Barbera “Workhorse Grape” With Great Potential

By Ryan Gilchrist

As we head into the much-anticipated summer season, we thought it appropriate to highlight one of the world’s great BBQ wines.  It may not be the first wine that springs to mind when firing up the grill, but when done well, Barbera’s bright acidity, juicy fruit character and soft tannins are a natural partner for the vast variety of fare found at the backyard BBQ.  In its native Piemonte region of Italy, it is overshadowed by the widely recognized and appreciated Nebbiolo and receives barely a passing thought in the hierarchy of the area’s great wines.  Long considered a ‘workhorse grape’ both by the wine producer and consumer, Barbera struggles for attention in the hyper-competitive market of international wine.  A quote from noted wine writer Jancis Robinson sums up Barbera’s perceived status appropriately: “Low to medium quality with isolated exceptions.  Not fashionable”.  But the key words to note here are ‘isolated exceptions’.  And it’s those isolated exceptions that we are exploring here…

Despite its modest reputation within the country, Barbera is one of Italy’s most planted grapes.  In fact, it is widely planted throughout the wine world.  You’ll find examples in hot, dry climates like California, Australia and South America, in part because of its propensity to behave well in blends.  In very general terms, it provides a lovely dark colour, loads of acidity and generous dark fruit.  Tannins are naturally low and, depending on where it is grown, alcohol levels range from moderate to high.  The key—as is true for any grape or quality wine—is balancing all of those attributes so that no one component is over emphasized.  However, when working with Barbera, balance can be elusive. The grape’s racy, high natural acidity is often not matched by depth of fruit, weight or tannins.  While acidity is pivotal, providing the framework around which any quality wine is built, it should blend into the wine effortlessly, keeping the palate fresh and demanding another sip; it should not overpower.

So, how do some wineries achieve this balance and others do not?  There are several key factors in the vineyard that serious Barbera producers always keep top of mind.  One of these factors is yield.  Barbera is an incredibly vigorous vine, meaning it produces a lot of fruit per plant.  Those focused on making high quality wine will reduce yields significantly, typically by employing ‘green harvesting’.  Simply put, at some point during the growing season a winery will reduce the number of grape clusters per vine, intensifying and improving the overall quality of the remaining grapes.  If the Barbera vine is allowed to produce the quantity of fruit that it naturally wants to, the result will often be overly acidic, thin wines with little fruit.  Crop it low, and all that acidity blends in naturally with the grape’s generous, mouth-filling fruit and body. 

Another factor in balancing all that acid is choosing the right pick date.  Barbera is a late-ripening variety and must be allowed to ripen slowly, harvested well into the fall when the grape’s acidity can be matched with phenolic ripeness and adequate sugar levels.  That equilibrium between ripe grapes and acidity levels is crucial when deciding when to pick any variety, but it is especially important and tricky with Barbera.  The right harvest date can also impact the quality and style of the grape’s low natural tannins.  Barbera needs plenty of hang-time to properly develop its skins and seeds, in turn producing a soft, gentle-but-present and necessary grip.  Pick too early and you’re left with overly tart flavours, unwieldy acids and astringent, green tannins.  Pick too late, especially from a hot site, and you get flabby wine with a cooked fruit character.  Get the pick date just right and Barbera is capable of producing balanced, structured wines with lovely texture and plenty of depth. 

Site selection is also important for producing top-flight Barbera.  Although this grape is one of the most widely planted in the world, more often than not it is planted in lesser sites, with little attention paid to the right soils, the right aspects or the right micro-climate.  Because the grape does not carry the ‘weight’ of Cabernet or Nebbiolo, it is typically planted in vineyards and areas not ideally suited to its specific needs.  In Italy’s Piemonte region, where many wineries make both Nebbiolo and Barbera, the former is almost always planted in the best sites, leaving the lesser ground for Barbera and others.  Often this means that Barbera is planted on aspects and elevations that do not provide the necessary sun exposure to properly ripen the grape and, in particular, its skins.  In California, where vast swaths are planted in the San Joaquin Valley, the grape is often planted in a site that is too hot.  In these instances, the grape ripens too quickly and isn’t allowed to slowly develop that balancing equilibrium alluded to above.  Just like yield and pick date, site selection is a critical criterion for all grape growing, but it is especially vital for the finicky and often under-appreciated Barbera.

At Buyers+Cellars, we’re big fans of Barbera.  We have sought out some of the best Barbara producers in Italy and abroad to offer our clientele outstanding wines and value.  We have five very unique examples, some single varietal and some blends.  But they are all emblematic of the grape’s potential and possess many of the attributes we prize most when selecting wines for our small portfolio: bright flavours, typicity, food-friendliness and outstanding value.  A quick peek at each…

2018 Tenuta Olim Bauda Barbera d’Asti ‘La Villa’ – Piemonte, Italy
Tenuta Olim Bauda are Barbera specialists.  And this is an excellent example of what Barbera is capable of when planted in top sites and cropped low.  The vineyards are tended by hand and are currently in organic conversion.  Full, heady and modern, the ripe fruit expertly balances the grape’s natural acidity. Rich, dark fruits intermingle nicely with fennel, cacoa and violets.  This will pair equally well with grilled red meats, burgers and saucy ribs as it will hearty pastas.  
*$27.00 per bottle, 12 bottle case, to order email [email protected]

2016 Luretta Barbera ‘Carabas’ – Emilia-Romagna, Italy
Wines from Emilia-Romagna rarely make it to the Ontario market, especially examples made by small, quality-obsessed producers like Luretta.  The winery farms organically/bio-dynamically and severely restricts yields to produce structured, powerful wines that still retain Italian style and elegance.  This wine is a blockbuster, with intense flavours of black cherry, ripe plum, blackberry and licorice.  The palate is full, with impressive depth, framed by lovely fine-grained tannins and vibrant acidity.  This is a big wine, deserving of some big fare: grilled t-bone, osso-bucco and other braises.
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2016 Luretta ‘Gutturnio’ – Emilia-Romagna, Italy
A regional blend of Bonarda and Barbera from the alluvial soils of Piacenza.  This is bright and fruit forward with classic Italian structure and intensity.  The acidity is laser-focused and supported beautifully with loads of bing cherry, raspberry, spice box and pipe tobacco.  This screams out for food, from planked Salmon to grilled sausages and everything in between.  
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2018 Longview Shiraz Barbera ‘Vista’ – Adelaide Hills, Australia
This winery was an early adopter of the growing trend of Italian grape proliferation in Oz.  Sourced from a single vineyard and harvested by hand, Longview’s Shiraz Barbera takes the best of Australia and Italy and brings them together.  Cool-climate Shiraz with crunchy berry fruit character is married with juicy, cherry-like bright Barbera flavours and structure.  A perfect accompaniment to any backyard BBQ this summer.  
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2018 Jordan River Barbera ‘Classic’ – Mafraq Plateau, Jordan
From one of only two wineries operating in Jordan, this Barbera is fresh and fun with beautiful aromas of blackberry, plum, black pepper and cinnamon.  The palate is mid-weight with bright acids and soft, mild tannins.  A great exploratory dive into Middle-Eastern wine and archetypal Barbera character.  Chill lightly and serve with your next pizza delivery… or with pizza hot off the grill!
*Available through restaurant take away. Email [email protected] for a list.

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