It always seemed odd to us that in Piemonte, the land of Barolo, the King of Wines and the Wine of Kings, we would always find a bottle of Barbera in front of us on the table. The answer was and is simple: Barbera is bountiful, versatile, delicious and moderate in price. The Piemontesi drink more reds than whites and almost 50% of the reds that they enjoy are Barbera. It is part of their culture and lifestyle. Barbera is Piemonte’s “go to” wine.
The hills of Monferrato lay claim to being Barbera’s birthplace. References date back at least to 1514 and 1609. The name seems to be a cross between barba (“beard”), which describes the vine’s complex root structure, and albéra, which refers to the wild, woodland sites where the varietal was first planted. There are many clones, even a Barbera Sarda which still thrives today in Sardinia. There is even a rare white Barbera Bianca, but the red is prolific. It is widely planted throughout Italy, in Campania (Castel San Lorenzo DOC) as well as in Lombardia, where it dominates in Oltrepo Pavese DOC and produces fancifully named wines, such as Buttafuoco (“Flamethrower”) and Sangue di Giuda (“Judas’ Blood”). In Emilia-Romagna, Barbera is blended with Bonarda (aka Croatina) to make the legendary DOC Gutturnio, a resurrection of the ancient Roman Gutturnium.
In 1985 the world of Barbera changed forever with the release of Giacomo Bologna’s mythical 1982 Bricco dell’ Ucellone. This was the first, single vineyard selection of Barbera and instantaneously it took Italy by storm and by surprise. We will address these Super Barberas in a separate article. It is sufficient for now to point out that thereafter serious producers felt compelled to make finer Barberas, paying more tribute and giving more respect to the lowly “foot soldier,” “workhorse” varietal. Barbera had moved from being a quaffing wine to a wine that you should savor and taste.
New DOC’s in Piemonte have popped up, such as Gabiano and Rubino di Cantavenna, but the attention and emphasis continues to go to Barbera d’Alba DOC, Barbera del Monferrato DOC and Barbera d’Asti DOCG. Colli Tortonesi Barbera DOC from the province of Alessandria, on the border with Lombardy, is on the rise. All Barberas are worth a search. Barbera together with Montepulciano ranks behind only Sangiovese in red grapes planted throughout Italy.
Barbera grows in a variety of soils and climates throughout Italy. It is durable and disease resistant. Italy’s DOC and DOCG laws usually permit up to 15% Freisa and/or Grignolino to be blended with Barbera, but for the most part Barbera is a standalone varietal. With a year of aging, including passage in wood, the word superiore may be added on the label. The fizzy frizzante style, still popular in Italy, has never caught on in the U.S.
Tannins are low and acidity is high, but harvesting later with smaller yields enables Barbera to lose its natural sharpness. In Alba, Barbera plays second fiddle to Nebbiolo as to selective vineyard sites, but Barbera d’Alba tends to age best when compared to those of Asti and Monferrato. You can generally expect a positive development for a period of 5 to 7 years after the harvest. Plus, you have the skill of enologists who produce Barolos.
Barbera screams, shouts and sings for food. We like traditional Barberas young, and appreciate the outstanding value to quality ratio. Try Barbera with almost anything: hearty pastas and risottos, salumi, bagna cauda, red meats, stews, braised beef and cheeses. Expect your Barbera to have a ruby color with violet reflections, with nuances of ground herbs, jam, dried plums, cherries, straw and hay, berries, black pepper and cloves. These subtleties will vary from zone to zone and vintage to vintage. Above all, expect your Barbera to be generous. You will not be disappointed in this now noble varietal. Always have an extra bottle or two. It’s hard to limit your group to just one bottle! Barbera wines today often reach 13 to 14.5% alcohol, ripe and rich.
(Please note the many producers are now making more than one Barbera)
Oddero Barbera d’Alba, DOC, 2011: This is a wine that you can drink every day. Maria Cristina Oddero creates the perfect balance of fruit and oak. Ruby with purple glints, fresh, ripe, bright with balanced acidity and soft tannins. Excellent structure. From 40-50 year old vines. Harvested at the end of September. Only 12,000 bottles produced. Classic, traditional Barbera at its best. Superb value. Ripe fruitiness in the nose and mouth. 100% Barbera.
Damilano Barbera d’Asti, DOCG, 2012: Ample, generous, from a great Barolo producer. Enologist Giuseppe Caviola has fashioned a wine of intense ruby, purple hue, with spicy notes and nuances of currants, violets, cherries and oaky vanilla. The balance of oak and stainless steel works well to bring out the fruit. The finish is persistent. Drink it now. 100% Barbera.
Marchesi di Barolo “Maraia” Barbera del Monferrato, DOC, 2012: A brilliant, deep ruby red, clean and fresh. Scents of forest berries, currants, sour black cherries and vanilla. Warm, hearty, robust, harmonious. Aged in large and small oak. Try it with boiled or roasted red meats. Will age well for at least 2 years or so. Limited production. 100% Barbera.
