Barbera, when you ask most people their initial reaction to the name might yield blank stares, or worse. While Barbera is capable of producing some impressive wines it is also all too capable of producing pretty bad wines, both with capable winemaking and without. The problem lies with Barbera’s incredibly high natural acidity, and the issues that surround taming that acidity.
Just to put things in perspective, until recently the DOC regulations for Barbera required the wines to have a minimum of 6 grams per liter of acidity, though since 2011 that minimum has been lowered to 4.5 grams, the same as for Barolo. One key difference between the two is that Barolo also is required to have a minimum alcohol of 13%, which it may actually achieve at something close to the 4.5 grams of minimum acidity. Barbera on the other hand is required to have a minimum alcoholic content of 12% and at 12% Barbera is going to have closer to twice that minimum 4.5 grams. And thus was born the battery acid Barbera of years past which met the minimum alcoholic requirement while delivering enough acidity to predigest any food it may have had the misfortune to come in contact with.
Those wines were difficult at best and often awful and unpalatable. The regulations were changed to allow for a more modern and friendlier expression of Barbera, one that has developed over the past three decades. A Barbera that is softer, with lower acidity, but the only way to get that lower acidity is to allow the grape to ripen well beyond what was once typical. That of course has stopped very few from trying and what we have been offered over the past years was this new “improved” Barbera made from overripe grapes with soft acidity, jammy, cooked fruit flavors and no structure. You know what what happens next, we add some structure! And while we’re at it, let’s not skimp on the vanilla and toasty flavors of new oak.
Yes these wines that were being developed in order to offer a more drinkable Barbera quickly become Super-Barbera, stuffed with alcohol, oak, and all the trappings of “Super” wines everywhere, which sadly left them with no resemblance to fine Barbera and decidedly difficultt o drink at times. Of course there had always been a question as to what exactly fine Barbera was in the first place so producers were able to get away with this bit of chicanery for quite some time, in fact to this day.
Unlike with say Dolcetto, which suffered a similar fate until its recent return to it’s more attractive fresh and simple self, no one really wants Barbera to return to it’s shrill and sharp self; that personality it often possessed up until the early 1980s. Without a broadly accepted model for what Barbera should be there continues to be many avenues open to producers, and while the over-oaked examples of the past decade are not where I want Barbera to go, I do find that judicious use of oak can create a very valid and enjoyable example.
There is no doubt that there is a consensus forming as to what Barbera should become and it seems with each passing vintage the range of what constitutes great Barbera continues to converge on some middle ground. The grape should, first and foremost, have acidity that is proud and assertive; it is simply what the grape is made of. Oaky or not is becoming less important as the overt effects of oak become less fashionable, but some time in wood helps to soften Barbera, which is not a terrible thing. And then there is the question of alcohol, which to a certain extent goes hand in hand with acidity. Barbera is going to be a higher alcohol wine. 14% to 15% will be the norm as producers work to bring the acidity down to a palatable and broadly acceptable level.
I have always been a fan of what i consider to be ‘authentic’ Barbera, though I must admit that during my visit to Piedmont this past May I was more impressed with the progress made with Dolcetto in that arena than the Barbera. Some of that had to do with the lighter and less ripe character of recent vintages, but also there was the known and acknowledged traditional paradigm for Dolcetto to return to. I look forward to future vintages where Barbera can find its own path forward as well. Judging from this batch of wines there are quite a few models worth emulating.
One final note here, most of these wines are Barbera d’Alba, which is a broad appellation that covers the regions responsible for Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as Dolcetto. While there has been considerable recent planting here, virtually all of it nebbiolo destined for less expensive barolo and Barbaresco, the other grapes are all relegated to land not deemed worthy of Nebbiolo. While this doesn’t make Barbera and Dolcetto second class wines, each grape of course does require some differing considerations as far as orientation and altitude go, it does mean that these tend to be the maximum expression of Barbera’s potential, though they are the most commonly found examples due to the marketing power of these successful producers.
Barbera d’Alba is just one of the seven DOC appellations for Barba and if you enjoy this grape I urge you expand your horizons and try some examples from one of the other DOCs where they may be the starring grape afford the best locations in vineyards. In particular Barbera d’Asti, Barbera del Monferrato, Colli Tortonesi Barbera, and Colli Novaresi Barbera are all worth searching out and experiencing.