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Barbera, My Favorite Red Wine
By Ed McCarthy
Jan 2, 2007
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My favorite red wines are Barolo, Barbaresco and Bordeaux (I love Burgundy, as well, but not quite as much as the other three 'B' reds).  But the wine I drink the most is Barbera.  (Strange how all my favorite red wines begin with 'B'!)  I realize that Barbera is not as 'great' a wine as Bordeaux, Burgundy or Piedmont's two noble Nebbiolo wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, but it is far more versatile at  the dinner table than the more well-known 'B' reds and is generally far less expensive.  You can buy a very good Barbera for less than $15 retail, whereas most of the renowned B's start at around $45, and spiral seriously upward from there.

Barbera is a unique red grape variety that is native to Piedmont, Italy.  Actually, Barbera grows in many parts of Italy - it's that country's second-most planted red variety after Sangiovese - and it grows in many other wine regions throughout the world as well, including California, Argentina and Mexico.  But most critics agree that the finest Barbera wines come from Piedmont.  (Argentina's Barberas are also quite good - and inexpensive - but not many of them are currently being imported into the U.S.).  For this reason, I cover Barberas from Piedmont exclusively in this column.

Barbera is unlike any other red variety that I know in that, although its skins are deeply colored, giving us dark-colored wines, it also has very high acidity, but practically no tannin!  Piedmont Barberas are crisp and refreshing, resembling white wine, without the mouth-drying tannins of most reds.  Once you savor its flavors, however - mainly tart cherries and berries, along with spiciness - you know you're drinking red wine.

Barberas are not big reds; they are generally medium-bodied.  Their high acidity comes in handy in hot vintages, such as Europe's 2003 and 2000, when other red wines suffered from high alcohol and over-ripeness, but Barbera's high acidity enabled it to deal with the alcohol.  Because Barberas are not huge, yet do have racy acidity, they pair well with many dishes - appetizers, seafood, light meat entrées, and pastas.  Barbera handles the high acidity of tomato-based dishes particularly well - whether it be pastas, pizzas or tomatoey stews.

Why does Barbera do best in Piedmont?  In addition to the obvious reason - the variety's excellent adaptation to the region's climate and soil - another explanation is the respect that the Piedmont farmer gives to Barbera; whereas in other regions in Italy the prolific Barbera is often over-cropped or not grown in the best areas, in Piedmont it is seldom over-cropped, and it's planted in the most suitable areas, invariably on a hillside.

The Piedmontese have a history with Barbera, after all: not only is it indigenous to the region, but the Piedmontese themselves also consume enormous quantities of it (along with Dolcetto, their other favorite red wine).  Barbera grows in three districts in southeast Piedmont, each with its own D.O.C. appellation: Barbera d'Alba, Barbera d'Asti and Barbera del Monferrato.

The Barbera d'Alba D.O.C. zone includes the Langhe hills around the town of Alba, overlapping the same zones as Barolo and Barbaresco, and extends into the Roero zone.  Most of the best Barbera d'Albas grow in hillside vineyards close to Barolo vineyards.

The Asti zone, just north of the Barbera d'Alba zone around the town of Asti, is of course famous for its sweet sparkling wines, Asti and Moscato d'Asti, but its only important red wine is Barbera d'Asti.  The Barbera d'Asti D.O.C. zone is quite large, covering most of Asti province and extending into Alessandria province to the east.  It is here in Asti province, in the Monferrato hills, that Barbera is thought to have originated.

Barbera del Monferrato is the least-known of the three Piedmontese Barberas, and the one we don't see very much of in the U.S.  The Barbera del Monferrato D.O.C. zone lies partly in Asti province and partly in Alessandria province, but most of the wines come from around the town of Alessandria.  I found no Barbera del Monferrato wines in my local stores when I was shopping for wines for this column (they do exist in limited quantities in various parts of the country), and so my wine reviews and remarks are confined to the more available Barbera d'Alba and Barbera d'Asti wines.

Even though the Barbera d'Alba and Barbera d'Asti zones are contiguous, there is a distinct difference in style between Alba and Asti Barberas.  Barbera d'Alba,   growing in the same relatively warm south-facing hillsides that produce Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as around those two districts, tends to be fuller-bodied and rounder, with slightly less acidity than Barbera d'Asti, and generally has darker fruit aromatics.

The typical Barbera d'Asti is lighter-bodied and livelier with more tart fruit flavors and more acidity than most Barbera d'Albas. But Barbera d'Asti made from old vines and aged in barriques (a development which has gotten more commonplace during the last two decades) can be as full-bodied as any Barbera d'Alba.

I was weaned on Barbera d'Alba, but lately I have tended to favor the racy, lively style of Asti Barberas even more than the Alba Barberas.  Also, there has been a big improvement in Barbera d'Asti lately.  When you think of it, it makes sense; Barbera d'Asti is the main table wine in the Asti zone, whereas it's no more than the third-most important red for Albese wine producers.  Also, it's been said that winemakers in the Alba zone tend to make their Barberas in the same way as they produce their Barolos and Barbarescos: big, round, and relatively powerful, whereas Asti winemakers make Barberas in the more classic, racy, lively style.

