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Sing your heart out, Babs

By Debra Meiburg MW

Barbera is a dark-purple grape variety from Italy’s Piemonte region. Once scorned as a simple, backstage grape, it has made a comeback worthy of a Hollywood diva. Barbera was formerly the most widely planted variety in Italy, but about twenty years ago, a younger, more attractive star – Sangiovese – stole barbera’s show. Perhaps barbera suffered from over-exposure.

Winemakers now realize that when planted on fine sites, with attentive vineyard care, barbera is indeed a star. Spicy with vivid black-fruit flavors – black cherry, black raspberry, blackberry and black plum — and high acid, this is a wine delivers a full performance while refreshing the palate. A unique feature of barbera is that is has almost no tannin. Surprisingly, it does have intensely deep color, but its tannin-less texture is smooth and silky. Now highly regarded, barbera can be found on wine lists as diverse as the Lobster Bar, Cippriani and Macau’s Robuchon a Galera.

Barbera is the most widely planted variety in Italy’s famed Piemonte region, but it is somewhat overshadowed by the nebbiolo grape used to produce Barolo and Barbaresco, two wines long revered as classic performers. The two Piemontese districts most highly regarded for their success with barbera are Alba and Asti. Barbera d’Alba is the more powerful and complex of the two, with brightly colored Barbera d’Asti being lighter and more elegant in style.

New wave Italian producers are using modern winemaking methods with this variety, working to retain its vibrant fruit during fermentation and then maturating the young wine in expensive French oak barrels, known as barrique in French. Barbera performs at its best when aged in new oak as this vivacious, fruity variety increases its richness and picks up some tannic firmness from the wood.

Italian immigrants brought the variety to California about a century ago, but until recently, it was relegated to overly warm, poor quality vineyard sites to produce hearty red wines, disparagingly referred to as “Dago Reds.” In the early 1990’s California winemakers, such as Rabbit Ridge, Bonny Doon and Renwood, began taking the variety seriously and though barbera doesn’t yet command star billing, it is accumulating a substantial fan base.

Waves of Italian immigrants also took the grape to Argentina where several thousand hectares are planted. Australia has plantings in the Hunter Valley and Victoria’s Morning Peninsula and this engaging variety is slowly gaining the notice of winemakers elsewhere. Because of its naturally high acidity, barbera is particularly suited for vineyard sites in warmer regions, where growers normally struggle to retain a grape’s refreshing acidity.

Its affinity to warmth might explain why officers of the Savoyard army esteemed Barbera for its “capacity to create warmth and engender vigor,” naming it a “sincere companion” of the army as they felt it encouraged a “level-headed attitude at the most difficult moments in a hard-fought battle.” Level-headed attitude at difficult moments? This wine is no diva.

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