Great reds of Piemonte – Barbera
This is the second part of three on the great red grapes of Piemonte. The first dealt with Dolcetto, the next will be about Nebbiolo; this is about Barbera.
Barbera is the most widely planted red variety in Piemonte; thus many wines made from this grape are meant for early consumption. That’s fine, as the grape’s very high natural acidity (quite high for a red grape) and light tannins make these wines excellent choices for simple antipasti, especially salumi, as the acidity cuts through the fat of the meat. Barbera made in this fashion is a traditional wine for lunch in Piemonte and is a delight.
There are more serious examples of Barbera made in several provinces of the region. Let’s look at the two most famous: Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti.
Barbera d’Alba is produced exclusively from Barbera grown in a wide area near the town of Alba. More than 40 communes, including famous ones in the Barolo area, such as La Morra and Monforte d’Alba, are home to Barbera vineyards for production of this wine.
Barbera d’Alba tends to be a medium-bodied red with high acidity, light tannins and distinct spicy notes in the finish. Most examples are aged in wood for about a year (a Barbera d’Alba labeled as “Superiore” designates that the wine has been aged at least one year in wood or chestnut barrels) and are released within two to three years of the vintage. Wood aging varies, as some producers prefer the traditional large casks (botti grandi), while others use smaller barrels, such as barriques, which tend to add more spice as well as tannins. Either way, most examples of Barbera d’Alba tend to drink well for anywhere from 3-7 years, depending on the producer and vintage.
There are a few examples, such as the “Scarrone” bottlings (both regular and “Vigna Vecchia”) that do have the capabillity for aging up to ten years.
A few examples of Barbera d’Alba that are quite well made include:
- Barale Fratelli “Vigna Preda”
- Cavallotto “Vigna del Cuculo”
- Pio Cesare “Fides”
- Correggia “Marun”
- Vietti “Scarrone”
- Vietti “Scarrone Vigna Vecchia”
Barbera d’Asti, as you might imagine, is produced from Barbera grapes grown in the province of Asti to the east of the province of Cuneo, where Barbera d’Alba originates. While there are some traditional bottlings of Barbera d’Asti still produced, many vintners now craft a more modern, richer, riper style of wine, usually aged in small oak barrels (especially French barriques).
Vintners in Asti have decided to make a more powerful style of Barbera, as this is their finest red grape. This is a different situation that Barbera d’Alba, as the Barbera plantings there are usually sited on good, but not great locations. As Nebbiolo is the major red grape in the Alba zone (the sole variety used in Barolo and Barbaresco) that grape – and not Barbera – will be planted in the best sites. In Asti, it is the other way around, as the best vineyards are planted to Barbera.
One of the first producers to age his Barbera in small oak barrels was the late Giacomo Bologna, who named his winery Braida. His cru bottlings were instantly praised as trail-blazing examples of Barbera and soon dozens of other vintners followed his technique.
Today, most bottlngs of Barbera d’Asti are very deep in color (bright purple) with vanilla and toasty aromas from the oak accompanying notes of black fruit (blackberry, black cherry, black plum), licorice and tar. The acidity is lower than normal, as the grapes are picked later for more natural sugar, the alcohols are slightly higher and the tannin levels are also elevated (the wines pick up tannins from the barriques).
Notable bottlings of Barbera d’Asti include:
- Braida (Giacomo Bologna) “Bricco dell’Uccellone”
- Michele Chiarlo “La Court”
- Vietti “La Crena”
- Tenuta Garetto “Fava”
- La Spinetta “Bionzo”
The bottlings of Chiarlo, Vietti and Garetto listed above are from a special Barbera d’Asti sub-zone with its own D.O.C. named Nizza.
There are other D.O.C. Barbera wines as well, including Barbera del Monferrato, located just east of Asti and Barbera Colli Tortonesi in the far eastern reaches of Piemonte, in the province of Alessandria. Top examples include those from Bricco Mondalino and Vicara (Monferrato), while Massa and Luigi Boveri are first-rate Barberas from the Colli Tortonesi zone. The wines from Monferrato in general are lovely, charming wines with raspberry fruit and high acidity; the finest examples are easy-drinking, delicious wines that cleanse your palate.
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