Michele Chiarlo “Le Orme” Barbera d’Asti Superiore, DOCG, 2012: This is the Barbera which Americans have been enjoying for over 20 years. It is a barometer, a benchmark! Deep ruby red with violet glints, medium-bodied, ripe cherries, elegant, aged in large oak for 8 months, plus refined for 4 months in the bottle. Seamless, generous, it will continue to develop for another 4 to 6 years. Perfect with chicken, grilled meats, pork dishes, mushrooms. This is a Barbera for the Barolo drinker. 100% Barbera.
Renato Ratti “Battaglione” Barbera d’Alba, DOC, 2013: This historic winery produces both Barbera d’Alba, DOC and Barbera d’Asti, DOCG under the “Battaglione” banner. It replaces “Torriglione,” which is now being used for Barolo. Cardinal to ruby red, spicy, plums, rich and full in flavor with a lingering, persistent finish. You can age this one for 10 years, but who can wait? The French oak is balanced by the dark fruit. A winner. 100% Barbera.
Vietti Barbera d’Asti “Tre Vigne,” DOCG, 2012: You can feel the masterful touch of winemaker Luca Currado. The grapes are sourced from vineyards in Agliano d’Asti, including the old vines Cru La Crena. Rich and noble, this wine is patiently aged in both large Slavonian oak and small French barrique for 14 months followed by two months in stainless steel tanks. It is unfiltered. Ruby to purple in color, it is dry, medium-bodied, with a complexity of minerality, ripe red cherries and vanilla. Refreshing, bright acidity. Soft tannins. Harmonious with good integration of oak and fruit. Versatile – try it with appetizers, grilled vegetables, hearty pasta dishes, veal, pork, chicken, cheeses, steaks and chops. Will age for 10 years. 100% Barbera.
VICTOR RALLO JR. is a successful, seasoned restaurateur, chef, wine critic and television personality. After graduating from Villanova University and earning his JD from Seton Hall University, Victor jumped directly from the world of law into the restaurant business. He now owns and operates Birravino in Red Bank, New Jersey and Undici Taverna Rustica in Rumson, New Jersey both of which have received numerous awards for excellence in cuisine, service, and their extensive Italian wine lists. Victor is also an Italian wine expert and critic recognized for his exceptional palate and distinct personality. He’s published two wine books, Napoleon Wasn’t Exiled and 21 Wines.
Victor hosts his own television series called Eat! Drink! Italy! with Vic Rallo which completed its first season on public television in 2013, and recently aired its second season on Create TV in July of 2014. He has also aired on Rachael Ray, The Couch CBS, FOX News, and many other television and live events. He visits Italy six to eight times per year to find inspiration for his restaurants, to taste and write about the wines and food from every region of Italy and to film the TV show. Victor lives in Fair Haven, New Jersey with his wife Kari, three kids, three dogs, and a fully stocked wine cellar.
Anthony Verdoni’s career has combined scholarly interests and a passion for wine and food. He enrolled in a Doctorate program at Tulane University, having received an A.B. in Curso Classico from Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1964. When a Jesuit Classics professor suddenly became ill in 1967, Mr. Verdoni returned to St. Peter’s College to become his substitute. He stayed for 20 years, teaching Classical Languages and Literature. His knowledge of antiquity and familiarity with Italy helped establish him as an acknowledged expert in Italian wines. His background as an instructor and coach in college aided him as a wine lecturer and author. Friends in the wine trade call him “The Wine Professor.”
His wine business debut was in 1971, as a part-time sommelier in a restaurant. Subsequently, he purchased a wine shop, and went on to become a wine buyer for two department store chains, a sales representative, and a sales manager. Highlights include: General Wine Manager for the Jaydor Corporation, one of the nation’s largest wine distributors; National Sales Manager of Southern Italian Wines for Heublein, under Philip DiBelardino; Vice President, National Sales Director for American BD Company; Vice President, Marketing Italian Wines for Winebow.
He has also worked closely and directly with many prominent Italian wineries. Brands which he has helped to develop in America include San Felice, Ceretto, Mastroberardino, Casal Thaulero, Librandi, Carpineto, D’Angelo, Regaleali, Umberto Cesari, Due Torri, Franco Cesari, Biondi-Santi, Vietti, Monteschiavo, and Villa Girardi.
Mr. Verdoni has enjoyed the challenge and satisfaction of launching new fine Italian wines in America. He has lectured and conducted tastings and seminars throughout the United States and Europe. He has written many articles and training manuals, and has co-authored The Sommelier Executive Council’s Vintage Wine Book, now in its third printing. He has been a member of the Sommelier Society of America, the Caterina de Medici Society, and the Society of Wine Educators, as well as a board member of the Sommelier Institute of New Jersey. Mr. Verdoni has received awards and commendations from the American Wine Society, the Culinary Institute of America, and Johnson and Wales. The Italian Trade Commission has awarded Mr. Verdoni a lifetime achievement award in recognition of his work in popularizing Italian wines in the United States.
Mr. Verdoni consults for restaurants, importers, distributors, and wine shops throughout America and Europe. When not on the road, he conducts wine dinners, seminars, and restaurant training programs – and, as always, helps people discover the fine wines of Italy. He has co-authored a new book, 21, and appears in the TV series “Eat! Drink! Italy! with Vic Rallo.”