If I can use broad strokes, I would characterize Barbera as falling into two basic styles (with some producers in the middle between these two styles): the traditional style, which uses little or no barrique (small-barrel) aging, and the more modern, international style, which uses French-oak, barrique aging for its wines.  Good Barberas are made in both styles; liveliness of aroma and flavor is the trademark of any fine Barbera..

Wines made in the traditional style - regardless of the D.O.C. zone they come from - tend to be lighter-bodied and crisper, and retail mainly in the $11 to $19 price range.  Wines in this style go particularly well with simple tomato-based pastas, pizza, or fresh tomato dishes.  Some of these wines include the following:

Marchesi di Gresy Barbera d'Asti
Vietti Barbera d'Asti 'Tre Vigne,' or Barbera d'Alba 'Tre Vigne'
Giacomo Conterno Barbera d'Alba (over $20 retail, but worth it)
Giuseppe Rinaldi Barbera d'Alba
Borgogno Barbera d'Alba
Coppo Barbera d'Asti 'l'Avvocata'
Icardi Barbera d'Asti
Marcarini d'Alba 'Ciabot'
Marchesi di Barolo Barbera d'Alba 'Ruvei'
Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti 'Le Orme'

The relatively new barrique-aged Barbera wines have more weight; they are fine with beef and other meat entrées, as well as meaty tomato sauces such as a classic ragu, and generally retail in the $25 to $45 range, with a few, such as the single-vineyard Barbera d'Asti wines from the late Giacomo Bologna's Braida winery, even higher-priced.  (Although Angelo Gaja no longer makes Barbera, it was he who first used barriques to age his single-vineyard Barbera d'Alba as early as 1971.  But the colorful Giacomo Bologna was the producer who fostered a re-birth of Barbera in the early 1980s with his flamboyant, single-vineyard Barberas aged in new barriques.)

Wines in this style that we particularly recommend include the following, all single-vineyard Barberas:

Vietti Barbera d'Asti La Crena
Prunotto Barbera d'Asti Costamiole
Vietti Barbera d'Alba Scarrone or Scarrone Vigna Vecchia
Coppo Barbera d'Asti Camp du Rouss

Barbera ages surprisingly well, up to 15 years or more.  But I think that they're at their lively best with two to five years of age for the lighter, traditional style, and with four to eight years of aging for the more full-bodied, barrique style.  The currently available 2004 vintage is excellent, better than the 2005.  Both 2001 and 1999 are very good older vintages.  I like to drinking Barbera when it's slightly cool, out of large, round, Burgundy-type glasses.

I visited Piedmont in November and tasted as many Barberas as time permitted. When I returned, I purchased some other Barberas from local stores and tasted them, along with one older Barbera from my cellar.  Here are my wine reviews based on these recent tastings:

Tasting Notes

Vietti, Barbera d'Asti, Piedmont (Italy) La Crena 2003 ($42, Rémy-Cointreau): Vietti's single-vineyard La Crena, made from 75-year-old vines, sets the standard for barrique-aged Barbera d'Asti. Great concentration of red fruits, silky texture, ripe, with good acidity, especially for the torrid 2003 vintage. Great depth.  Probably will be even better in the superior 2004 vintage.  93

Vietti Barbera d'Alba, Piedmont (Italy) Scarrone Vigna Vecchia 2004 ($80, Rémy-Cointreau): The Scarrone vineyard, on a hillside in back of Vietti's winery, has a small section of 80-year-old vines. From this plot Vietti has been bottling a separate Barbera, called Scarrone Vigna Vecchia. Great depth and length; ripe fruit along with substantial acidity. A great example of barrique-aged Barbera d'Alba. (Vietti's standard Scarrone, at $36, is also very fine.)  Vietti is clearly one of the great Barbera producers.  93

Giacomo Conterno, Barbera d'Alba, Piedmont (Italy) Cascina Francia 2004 ($33, Polaner Selections): The superb Giacomo Conterno winery, which consistently makes one of the top Barolos, also produces one of the great Barberas from the same vineyard where the Barolo comes from, Cascina Francia in Serralunga. The '04 has intense fruit balanced with substantial acidity. Perfectly structured, with no oak aging, it is a superb traditional Alba Barbera, but much more concentrated than most.  93
 
Prunotto, Barbera d'Asti, Piedmont (Italy) Costamiole 1998 ($42, Winebow, Inc.):  Prunotto's great single-vineyard 1998 Costamiole, which is still available, is one of the best barrique-aged Asti Barberas. I love its richness, its firm structure, its balance and its great length. The '98 Costamiole proves that a Barbera can be aged in oak without losing its essence.  92
  
Marchesi di Gresy, Barbera d'Asti, Piedmont (Italy) 2004 ($15, Dalla Terra Imports): Marchesi di Gresy, long one of the great Barbaresco producers, has made an outstanding traditionally-styled, unoaked '04 Asti Barbera.  Clean, linear, focussed like a laser beam; lively, combining ripeness with freshness and depth. A great value, one of my favorite under $16 Barberas.  91

