The first record of Barbera dates back to the 13th Century in the Monferrato region. After centuries in the shadows, this ‘everyman’ grape has had something of a renaissance in the past 40 years and now makes some of the best Italian wines on the market.
History: Barbera originates from Piemonte, where it is the most widely planted variety. Unfortunately, the cultivar has historically been overshadowed by its more esteemed cousins, Nebbiolo and Dolcetto. The variety’s ability to grow in most soils and climates, and to make appealing wines with minimal input gave it the reputation as being “the wine of the people” or, more disparagingly, what the Piemontese drank while they wait for their Nebbiolo to mature. Widespread plantings kept availability high and prices low, and the wines never reached the heights of prestige and value enjoyed by Nebbiolo.
This all changed in the 1980s when skilled, local winemakers, most notably Giacomo Bologna, realised and began to experiment with the variety’s potential. This followed Barbera d’Asti being awarded DOC status in 1970, and no doubt contributed to the wine’s upgrade to DOCG in 2008.
Properties: While Barbera’s skin isn’t especially thick it is full of dark pigments, which transfer to the wine giving it a deep colour but low tannin. This deep colour belies the red fruit flavours of the wine; red cherry and raspberry, flavours normally associated with lighter bodied reds, dominate in its youth, while darker fruit and earthy notes develop with age. The naturally high acidity of the grape also gives it a surprisingly lighter body. Barbera grapes accumulate sugar easily, though any sweetness is often masked by the high acidity, and are therefore capable of making wines with high alcohol content.
Growing: As previously mentioned, Barbera can grow almost anywhere. While for most crops this would be a benefit, for wine grapes it leads to excessive yields, which make bland wines the supply of which far outstrips demand. In the case of Barbera this also meant that the notoriously fussy Nebbiolo and Dolcetto have historically been prioritised for the better sites in Piemonte. In recent decades growers have realised that Barbera is richer and tangier when it’s grown on well-drained, limestone-rich soils in south-facing vineyards with controlled yields. Today, new plantings are done on better-selected sites and, in the case of Barbera d’Asti, yields are limited to 70hl/ha, though many growers choose to keep yields even lower than this.
Winemaking: Traditionally Barbera was vinified after a long maceration period to extract as much tannin as possible from the skins and underwent little oak ageing in order to preserve the fruit flavours. More modern winemakers allow longer barrel ageing to soften the acidity and bring tannins into the wine to round it out. Some also let the grapes hang longer on the vine to lower the acidity levels and allow more sugars to develop. Barbera d’Asti cannot be released until at least the first of March in the year following harvest and Superiore level wines require a minimum of 12 months ageing.
Now that growers and winemakers have identified the methods to make the most out of this variety the wine’s appeal is clear: plush fruitiness and soft tannins make the wines approachable in their youth, while time in cellar leaves them more balanced with denser, richer and more savoury flavours. In short, this wine appeals to a wide range of consumers, from novices to connoisseurs, whether they want something to drink with dinner tonight, or something to save for years down the line.
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