Barbera, the most planted red grape in Italy’s Piedmont region, produces some of the juiciest, most food-friendly wines in the country. It can yield fresh, easygoing expressions as well as full-bodied, elegant wines that can age up to 15 years. But this wasn’t always the case.
Due to naturally high acidity and light tannins, Barbera was most commonly used to make rustic, everyday wines consumed in massive amounts across northern Italy.
“When I first started making wine, Barbera didn’t have a good image,” says veteran enologist Michele Chiarlo, who founded his namesake winery in 1956 and was one of the first to carry out malolactic fermentation for Barbera in 1974. “It was made in enormous quantities to satisfy the national demand for easy-drinking reds. It was extremely high in acidity, and no one performed malolactic fermentation. It was also common to blend southern grapes with Barbera for muscle, so the wines had no typicity.”
The shift toward quality production started in the 1980s. During those formative years, winemakers experimented with techniques like aging in all-new French oak. While the wines were technically sound, many lacked personality. By the 1990s and early 2000s, many Barbera producers focused more on sheer power and dense concentration than drinkability.
Now, however, most have returned to more balanced, terroir-specific expressions of the grape. Winemakers are using less intrusive cellar techniques to showcase Barbera’s succulent, dark-skinned fruit and cooking spice flavors, offset by fresh acidity that’s not overly aggressive.
Though Barbera is planted throughout Italy, the best examples hail from Piedmont’s Barbera d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba and the recently created Nizza denominations.
Spanning 167 townships in the provinces of Asti and Alessandria, in the Monferrato hills, the Asti Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) was the epicenter of Barbera’s metamorphosis from everyday plonk to world-class wine. The dramatic transition began thanks largely to the late Giacomo Bologna, widely considered the father of the Barbera revolution.
“Inspired by his visit to California wine country in 1978, my father started planting Barbera in the best sites, choosing the best grapes, lowering yields, harvesting at the right moment and aging in barriques,” says Raffaella Bologna, an enologist who runs the family firm Braida with her physician husband, Norbert Reinisch, and her brother and fellow enologist, Giuseppe. “For the first time, Barbera was made as a noble wine.”
Giacomo Bologna’s 1982 Bricco dell’Uccellone stunned wine lovers upon its release in 1984. No one had imagined that Barbera could produce such rich, structured wines.
Winemakers across the denomination took note of Bologna’s success. They started to lower yields to improve quality, utilize malolactic fermentation to soften Barbera’s brisk acidity and age the wines in wood to add structure.
Today, there are two prevailing wine styles from the region. Fresh Barbera d’Asti is often fermented in steel and destined to be enjoyed young, while Barbera d’Asti Superiore is aged a minimum of 14 months before release, six of which must be spent in oak, and can age well over the medium term. Like Giacomo Bologna, some producers also make structured, oak-aged wines without the Superiore label.
Made from at least 90% Barbera, both Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Asti Superiore are deeply colored and boast succulent fruit flavors that include cherry, raspberry, blackberry and plum alongside spicy notes that range from white pepper to licorice. Many top producers eschew blends and use the grape exclusively.
Barbera d’Asti is generally bright and supple, while Superiore, primarily made from the best, and often oldest, grapes, is more concentrated and ageworthy. It possesses a stronger tannic structure from the wood aging.
Vineyard location has been crucial to the wines’ improvement. While producers in Alba reserve preferred sites for Nebbiolo, growers in the Asti denomination plant Barbera on the best hillsides with southern exposures. Soils and average temperatures also differ between the denominations.
There are two main soil types in Barbera d’Asti. The first is the so-called “white soil,” composed of calcareous marls rich in calcium carbonate, clay and silt. The other soil type is the Asti sands, made up primarily of marine sediments.
“Generally speaking, the soil in Asti is overall richer in sand, while the soil in Alba is richer in clay, and the temperature in Asti is on average [3.6°F] higher than in Alba,” says Gianluca Torrengo, director and winemaker of Prunotto, which has vineyards in the Alba, Asti and Nizza denominations. “The resulting wines from Asti are less acidic and a little bit higher in alcohol than those from Alba, which, in turn, are normally more acidic and supported by more tannins.”
In 2008, Barbera d’Asti was named a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), the most strictly regulated tier of wines in the country. The growing zone also has been divided into two distinct subzones, Tinella and Colli Astigiani. Until recently, it boasted a third subzone, Nizza, now a separate denomination.
