While the rock star of Piedmont wine comes from the Nebbiolo grape (Barolo and Barbaresco are the wines), don’t overlook the dynamic and versatile Barbera.
The Barbera Grape
Barbera grapes grow well across the Italian peninsula. But the limestone-rich soil and moderate temperatures of the Piedmont region (in northwest Italy) produce the highest quality. This in turn, results in the best Barbera wines, including the only single grape Barbera from Italy.
History of the Barbera Grape
Farmers have grown Barbera since the early 7th century. It is a robust grape that survives well in difficult growing conditions and a variety of terrain types. The medium acidity, intense color, and mild tannins of Barbera make for a pleasant and very drinkable wine.
Historians believe the name Barbera is derived from the words barba, a term used to describe the complex root system of the plant, and albera, a dialect expression that refers to forested areas where the vines grow well.
While the grape is produced for blending purposes elsewhere, three production zones in Piedmont are respected for the quality of Barbera grape. Here they produce single-grape wines or use Barbera as the principle grape in a blended wine.
Probably the most famous of Piedmont’s Barbera wines comes from the area around the small city of Alba. This wine is made from 100% Barbera grapes and has a minimum alcohol content of 12%. Barbera d’Alba may be labeled superiore (superior) if it contains at least 12.5% alcohol and has been wood-aged for at least one year. This wine has a dense ruby color and delicious blend of plum and chocolate flavors.
About 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Alba is the town of Asti. The slightly sandier soil here means the wine needs to be aged a bit more before reaching its peak quality. Barbera d’Asti wines are usually made with 85% Barbera grapes blended with other local varietals such as Freisa, Dolcetto, or Grignolino. The wine will have at least 12% alcohol content and is slightly more tannic than wines from Alba.
Barbera del Monferrato
The final Barbera production zone is called Monferrato. This wine generally has a brighter color and lower (11.5%) alcohol than its better known brothers. Long recognized for effervescent wines, producers from Monferrto are now concentrating on making excellent still wines. Look for Barbera del Monferrato to continue improvements in quality while selling at a slightly lower price than other Barberas.
Food and Wine Tourism
Over the past decade, Piedmont has become Italy’s top destination in the fast-growing area of food and wine tourism. This offers a terrific way to take in the riches of the area, with the advice and help of an expert.
The Piedmont Regional government established wine tasting (and buying) centers, a wine museum, and guided wine walks through vineyards. Many private companies offer wine and food tours as well.
Best Barbera Wines
According to Piedmont government figures, there are more than 31,000 wine-making businesses in the three principal Barbera production zones. This represents a significant challenge to those of us on the consumer end of the wine industry.
Best advice on that score is to experiment. Most Barbera wines imported to North America are of excellent quality; it is unlikely you’ll make a bad choice.