It is the most common red grape wine in Piedmont, and has always been the most loved among locals. Its origins lie in the obscurity of the Middle Ages, in the history of Franks and Longobards, in the monasteries and abbeys of the Monferrato area (Alessandria). The Barbera vine is one of the five most popular indigenous varieties in Italy.
It is a complex wine with a good ability to age. In the Superiore version, it has very refined olfactory notes, balanced out by the sweetness of the fruit, and it puts up a fight with the best Barolo and Barbaresco.
HISTORY AND LEGENDS
Legend tells that it was thanks to the Barbera that the peoples of Monferrato managed to oppose the Frank invasion. In fact, they left amphorae filled with Barbera along the trails; the soldiers could not resist the taste of the delicious wine, and camped along the river to rest and enjoy it to the fullest. The strategy worked, and the people of Monferrato – hiding in the woods – surprised the unarmed and festive Franks and defeated them. The Barbera has for long remained a “loyal friend” on the battlefield, as the Savoy officials defined it, due to its ability to bring warmth and courage throughout the combat.
A 1609 document narrates that the Duke of Mantua sent his men to the Monferrato area to taste the Barbera and purchase it at the right price. Throughout the 1900s the Barbera played a main role in the history of Piedmont wine, but it was in the 1980s that its true renaissance began, thanks to a group of winemakers that had a hunch concerning its potential.
ORIGIN OF THE NAME
The origin of its name is uncertain: some say it derives from bàrberus (a medieval term meaning “impetuous and untamed”). Others say it was called “Barbera” due to its similarity with the vinum Berberis, a red, fermented juice, with a sour and astringent taste, which was very popular in Piedmont in the late Middle Ages. Certain experts believe it is not originally from the Asti nor the Alba (Cuneo) area, but from the Monferrato area, so much so that in the early 1800s the Barbera was spoken of as Vitis Vinifera Montisferratensis.
Appearance: The Barbera vine is distinguished by medium-large, pyramid-shaped bunches, with medium-sized, oval, and deep dark-blue berries. The grape berries have a very pruinose skin of a deep blue colour, and are the darkest among all the main Piedmont varieties: there is almost double the malvidin in their skin than the one in Nebbiolo grapes.
Autumn colour of the leaves: reddish
Budding: fairly early (mid-April)
Maturation (harvest): late September, early October
In the vineyard: it is an adaptable variety, not particularly demanding. Its production is constant and relatively abundant, guaranteeing – on average – a high yield and a good quality, even in not particularly productive years. For these reasons, it is one of the vines most preferred by farmers worldwide.
Resistance: the grape is very vigorous and resistant to drought, though moderately sensitive to spring freezing and very sensitive to grapevine leafroll virus.
At the eye: the Barbera has a dark colour that varies – depending on its origin – from ruby red (marl and clay soil, rich in limestone) to Tyrian red (sandy and aranaceous soil, shy of limestone), with the inevitable, typical purplish reflections.
At the nose: violet, red berries (blackberries), cherry, plum, sweet spice notes (black pepper and cloves), underwood scents.
At the palate: you can tell a good Barbera from its high acidity and low tannin content, never aggressive. It lends itself very well to the table, and can be drunk throughout the entire meal.
Ampelography: no less than 90% Barbera grapes, 10% other non-aromatic red grapes whose growing is allowed in the Piedmont region
Yield: 9 metric tonnes/hectare
Minimum (naturally occurring) alcohol by volume: 12.00%; 12,50% in Superiore version
Barbera d’Asti may not be sold before March 1st of the year following the harvest; the Barbera d’Asti Superiore may not be sold before January 1st of the second year following the harvest, in that its aging lasts 14 months, including 6 months of ageing in oak barrels.
Technical characteristics of the wine: minimum (naturally occurring) alcohol by volume 12.00%, 12,50% in Superiore version; dry extract 24 gr/l in Barbera d’Asti, 25 gr/l in Barbera d’Asti Superiore; total acidity 4.5 gr/l minimum.
In the year 2000, three sub-areas (in the province of Asti) have been included in the production guidelines: Nizza (which has become an appellation of its own in 2016), Tinella, and Colli Astigiani.
SABBIE ASTESANE (Sands of Asti)
South of Asti, including: Rocchetta Tanaro, Vigliano d’Asti, Montaldo Scarampi, San Damiano d’Asti, Castagnole Monferrato, Roatto, Vinchio, Mombercelli, Castelnuovo Calcea, Incisa Scapaccino, Rocchetta Palafea.
The mostly sandy/aranaceous soil (sands of Asti and the Villafranca d’Asti areas) yield wines with a mild tannin content, distinguished by a low acidity and light body, a lower alcohol by volume, a colour generally tending towards Tyrian red with purplish reflections, and its vines have a precocious germination compared to those grown in the Terre Bianche.
The sandy soil yields more elegant Barbera, with more refined scents of violet, raspberry, cherry, and blackberry (small, sour, and fresh red fruit), with emerging notes of cloves and black pepper. The wine shall be drunk cool, and ages quickly.
