Barbera is a grape similar to Longfellow’s girl with the curl. When it is good, it is very good indeed. And when it is bad, it is horrid.
Principal grape of Italy’s Piedmont region (northwest corner, nearest to France and Switzerland), Barbera floridly strives to over-produce, thus engendering problems. When growers go for yield instead of quality, their decision leaves bad taste in your mouth, principally pronounced acidity and sharpness. Diligent pruning and vineyard attention, however, permits Barbera’s delicious fruitiness to flourish.
Barbera is most successful Piedmont grape grown in California. Widely planted in the Central Valley, its acidity and color is valued component in mass market boxed and jug wines, although excessive production causes problems there, too.
Thus the dilemma. On one hand, Barbera is component of some sharp, cheap wines. On the other hand, cultivated correctly, Barbera becomes a superb wine: big and fruity with refreshing crispness, wonderfully food friendly. Trick is to know which is good and which is horrid.
In general, Italian Barbera made in Asti, Alba, and Monferrato areas with DOC labels deliver.
Young Barbera presents intense aromas of fresh red and black berries. Riper grapes show cherries, raspberries and blueberries. Because Barbera is not tannic, many producers use toasted oak barrels to add complexity, aging potential, and hints of vanilla. Skilful use and selection of barrels is a mark of the better Barberas.
Sometimes called “the people’s wine” because of its affordability and versatility, Barbera is worthy of your glass. If you’ve tasted bad Barbera before, give it another chance.
• Marchesi di Barolo Maraia Barbera Monferrato. Fresh, ruby color, drink young. $9
• Andrea Faccio Villa Giada Surí Barbera d’Asti. Blackberry aromas; cherry, chocolate flavors; no oak. $15
• Ruvei Barbera d’Alba. Full-bodied, well rounded; berries, vanilla. $16
• Enzo Boglietti Barbera d’Alba. Fresh, dark fruits, muscular; top maker. $22
• Marchesi Alfieri La Tota Barbera d’Asti. Plums, chocolate, fresh acidity, vanilla from oak. $28