Some wines are more illuminating than others, but rarely do we encounter ones that can strike down two misconceptions with a single sip. However, if you assume that Barbera is a pinched, acidic little drink, or that the famously hot European summer of 2003 produced nothing but flabby, graceless wines, prepare to be set straight. But don't worry-this is one form of remedial education that you are going to love.
If you are already a Barbera enthusiast, please just bear with me for a moment while I address the skeptics in our midst. It is certainly not impossible to understand how someone might be leery about Barbera. It is unusual among grape varieties in being quite high in acidity and low in tannin. Its acidic streak can pose a real problem when the grapes don't ripen fully due to a cool or wet growing season, or when the vines are planted in a less-than-optimal site without sufficient sun exposure. In such cases, Barbera can produce sharp, bitingly tart wines that can shock tasters accustomed to ripe, round, low acid reds from places like California or Australia.
Then there's the issue of Barbera being a "second stringer." The grape is grown in many parts of Italy for blending purposes, but most bottlings that are labeled varietally as Barbera are sourced from the same Piedmontese hills that produce the potentially spectacular wines of Barolo and Barbaresco from the Nebbiolo grape. As a result, Barbera can suffer in several respects from being overshadowed by Barolo and Barbaresco, the killer "B"s.
Growers often devote their best sites to Nebbiolo rather than Barbera, just as winemakers often give more attention and better barrels to Nebbiolo. Ordinary consumers and buyers within the wine trade will typically pay significantly more for Barolo or Barbaresco than Barbera, which of course reinforces tendencies on the production side to show preference to Nebbiolo when planting and cooperage allocations are made.
But even when these points are acknowledged, the case for Barbera is still strong. True, great Nebbiolo is greater than great Barbera. But Barbera offers better value at every level of quality. Great Barbera generally costs half as much (maybe less) than great Barolo or Barbaresco, and the same holds true when we ratchet down to very good or merely good renditions of these wines. Yet nobody with an unprejudiced palate could conclude that very good Barbera is only half as good as very good Barolo. Very good Barbera comes far closer than that, and, being far more affordable, can be enjoyed far more frequently.
Similarly, we can acknowledge that Barbera can be biting and nasty in bad vintages without giving up the ship. Nebbiolo is arguably even worse than Barbera when insufficiently ripe, with more astringent tannins and just as much acid. The simple fact is that vintage counts for a lot in Piedmont, whatever the grape. Bad vintages in Piedmont (like 2002) are very bad indeed, and if you aren't willing to look at labels before buying, you should stick to hot regions or just buy beer. However, great vintages in Piedmont produce thoroughly exhilarating wines, and 2003 is a stunning case in point where Barbera is concerned.
This is certainly not to say that 2003 is a uniformly great vintage in Europe, as freakishly hot temperatures produced fat, oafish wines in many appellations. However, Barbera's inherently high acidity prevented this outcome, and the great majority of 2003s remain fresh and nimble despite the fact that they show atypically ripe, deeply flavored fruit. They are unusually fleshy, yet almost all remain clearly focused and convincingly coherent. And as for performance at the table, you'll find them bright enough to work beautifully with foods featuring tomato-based sauces, and yet the best bottlings are up to any challenge posed by stews or steaks.
Top performers from my recent tastings are listed below in order of preference, with approximate prices and U.S.A. importers indicated in parentheses:
Poderi Colla Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) "Costa Bruna" 2003 ($22, Empson): A truly profound Barbera, this is virtually black in color and opaque in appearance. Notes include dark berry and black cherry, with flavors that are deep and very satisfying but still fresh and flashy. Acidity is less prominent than in more typical, traditional Barberas, but the balance is lovely and the wine is convincing in every respect. 94
Ca'Viola Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) Brichet 2003 ($40, Vias): Forty bucks is pretty startling for a Barbera, and since this doesn't present itself in a huge, self-important, "statement" bottle, it will raise plenty of eyebrows in retail stores. However, I can't imagine that anyone who gives it a try will be disappointed, as it is beautifully symmetrical and positively packed with complex fruit recalling plums, black cherries, and red berries. Subtle wood notes lend complexity without obscuring the lovely fruit, and the wine shows great class from the first whiff to the final note of the impressively long finish. 94
Conterno Fantino, Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) "Vignota" 2003 ($27, Empson): This marvelous wine features expressive fruit notes of ripe plums and black cherries, along with interesting accents of damp earth, tobacco leaf, and woodsmoke. With excellent complexity as well as superb integration, this is a convincing winner. 93
Bruno Giacosa Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) 2003 ($30, Winebow): Big but not pushy, this is ripe and quite rich for Barbera, yet it is marvelously balanced and proportioned. Although very flavorful, it is not at all obvious, as nice little nuances surround the core of dark cherry fruit. Wood notes are subtle and well woven into the fruit, which is generous but also very fresh and vivid. Fantastic! 93