The New Nizza
If you’re not familiar with Nizza yet, you’ll soon be. This new DOCG is turning out some of the finest Barberas available today. Made exclusively from the grape, the best are balanced and ageworthy, with a focus on finesse.
Historically known as one the top sites for Barbera, Nizza was designated as an official subzone of Barbera d’Asti in 2000, thanks to the efforts of Michele Chiarlo and Giulano Noé, a celebrated consulting enologist. The two were responsible for rallying other local producers and starting the long road toward the creation of the Nizza DOCG, which became a denomination with the 2014 vintage.
Made up of 18 municipalities, Nizza and Nizza Vigna (a single-vineyard designation) must be aged for a minimum of 18 months, six of which must be in wood. Nizza Riserva and Nizza Vigna Riserva must undergo at least 30 months of aging, which includes one year in wood.
Nizza’s strict production regulations include the lowest yields in Piedmont: a maximum of seven tons per hectare (approximately 2.5 acres) for Nizza and Nizza Riserva, and 6.3 tons per hectare for Nizza Vigna and Nizza Vigna Riserva. By comparison, Barolo allows a maximum of eight tons per hectare, and Barolos from a single vineyard within an official geographic zone are allowed up to 7.2 tons per hectare.
Chiarlo, who also owns prime Barolo vineyards Cannubi and Cerequio, acquired the La Court estate in Castelnuovo Calcea, a highly coveted site in Nizza, in 1995.
“One of the most important factors in La Court is the soil, the Asti sands,” says Chiarlo. “Composed of marine sediment, sand, calcareous marls and silt, it has an extremely high magnesium content that gives the wines remarkable elegance and silkiness.”
In good vintages, the wines can age well for at least 13–15 years, says Chiarlo.
Other leading producers will soon bottle under the new Nizza designation. “Starting from the 2016 vintage, our Pomorosso will be Nizza DOCG,” says Luigi Coppo, export manager and part of the fourth generation at the Coppo winery.
Michele Chiarlo 2015 Cipressi (Nizza); $25, 95 points. Elegantly structured, delicious and loaded with personality, this benchmark Nizza offers earthy aromas of truffle, leather, game, pressed violet and ripe black-skinned fruit. The aromas carry over to the savory palate, along with star anise, black cherry, mature plum and crushed mint. It’s balanced by polished tannins and fresh acidity. Drink through 2025. Kobrand. Editors’ Choice.
Braida di Giacomo Bologna 2015 Bricco dell’Uccellone (Barbera d’Asti); $85, 95 points. Aromas of ripe black-skinned berry, clove and ground pepper mingle with fragrant blue flowers and a whiff of toast. Concentrated and savory, the full-bodied palate doles out blackberry jam, mature Marasca cherry and exotic spices. Velvety tannins lend finesse, while fresh acidity keeps it light on its feet. Soilair Selection.
Bava 2015 Pianoalto (Nizza); $33, 92 points. Elegant and savory, this opens with aromas of crushed herbs, wild berries, forest floor and a whiff of graphite. On the smooth palate, polished tannins support flavors of ripe Marasca cherry, raspberry, exotic spice and a hint of orange zest, with vibrant acidity lending balance. It has fantastic freshness and harmony for the hot vintage. Drink through 2023. Grapes and Greens.
Coppo 2015 Pomorosso (Barbera d’Asti); $75, 92 points. Aromas of violets, dark-skinned berries and menthol slowly take shape in the glass. On the full-bodied, elegantly structured palate, polished tannins support flavors of Marasca cherry, mature blackberry and dark spice. An espresso note lingers on the finish. Drink through 2025. Folio Fine Wine Partners.
Prunotto 2015 Costamiòle Riserva (Nizza); $55, 91 points. Prune, blackberry, violet and cooking spice aromas lead the nose. On the full-bodied palate, notes of toasted hazelnut and clove accent a black cherry core. Polished tannins provide elegant support, while a hint of mocha marks the close. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
Marchesi Incisa della Rocchetta 2016 Sant’Emiliano (Barbera d’Asti Superiore); $35, 90 points. Aromas of blue flowers, underbrush, ripe plum and exotic spice shape the nose. Despite its bold structure and muscle on the palate, it shows surprising finesse in flavors of fleshy blackberry, brandied cherry, star anise and tobacco framed in velvety tannins. Thanks to the succulent fruit, you barely notice the warmth of alcohol on the close. Serendipity Wine Imports.
