There is a lot from which to choose among the Barberas and easy to get confused. Among the DOCs and DOCGs, where the best Barberas are found, there is Barbera d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba, Barbera del Monferrato DOC, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore DOCG, Colli Tortonesi Barbera, Gabiano, Rubino di Cantavenna, Piemonte Barbera, and most recently Nizza. Then there are two versions of Barbera d’Asti: Barbera d’Asti and Superiore, which requires six months of aging in oak and cannot be released until January 1, the year after the harvest. Superiore are the ones that can age. Barbera is widely regarded to reach its peak with Barbera d’Asti and Nizza, which is actually a subzone of the Barbera d’Asti area: many, or maybe all, of the Nizza producers also make Barbera d’Asti. Nizza takes its name from the town of Nizza Monferrato near the heart of its production and is meant in part to obfuscate or sever any connection to the cheap Barberas of yore and possibly be the highest expression of the varietal. One of the reasons for the high quality of Barbera d’Asti and Nizza is that Barbera gets the best locations in these appellations. In neighboring Alba, the best vineyard settings go to Nebbiolo for Barolo and Barberesco.
Situated in upper, northwestern Italy, Piedmont is, along with Tuscany, the best region for wine in Italy. Seventeen of the 74 DOCGs, the highest Italian wine classification, are in Piedmont. It’s home to the famed wines of Barolo and Barberesco; was once widely known for Asti Spumante, and now Moscato d’Asti. But, it’s Barbera that’s the most widely planted grape in the region, and it was Barbera that was once “consumed in copious quantities throughout northern Italy” we were told. That was least until the methanol scandal of 1986 in which Barbera wines tainted with illegal methyl alcohol killed nearly two dozen people and blinded almost twenty more. The reputation of Barbera – and Italian wines in general – have long since recovered from that criminal malfeasance, and Barbera is better than ever. It’s always been an excellent food wine, the “favorite wine with pizza” and “terrific with pasta with tomato sauce, spicy foods, bitter greens and hearty dishes” for the authors of the very useful resource, Italian Wine for Dummies. It’s long been one of my favorite wines with a range of Italian-themed dishes, especially. Barbera wines have evolved over the past couple of decades and it is now a more serious wine.
Barbera produces wines that are relatively high in acidity – hence well-suited for food – low in tannins and often with flavors of cherry, most prominently, and raspberry, dried herbs and that Italian trait of earthiness or underbrush. My favorite versions have noticeable fruit to pair with the always-evident acidity that usually caused a sensation in the upper front part of my mouth upon first sip.
I really enjoyed the Barberas during the trip. Well, all but the two wines with the consortium’s label (something I had not seen before, but these wines pursued us at every event). The wines were all well-made and though certainly made to be consumed, they typically drank well alone. This something that is fairly recent for Barbera, with its high acidity and sometimes missing fruit. The basic Barberas from the Asti area – those not labeled Superiore – still exhibit freshness that its long been known for, but these are now medium- and full-bodied wines with a fair amount of alcohol. Thanks to global warming, it was tough to encounter a Barbera that was not at least 14% alcohol. Most were 14.5% and 15%. But, the alcohol in every case was well-integrated. With the added heft, a reduced acidity from years past due to use of malolactic fermentation, and oak-aging of the Superiore wines, I found that Barbera, Barbera d’Asti in particular, is still a very food friendly wine but with different types of foods than before. In its Superiore form, it might be able to stand up to steak or other hearty dishes. This was not the case in the past to my tastes. But these can be big wines these days. My recommendations are that the non-Superiore Barberas might match a range of dishes as long as they are not too light or too spicy – it worked very well with fresh pasta with or without white truffles recently – the Superiore for hardier fare and beef and other rich meat dishes. More eating and drinking needs to be done. And Barbera won’t set you too far back as you can find most for under $25 and usually well under $20 for the basic Barberas.
At a recent Barbera-supported luncheon in Nizza Monferrato.