Today, wines made from the Barbera grape are respected as some of Piemonte’s finest reds, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, until recently (thirty years ago), Barbera was nothing more than an everyday wine meant to accompany salumi and pasta at lunch or dinner. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that (and there are times when I wish we could get back to those simple pleasures!), but the fact remains that a handful of vintners decided in the late 1970s to change the image of Barbera from an everyday wine to one meant for special occasions.
Arguably the most famous leader of this movement was Giacomo Bologna in the province of Asti, who was among the first to age his finest examples of Barbera d’Asti in barrique rather than the large barrels (grandi botti), which were the norm for decades. He also decided to harvest the Barbera grapes later than normal, resulting in extra natural sugar, but also slightly decreasing the overall acidity. As Barbera has naturally high acidity (very high for a red wine), Bologna and others of like mind believed that the wine would still maintain enough acidity to yield a balanced product.
His first great success with a Barbera in this style was the Bricco dell’Uccellone bottling from the 1982 vintage. The grapes were sourced entirely from a single hillside vineyard with optimal southern exposure and the wine was aged for more than 16 months in French barrriques – a practice largely unheard of at that time. This wine was previewed at the VinItaly wine fair in 1984 and was instantly singled out as a new direction for Barbera. although initial reaction was almost evenly split among lovers of the wine’s style and its detractors.
Bologna kept at it and soon added another single vineyard Barbera, called Bricco della Bigotta; the first bottling from the 1985 vintage. Some wine journalists thought this new wine was even better than the Uccellone; clearly, both wines are first-rate, though tend to differ a bit in style, as the Bigotta wine is generally more approachable upon release, given that these vines are ten years younger than Uccellone (Bigotta planted in 1982 – Uccellone planted in 1972.)
A third Barbera, named “Ai Suma” was released in 1990, just after Giacomo Bologna’s death. The wine is made from late-harvested grapes and is quite ripe with licorice and marmalade notes. The name of the wine means “we’ve done it” in local dialect, a reference to Giacomo’s quest for perfection.
Today his ebullient daughter Raffaella runs the winery, while her brother Giuseppe is the winemaker. All three of the bottlings of Barbera are still ranked as among the finest of their type each year, as are their charming versions of Moscato d’Asti – whimsically named “Vigna Senza Nome” (“vineyard without a name”) – and Brachetto d’Acqui, a slightly sweet red sparkling wine from grapes in the province of Asti. Both of these light sparklers are ideal with fresh fruit, but are quite delicious on their own.
As she carries on the work done by her father, Raffaella Bologna remembers the true meaning of his vision. “He gave the producers the courage to leave behind the path of tradition and to cross new roads.”