Barbera d’Alba DOC
In the Langhe hills around the town of Alba, Nebbiolo, the backbone of Barolo and Barbaresco, has always been the star grape. It still gets the best vineyard sites, and some producers have even ripped out both Barbera and Dolcetto to plant even more Nebbiolo. But a number of producers have Barbera vines on the same hillsides as their flagship grape, making savory, fruit-driven Barbera that should equally be on every wine lover’s radar.
You can find soft, easy-drinking Barbera d’Alba made to be enjoyed young alongside smooth, structured Superiore versions.
Influenced by the impressive results in Asti, wineries have since invested in the variety. You can find soft, easy-drinking Barbera d’Alba made to be enjoyed young alongside smooth, structured Superiore versions. The latter must be aged for at least one year before release, with a minimum of four months in wood.
“Our Barbera d’Alba Superiore is planted next to Nebbiolo in the same vineyard, and follows the tradition of planting Dolcetto on the top of the hill, Nebbiolo in the center and Barbera just beneath Nebbiolo on the lower part of the slope, where warmer temperatures helped restrain Barbera’s acidity,” says Giuseppe Vaira, of G.D. Vajra. The winery’s Barbera plants are 1,312 feet above sea level, so the grapes retain freshness.
The Langhe soil, composed of both Tortonian bluish gray marls and lightly colored Serravallian soils that consist of calcium carbonate and sandstone, is a crucial factor for quality Barbera. Vine age also plays a critical role.
“Our Barbera plants were planted 69 years ago and generate wines with depth and concentration,” says Vaira.
When treated with respect in both the vineyards and cellar, top Barbera d’Alba is smooth, fresh and full-bodied. It offers mouthfuls of juicy black cherry, raspberry compote, blackberry and ground pepper sensations.
Fontanafredda 2016 Papagena (Barbera d’Alba Superiore); $30, 93 points. Inviting aromas of ripe black-skinned fruit, violet and a whiff of culinary spice lead the nose of this generous, juicy red. The smooth, savory palate doles out succulent Morello cherry, spicy blackberry, white pepper and clove framed in polished tannins. It’s balanced by fresh acidity that gives it wonderful energy. Drink through 2022. Palm Bay International. Editors’ Choice.
G.D. Vajra 2015 Barbera d’Alba Superiore; $25, 92 points. Ripe black-skinned fruit, blue flower, crushed mint and cake spice aromas take center stage, while a balsamic note stays in the background. It’s big, juicy and incredibly delicious, as it doles out mouthfuls of ripe plum, succulent blackberry, Marasca cherry and vanilla alongside soft, polished tannins. A star anise note lingers on the close. Drink through 2020. Martin Scott Wines.
Mirafiore 2016 Barbera d’Alba Superiore; $21, 91 points. This boasts intense aromas that evoke ripe black plum, new leather, clove and purple flowers. The concentrated palate delivers blackberry jam, brandied black cherry, cinnamon and mint, while velvety tannins provide polished support. Drink 2020–2024. Domaine Select Wine & Spirits. Editors’ Choice.
Rizzi 2016 Barbera d’Alba, $23, 91 points. Aromas of ripe black plum, black-skinned berry and a whiff of violet lead the nose on this irresistibly delicious wine. On the soft, juicy palate, pliant tannins wrap around layers of fleshy black raspberry, succulent Marasca cherry, orange zest and a hint of baking spice. One bottle may not be enough. Drink through 2020. The Sorting Table.
Rivetti Massimo 2016 Froi (Barbera d’Alba Superiore), $14, 90 points. Made with organic grapes, this opens with aromas of violet, licorice and mature dark berry. The juicy, savory palate offers black cherry, raspberry jam, star anise and chopped herb alongside supple tannins. Drink through 2021. BPW Merchants. Best Buy.
Ugo Lequio 2014 Vigna Gallina (Barbera d’Alba Superiore), $30, 90 points. Aromas of black-skinned berry, violet and a whiff of fresh mint lead the nose. The juicy palate delivers blackberry, Marasca cherry, nutmeg and licorice, while fresh acidity and velvety tannins provide balance. Enjoy through 2023. Vino Direct.