Barbera, the most planted red grape in Italy\u2019s 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\u2019t always the case.\r\n\r\nDue to naturally high acidity and light tannins, Barbera was most commonly used to make rustic, everyday wines consumed in massive amounts across northern Italy.\r\n\r\n\u201cWhen I first started making wine, Barbera didn\u2019t have a good image,\u201d 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. \u201cIt 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.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe 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.\r\n\r\nNow, however, most have returned to more balanced, terroir-specific expressions of the grape. Winemakers are using less intrusive cellar techniques to showcase Barbera\u2019s succulent, dark-skinned fruit and cooking spice flavors, offset by fresh acidity that\u2019s not overly aggressive.\r\n\r\nThough Barbera is planted throughout Italy, the best examples hail from Piedmont\u2019s Barbera d\u2019Asti, Barbera d\u2019Alba and the recently created Nizza denominations.\r\n\r\n\r\nBarbera d\u2019Asti\r\nSpanning 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\u2019s 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cInspired 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,\u201d says Raffaella Bologna, an enologist who runs the family firm Braida with her physician husband, Norbert Reinisch, and her brother and fellow enologist, Giuseppe. \u201cFor the first time, Barbera was made as a noble wine.\u201d\r\n\r\nGiacomo Bologna\u2019s 1982 Bricco dell\u2019Uccellone stunned wine lovers upon its release in 1984. No one had imagined that Barbera could produce such rich, structured wines.\r\n\r\nWinemakers across the denomination took note of Bologna\u2019s success. They started to lower yields to improve quality, utilize malolactic fermentation to soften Barbera\u2019s brisk acidity and age the wines in wood to add structure.\r\n\r\nToday, there are two prevailing wine styles from the region. Fresh Barbera d\u2019Asti is often fermented in steel and destined to be enjoyed young, while Barbera d\u2019Asti 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.\r\n\r\nMade from at least 90% Barbera, both Barbera d\u2019Asti and Barbera d\u2019Asti 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.\r\n\r\nBarbera d\u2019Asti 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.\r\nLocation, Location, Location\r\nVineyard location has been crucial to the wines\u2019 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.\r\n\r\nThere are two main soil types in Barbera d\u2019Asti. The first is the so-called \u201cwhite soil,\u201d 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cGenerally 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\u00b0F] higher than in Alba,\u201d says Gianluca Torrengo, director and winemaker of Prunotto, which has vineyards in the Alba, Asti and Nizza denominations. \u201cThe 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.\u201d\r\n\r\nIn 2008, Barbera d\u2019Asti 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.\r\n\r\n\r\nThe New Nizza\r\nIf you\u2019re not familiar with Nizza yet, you\u2019ll 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.\r\n\r\nHistorically known as one the top sites for Barbera, Nizza was designated as an official subzone of Barbera d\u2019Asti in 2000, thanks to the efforts of Michele Chiarlo and Giulano No\u00e9, 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.\r\n\r\nMade 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.\r\n\r\nNizza\u2019s 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.\r\n\r\nChiarlo, 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cOne of the most important factors in La Court is the soil, the Asti sands,\u201d says Chiarlo. \u201cComposed of marine sediment, sand, calcareous marls and silt, it has an extremely high magnesium content that gives the wines remarkable elegance and silkiness.\u201d\r\n\r\nIn good vintages, the wines can age well for at least 13\u201315 years, says Chiarlo.\r\n\r\nOther leading producers will soon bottle under the new Nizza designation. \u201cStarting from the 2016 vintage, our Pomorosso will be Nizza DOCG,\u201d says Luigi Coppo, export manager and part of the fourth generation at the Coppo winery.\r\nRecommended Wines\r\nMichele 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\u2019s balanced by polished tannins and fresh acidity. Drink through 2025. Kobrand. Editors\u2019 Choice.\r\n\r\nBraida di Giacomo Bologna 2015 Bricco dell\u2019Uccellone (Barbera d\u2019Asti); $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.\r\n\r\nBava 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.\r\n\r\nCoppo 2015 Pomorosso (Barbera d\u2019Asti); $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.\r\n\r\nPrunotto 2015 Costami\u00f2le 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.\r\n\r\nMarchesi Incisa della Rocchetta 2016 Sant\u2019Emiliano (Barbera d\u2019Asti 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.\r\n\r\n\r\nBarbera d\u2019Alba DOC\r\nIn 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\u2019s radar.\r\n\r\nYou can find soft, easy-drinking Barbera d\u2019Alba made to be enjoyed young alongside smooth, structured Superiore versions.\r\n\r\nInfluenced by the impressive results in Asti, wineries have since invested in the variety. You can find soft, easy-drinking Barbera d\u2019Alba 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cOur Barbera d\u2019Alba 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\u2019s acidity,\u201d says Giuseppe Vaira, of G.D. Vajra. The winery\u2019s Barbera plants are 1,312 feet above sea level, so the grapes retain freshness.\r\n\r\nThe 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cOur Barbera plants were planted 69 years ago and generate wines with depth and concentration,\u201d says Vaira.\r\n\r\nWhen treated with respect in both the vineyards and cellar, top Barbera d\u2019Alba is smooth, fresh and full-bodied. It offers mouthfuls of juicy black cherry, raspberry compote, blackberry and ground pepper sensations.\r\n\r\n\r\nRecommended Wines\r\nFontanafredda 2016 Papagena (Barbera d\u2019Alba 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\u2019s balanced by fresh acidity that gives it wonderful energy. Drink through 2022. Palm Bay International. Editors\u2019 Choice.\r\n\r\nG.D. Vajra 2015 Barbera d\u2019Alba 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\u2019s 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.\r\n\r\nMirafiore 2016 Barbera d\u2019Alba 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\u20132024. Domaine Select Wine & Spirits. Editors\u2019 Choice.\r\n\r\nRizzi 2016 Barbera d\u2019Alba, $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.\r\n\r\nRivetti Massimo 2016 Froi (Barbera d\u2019Alba 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.\r\n\r\nUgo Lequio 2014 Vigna Gallina (Barbera d\u2019Alba 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.