Vietti, Barbera d'Asti, Piedmont (Italy) 'Tre Vigne' 2004 ($19, Rémy-Cointreau):  Vietti's '04 Tre Vigne Asti, made from a blend of three Asti vineyards, has aromas of black cherry and black pepper, lively acidity, and a leaner style than his Barbera d'Alba Tre Vigne. Just a touch of oak tannins. Fine value.
Drinking Vietti's Alba and Asti Barbera Tre Vignes together will give you a good idea as to which style you prefer.  I prefer the Asti.  91

Borgogno, Barbera d'Alba, Piedmont (Italy) 2004 ($13, Michael Skurnik): The tradition-minded producer Giacomo Borgogno makes its Barbera in the lean, racy style that I love -- more like an Asti Barbera than an Alba wine.  Fresh, lively, with tart cherry fruit, great length and depth, and unoaked.  Also, a top value.  90

Icardi Barbera d'Asti, Piedmont (Italy) 'Tabarin' 2004 ($11, Vinifera Imports): The traditionally made '04 Icardi Barbera d'Asti is dry, lean, fresh, light-bodied, unoaked, but with lively fruit and high acidity.  It would be teriffic with pizza. An exceptional value.  89

Vietti, Barbera d'Alba, Piedmont (Italy) 'Tre Vigne' 2004 (($19, Rémy-Cointreau): Vietti's standard Barbera d'Alba, made from a blend of three Alba vineyards.  Concentrated red and black fruit flavors, round, with just a touch of oak tannins. A good Barbera, but for me, Vietti's Tre Vigne Asti is even better.  89
 
Burlotto, Barbera d'Alba, Piedmont (Italy) 2005 ($16, Bacchanal Wine Imports):  Burlotto's '05 Barbera d'Alba, from the commune of Verduno, is firm with vibrant red fruit flavors, good concentration and length, substantial acidity, and some oak tannins.  Only a bit too much ripeness prevented me from giving it an even higher rating.  89

Braida, Barbera d'Asti, Piedmont (Italy) Monte Bruna 2004 ($20, Vinifera Imports): The late Giacomo Bologna was an early champion of barrique-aged Barberas.  Bologna's family continues to make some fine but pricey barrique-aged single-vineyard Barbera d'Asti wines at the Braida winery. Monte Bruna, its least expensive, has firm oak tannins, with high acidity and a certain rustic raspiness. 88

Michele Chiarlo, Barbera d'Asti, Piedmont (Italy) 'Le Orme' 2004 ($11, Kobrand Corp.): Michele Chiarlo's basic Barbera is dry, light-bodied, and vibrant, with lots of acidity. It is an unoaked gem of Barbera d'Asti in the lighter style. Great value.  88

Mauro Veglio, Barbera d'Alba, 2005 ($16, T. Edward wines): Mauro Veglio's '05 Barbera d'Alba is fresh and spicy, light-bodied, lean, crisp, and bright.  It could just use a little more weight; 2005 is not quite so good as 2004 in Piedmont.  88

Pio Cesare, Barbera d'Alba, Piedmont (Italy) 2004 ($16, Maisons, Marques and Domaines USA):  The oak aging in Pio Cesare's '04 Barbera d'Alba dominates the natural tart fruitiness of the variety.  A good wine, but somewhat compromised by the oak; would be more popular with consumers who have New World wine palates rather than with Italian Barbera lovers. 88
 
Boroli, Barbera d'Alba, Piedmont (Italy) 'Quattro Fratelli' 2005 ($15, Imported by Boroli USA; Dalla Terra Selection):  A fuller-styled Barbera, in the Alba fashion. The '05 Boroli Barbera is dry, concentrated and yet fresh, with some oak tannins.  88

Malgrá, Barbera d'Asti, Piedmont (Italy) 'Fornace di Cerreto' 2003 ($17, Monarchia Matt International): The '03 Malgrá Fornace di Cerreto is fairly ripe and chunky, typical of the hot 2003 vintage. Its style is in-between traditional and barrique-aged, with some oak tannins.  87
  
Elvio Cogno, Barbera d'Alba, Piedmont (Italy) Bricco dei Merli 2001 ($23, Vias Imports):  Normally, I'm a fan of Elvio Cogno's wines, especially his Barolos, but his 2001 Barbera d'Alba is a bit heavy-handed, with some over-ripeness and rich oak tannins; lacks freshness.  85


Conclusions

Barbera is a versatile red wine that goes well with many different foods because of its unique properties.  The best Barberas come from the Piedmont region of Italy.  There are two Barberas that we see in the U.S., Barbera d'Alba and Barbera d'Asti.  Both usually have different styles: the Alba typically more full-bodied, rounder, and slightly softer, the Asti  tends to be lighter, leaner, and more lively.  Although three out of four of my highest-rated wines are barrique-aged, these wines are also among the most expensive Barberas.  The best value Barberas - Marchesi di Gresy, Borgogno, Vietti Asti Tre Vigne, and Icardi - are traditionally made and mainly unoaked (Vietti's has a little oak aging).  Also, three out of these four wines are Asti Barberas, and the one Alba Barbera (Borgogno) is made in the Asti style.  The ratings reflect my own preference for Asti Barberas.