TERRE BIANCHE (White lands)
Costigliole d’Asti, Agliano Terme, Nizza Monferrato, Calamandrana, San Marzano Oliveto, Castagnole delle Lanze, Cocconato, Moncalvo, Alfiano Natta, Grazzano Badoglio, Calliano, Ricaldone, Maranzana, Cassine.
These areas yield more tannic wines, distinguished by a greater acidity and more full body, with a greater alcohol by volume, a colour usually tending towards ruby red, a slow germination of the vines and a greater ability to age. Its fragrance is intense and deep, with fruit notes of cherry, blackberry (small red fruits, either ripe or in jam), and plum jam, as well as spice notes of black pepper and cinnamon intertwining with typical earthy and straw notes. Starting from the 2014 vintage, Nizza has become an appellation of its own, similarly to what has occurred with the Barolo, once a version of Nebbiolo.
DIFFERENT SOIL TYPES AND VERSIONS
Vivace: Historically the Barbera was produced as a sparkling wine – also called “mossa” (wavy) or “vivace” (lively) – which combines perfectly with sandwiches, cold cuts, and fatty foods.
Barbera d’Asti “fresca”: a Barbera aged in steel tanks. It is fresh, winy, with a delicate tannic taste, and a deep ruby red colour. The firmness of its fresh flavour is given by its acidity, which makes the wine stay young for long. As it ages, it improves in terms of softness and elegance.
Aged in oak barrels: it is indeed thanks to its high acidity and low tannin content that certain winemakers, in order to improve its body, age it in oak barrels, which give it its typical chocolate and vanilla notes, and making it lose part of its classic crispness.
Thanks to the powers that the current EU legislation bestows it with, today the Consorzio Barbera d’Asti e Vini del Monferrato (Barbera d’Asti and Monferrato wine consortium) may pursue its main objective: to improve the conditions of the winemaking and vine growing supply chain, thus contributing to preserve an area that was recently recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A strategy is being designed, starting from a new name and logo chosen to promote the Barbera d’Asti – an appellation able to represent the area as a whole – to make the Monferrato area and its produce even more popular.
In terms of safeguard, the goal is to give consumers the maximum guarantee on controlled designation of origin (DOC) wines purchased. This is achieved by means of a series of international audits on marketed products. Another important activity is research, through which the consortium contributes to improve the quality of protected wines.
There are 330 companies registered to the Consorzio Barbera d’Asti e Vini del Monferrato. Among the designations safeguarded by the consortium there are: 2 controlled and guaranteed designation of origin (DOCG) wines (Barbera d’Asti and Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato); 10 DOC wines (Albugnano, Cortese dell’Alto Monferrato, Dolcetto d’Asti, Freisa d’Asti, Grignolino d’Asti, Loazzolo, Malvasia di Castelnuovo Don Bosco, Monferrato, Piemonte, and Terre Alfieri); and 5 Erga Omnes (“towards all”) designations (Barbera d’Asti, Freisa d’Asti, Albugnano, Dolcetto d’Asti, and Cortese dell’Alto Monferrato).
The Barbera d’Asti may be a pleasant friend throughout the entire meal. In its younger and fresher version, it enjoys the company of typical starters in the Piedmont cuisine or tasty platters of cold cuts. In the more bodily version, aged in oak, it fears not to sit next to more elaborate and refined dishes: wild game (moderately strong) first courses, red meat or game second courses. It is perfect with cheeses, especially aged or blue cheeses.
Versatile for pairing, it accompanies traditional Piedmont dishes as naturally as it does those from international cuisines, including the more difficult dishes to pair with wine such as exotic and spicy ones, in that it does not create negative interferences. It is also ideal when enjoying strong-tasting fish such as grilled tuna or salmon. But there are no strict rules and one must feel free to drink Barbera d’Asti how and when he/she wishes, and paired with any dish. Indeed, the Piedmont tradition tells that it is the quintessential wine of friendship and family, but it is also pleasant to savour a nice glass of the wine on one’s own.
DIFFERENT SOIL TYPES AND VERSIONS
The Barbera d’Asti has a versatile, easily approached character, without ever appearing ordinary. No other variety surprises the drinker as much as the Barbera, with its ability to “age” though always remaining “young and alive”, maintaining that distinguishing pleasantness which perfectly expresses the multiple facets of its territory.
This versatility makes it unique as a wine in itself, and unbeatable in terms of value for money. In fact, the Barbera d’Asti is marketed at an extremely competitive price, though maintaining an undoubtedly high quality level.
The Barbera d’Asti may be defined as the par excellence “everyday wine” – in the most noble sense of the term – which may be paired with both “bodily and rich” traditional cuisines such as the Northern European ones, and the more spicy recipes such as the Far Eastern, or “fusion” ones, given its sensory properties: good acidity and low tannin content.
Besides, it is one of the 15 most popular vines in the world: it is grown from Canada to South Africa, from the United States to Australia. But only a glass of the great Barbera d’Asti may exude the authenticity of this great wine, born in Piedmont long before it sailed the seven seas.