’Alba and “Tre Vigne” Barbera d’Asti wines are Vietti’s entry-level Barbera wines and both are great values on a quality-to-price basis.
The 2011 “Tre Vigne” is made entirely of Barbera from 30 to 35 year old vines in three prime vineyards (hence, the name “Tre Vigne” or “three vineyards”) in the Alba area. After fermentation the wine is aged in a combination of steel tanks, oak casks and small French oak barrels for a total of 14 months and then bottled unfiltered.
Tasting Notes: Red berry aromas and flavors with a hint of kitchen spices. Medium to full-bodied with an inviting texture. Complex with spritely acidity and soft tannins. A long and delightful finish is marked with red berry and spice notes.
Vietti, “Tre Vigne” Barbera d’Asti DOC 2011 (about $19)
Vietti’s “Tre Vigne” Barbera d’Asti is made entirely of Barbera grapes selected from three estate vineyards around the town of Asti. The grapes are from 10 to 12 year-old vines, considerably younger than those used to produce Viettti’s Barbera d’Alba wine. After fermentation, the wine is aged in oak casks for 14 months and spends two additional months in steel tanks before being being bottled, unfiltered.
Tasting Notes: Medium-bodied with spritely acidity and light tannins that leave the balance slightly dry on the finish. Less bold and rich that the “Tre Vigne” Barbera d’Alba but a touch more elegant and less expensive. The perfect wine for a wide variety of casual, summer dining get-togethers.
Note – prices indicated are averages of national retail prices but individual prices will vary from store to store. Since availability is not guaranteed and stores may sell out of the selections it is best to call and inquire about price and availability before making the trip.
May 1, 2014
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