Paruso, Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) Ornati 2003 ($27, Montecastelli Selections): Exceedingly complex and classy, this superb wine gets off to a great start with interestingly nuanced aromas. However, the real show starts once you start tasting, as the wine is soft and remarkably layered in texture and flavor. Ripe fruit notes include black cherries and dark berries, with relatively light body but lots of flavor. That will make it very versatile with food, and you'd actually have a hard time finding foods with which this wouldn't work. 93
Pio Cesare Barbera d'Asti (Piedmont, Italy) "Fides" 2003($29, Paterno): This impressive wine results from a concerted effort on the part of the Pio Cesare family to demonstrate the potential greatness of Barbera. They grow the grapes for this bottling on a single, south-facing site adjacent to their Ornato vineyard in the Serralunga district of Barolo, ageing the wine for 20 months in Allier barriques. This vintage is impressively deep in flavor, with beautiful cherry fruit that is ripe but immaculately pure, along with accents of smoke and spices from the oak. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the wine is that it isn't pushy or showy in any respect, but rather seamlessly integrated and perfectly poised. Although it is not the most dramatic of the wines reviewed here, it is quite possibly the classiest. 92
Alasia, Barbera d'Asti (Piedmont, Italy) "Rive" 2003 ($25, Vias): Very fine and very polished, this is an unusually civilized Barbera, and yet the wine is certainly not domesticated or boring. The color is dark and the pigmentation very deep, with lots of depth and dimension to the fruit, but no hardness at any point. Exemplary winemaking here. 91
Boroli, Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) Bricco 4 Fratelli 2003 ($17, Boroli USA): Ripe cherry fruit is the lead attraction in this wine, but it is hardly the sole attraction, as it is nicely augmented by notes of fresh meat, smoke, spices and tobacco leaf. 91
Rocce Costamagna, Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) "Annunziata" 2003 ($19, Siema, 703-455-1200): This wine is packed with ripe fruit, and there's some notable wood influence also, but there's no mistaking this as a Piedmontese Barbera, as it shows complex aromas and retains great freshness and linear drive thanks to excellent acidity. 90
Lodali, Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) "Bric Sant' Ambrogio" 2003 ($13, Siema): This attractively-priced wine shows very nice balance and lots of interesting little nuances. Nicely poised between the more rustic and more modern styles, it is both complex and clean. 90
Marcarini Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) "Ciabot Camerano" 2003 ($18, Empson): Simple, but simply delicious, this features lovely cherry flavors and nice little spicy accents. With pure fruit and just the slightest whiff of wood, this is very appealing and is certain to prove very versatile with food. 89
Marchesi di Barolo Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) "Ruvei" 2003 ($15, Palm Bay): Very polished and very pretty, this is an aristocratic wine quite in tune with its producer's name. However, while it is accurate to characterize this as a thoroughly civilized wine, given its pure berry fruit, ripe acidity, and exceedingly soft mouthfeel, it is certainly not overly staid. Juicy and generous, but soft all along the way, it features satisfying red berry and cherry flavors with nice subtle accents. 89
Prunotto Barbera d'Asti (Piedmont, Italy) 2003 ($15, Winebow): This isn't terribly impressive for looks, as it is presented in a relatively short, shallow-punted, rather dumpy bottle. However, the wine is absolutely delicious, with lovely flavors and excellent balance. Dark cherry notes predominate, with subtle accents and very nice acidity. 89
Pico Maccario Barbera d'Asti (Piedmont, Italy) "Lavignone" 2003 ($18, Winebow): Atypically juicy and even slightly sweet, this is a major departure from the tight, tart Barbera that many will recall from earlier experience. Tender in texture, it is rounded in feel from the very first touch on the tongue with primary fruit notes of red berries and cherries. Juicy and fun, this is basically what really great Beaujolais would taste like if such a thing existed and came from Italy. 88
Pio Cesare, Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) 2003 ($15, Paterno Imports): Meaty and gutsy and packed with flavor, this is an excellent effort that shows all the best characteristics of the vintage while still letting the grape shine through. Ripe and quite expressively fruity, but still a bit meaty and earthy, this is a very impressive wine at an approachable price. 88
Salvano Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy) 2003 ($11, Siema): An excellent value, this shows good weight and depth of fruit, but also nice balance thanks to bright acidity. Light aromatic nuances lend interest, and fine proportionality and integration will enable this to work well with many foods. 87
Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti (Piedmont, Italy) "Le Orme" 2003 ($12, Kobrand): Lean enough to please traditionalists but ripe enough to keep this true to the vintage, this shows good depth of color and flavor as well as some judiciously subtle wood accents for the dark cherry fruit. 87
Marchesi di Barolo, Barbera Monferrato (Piedmont, Italy) "Maraia" 2003 ($10, Palm Bay): Fresh and bright, yet generously endowed with ripe cherry and plum fruit, this is nicely balanced at a point midway between the peculiarities of vintage and grape variety. Very well made from fine raw materials, it is clearly a steal for ten bucks-especially in a time when the dollar is weak against the euro. 86