It’s not easy being Barbera. You’re not king of the hill, top of the heap. Certainly not as well regarded as Piedmont’s finicky alpha grape, Nebbiolo, exalted for its royal offspring Barolo and Barbaresco, the king and queen of the region. If you’re Barbera you share B list status with a number of second fiddle grapes-Petit Verdot to Cabernet; Gewurztraminer to Riesling; Bonarda to Malbec; Garnacha to Tempranillo. Fine varietals all, inherently worthy, yet sort of the Rodney Dangerfields of viticulture- they get some respect but are rarely in the discussion of the world’s great wines. In some parts of Piedmont Barbera is even overshadowed by Dolcetto, its close companion on the second tier of native sons.
A shame, because a well made Barbera can be satisfying, an estimable tablemate for all seasons. It is easy to grow and adaptable and has taken well to our West Coast, Greece, Chile, Argentina and Australia among others. Barbera is Italy’s third most common red grape, planted in almost every region, though the total area under vine has shrunk by one fourth in recent years. Still, the same hills graced by Nebbiolo bring forth the truest expression of Barbera in the production zones of Asti, Alba and Monferrato. You could probably start an animated discussion in a local enoteca about which soils yield the “real” Barbera.
When generalizing characteristics attributed to wines from each area it must be kept in mind that what ends up in your glass is determined in no small part by the ongoing debate of style, which really means oak v. unoaked, and the length, size, and type of barrel aging.
Barbera d’Asti – rich, tangy, lively, softer and more elegant with good aging potential that brings out its balance.
Barbera d’Alba – more power and intensity, bolder and more sapid with low tannins and high acidity.
Barbera del Monferrato – a warmer sub-zone yields riper, meatier, earthier Barbera with more structure and complexity.
The first three are all of the 2011 vintage from Asti.
Clemente Cossetti La Vigna Vecchia Barbera d’Asti 2011 ($15.99)
A full nose of red and black berries leads to a lively, fruity entrance that stays that way but becomes smoother and earthier. Light to medium body contains hints of where its from. Has a fine balance of acidity-ripeness. There’s no obvious structure in this Chairman’s Selection, but its not at all loosey-juicy or wandering around your mouth.
Damilano Barbera d’Asti 2011 ($21.09)
Displays some unusual characteristics for an Asti, like a woodsy, forest floor earthiness, and a powerful presence. The seamless texture is a balancing act of acidity and tannin, with the expected intensity of dark red and black fruit flavors and a lingering aftertaste that shows the barest trace of vanilla. This is an excellent example of a non-cru Barbera. SLO, minimum qty 1.
Terre Da Vino La Luna e I Falo Superiore Barbera d’Asti 2011
A wine that sacrifices some of its terrior-driven brambly, dark berries and cherries for a vanilla sensation that hangs on too long and adds unnecessary ripeness that offsets a crisp, dry mouth feel. Tannins hide behind sour cherry acidity. You don’t have to guess which end of the new oak spectrum its on. (not currently available in PA)
Next, a trio from Alba:
Attilio Ghisolfi Maggiora Barbera d’Alba 2008 ($15.99)
I like this more than Mike does; for me a few years of aging have brought out depth, character and some rough earthlike sensations more common to a Barbera from Monferrato. Burnt rubber, iron-like minerals and tobacco lead to savory berries, dark cherry and plum. Fresh, dense tannins know their role and keep all the elements in balance.
Elio Altare Barbera d’Alba 2013 ($29.19)
Lean and clean with toned down acidity that lets the just-ripe-enough red fruit and green herbs come to the fore. A solid wine in the Altare style which expresses the softer, more subtle side of Alba wines. It could use at least a year or two to develop its secondary characteristics. (2011 & 12 vintages available in PA, SLO, min qty 1)
Parusso Ornati Barbera d’Alba 2011 ($19.69)
Like Altare, Parusso wines veer toward a style that is smoother and fruitier than most in the DOC. This gives you lots of juiciniess for a Barbera, raspberries and red forest berries from start to finish. There’s a short burst of earthiness and a strange funky something going on underneath the fruit, but this wine is all about subdued tannins and ripe acidity. (2013 available in PA, SLO, min qty 12)
Finally, a pair from Fabrizio Iuli of Monferrato:
Iuli Umberta Barbera del Monferrato 2012 ($19.59)
Simple, direct, unwooded. In essence a “true” Barbera. Eminently drinkable, a wine to open for those who doubt the possibilities of the grape. There are layers of flavor and some meat on the bones behind the unassuming façade, lots of red cherry, berries, plum, a hint of cassis. (SLO, min qty 12)
Iuli Rossore Barbera del Monferrato Superiore 2011 ($26.89)
A pure expression of where it’s from, displaying the depth and complexity of the Monferrato area. The waves of dark fruit, minerals and pepper on the nose let you know you’re in Piedmont. Ripe flavors tinged with leathery aromas pull you into a dry but peppery finish accented by balsamic and cedar. As good as Barbera gets. (SLO, min qty 12)