Years ago, Barbera wines – made entirely from the Barbera grape and mostly all in the region of Piedmont northwestern Italy – were made in very high quantities and drank in copious amounts in northern Italy. It was a fairly light-bodied wine with a bit of cherry fruit, very low tannins, a bit of Italian earthiness, and a plentiful amount of acidity, its more noticeable characteristic. Barbera was a wine that screamed out for food. In fact, I rarely enjoyed the wines without something to eat.
In the past quarter century or so, Barbera has seen a number of changes, driven by the desire to improve the quality, most notably for the Barberas in the Asti area. Many of the growers began lowering yields to do that. Clones from a university in nearby Turin during the 1980s added more ripeness, lower acidity, and more phenols (these include flavonoids that can affect the mouthfeel and color of the wine; tannins are one). Malolactic fermentation began to be used that drove down the acidity. Then oak aging grew, though much less new oak is used now than 10-15 years ago, much better to highlight the distinct character of Barbera, and welcome improvement in my mind. In the field, locations for the vineyards got better. This was much more the case in the Asti region, as for Barbera d’Alba, the best vineyards go to Nebbiolo, mostly for Barolo and Barberesco.
And, very significantly, “everyone has to worry about global warming and its effect on alcohol levels,” which was a common refrain I heard in my several days around Asti on a trip sponsored in part by consortium for the wines of Barbera dAsti a couple of months ago. The impact of the increasingly hotter planet has especially been felt in the the past 15 to 20 years, and Barbera, seemingly more so than other varietals, is especially susceptible to the growing alcohol levels. In fact, of the all the Barberas I sampled there and since returning home, the lowest alcohol level I’ve had has been 13.5% and that was just once or twice. As much wine, I like to enjoy several glasses, and the difference between a wine that’s 12.5% and 15% can be felt a little too much for my taste.
Though the alcohol levels have risen appreciably, Barbera has made incredible strides in the last 10-15 years to paraphrase one of the speakers during my recent sojourn to Barbera-land. The wines are more serious, richer and some can age quite nicely. I still find that Barbera is more readily enjoyable in both of their major styles than Nebbiolo. Barolos take time, Barberesco and even the Nebbiolo di Langhe, do, too. The two different styles for Barbera d’Asti and for Barbera throughout is aging in stainless steel and aging in oak. The former produces lighter wines with more fruit and more noticeable acidity; these are the wines reminiscent of the way the most Barbera used to be produced, just with higher quality – and more alcohol. The oak-aged ones will often have a tannic bite and a bigger body. These are wines that can age and might need four or five years to really enjoy. Both can exhibit the ripe fruit of raspberry and blackberry, and plum in hot vintages, cooking spices, and underbrush, and also leather with oak-aging.
As for foods, is more than an easy pairing for pizza and simple pasta dishes, and the oak-aged ones, Barbera d’Asti Superiore, will be too big for my tastes for most pizzas. Both styles wines go well with the classic agnolotti del plin, with or without shaved fresh white truffles, and the Superiore went better with their Piedmontese version of pot roast that was the main course for most of the meals. Back home, there is more eating and drinking that I need to do. While Barberas and the lighter versions still are not hefty enough to pair enjoyable with steak or lamb, the Superiores might do a good job. These might even be a great pairing for the classic Texas beef brisket. We’ll see.
But, in any case, Barberas remain very good values. You can find a wine, which will be invariably well-made, usually for under $20 while the Superiores will run a few dollars more but rarely over $30. These are definitely well worth picking up if you drink wine primarily as accompaniment to dinner, though Superiores, with a generally more rounded taste, can often be enjoyed solo, and so more appealing to non-Italians. And, the USA is the biggest export market for the wines of Barbera d’Asti, so we are enjoying them in profusion.