Barbera is a popular red Italian grape variety that produces good yields and is known for deep colour, low tannins and high levels of acid (which is unusual for a warm climate red grape). Century-old vines still exist in many regional vineyards and allow for the production of long-aging, robust red wines with intense fruit and enhanced tannic content.
The best known appellation is the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) Barbera d'Asti in the Piedmont region. When young, the wines offer a very intense aroma of fresh red and blackberries. In the lightest versions notes of cherries, raspberries and blueberries and with notes of blackberry and black cherries in wines made of more ripe grapes. Many producers employ the use of toasted (seared over a fire) oak barrels, which provides for increased complexity, aging potential, and hints of vanilla notes.
The lightest versions are generally known for flavours and aromas of fresh fruit and dried fruits, and are not recommended for cellaring. Wines with better balance between acid and fruit, often with the addition of oak and having a high alcohol content are more capable of cellaring; these wines often result from reduced yield viticultural methods.
Barbera is believed to have originated in the hills of Monferrato in central Piemonte, Italy where it has been known from the thirteenth century. Documents from the cathedral of Casale Monferrato between 1246-1277 detail leasing agreements of vineyard lands planted with "de bonis vitibus barbexinis" or Barbera, as it was known then. However, one ampelographer, Pierre Viala, speculates that Barbera originated in the Lombardy region of Oltrepò Pavese. In the 19th and 20th century, waves of Italian immigrants brought Barbera to the Americas where the vine took root in California and Argentina among other places. Recent DNA evidence suggest that Barbera may be related to the French-Spanish vine Mourvedre.
Northwest Italy is the viticultural home for Barbera, but Italian immigrants spread it through much of the New World, where its acidity is valued in blended wines for the 'freshness' it imparts. Barbera is found in the Italian region of Piedmont, particularly in Monferrato, and to a lesser extent further south. Nearly half of all grape vine plantings in Piedmont are Barbera. The earlier-ripening Barbera is grown on the cooler lower slopes below the Nebbiolo, and other secondary locations. This explains why relatively little Barbera is grown around Alba, where the wines are entitled to the appellation Barbera d'Alba. Thus the best known Barbera is the DOCG of Barbera d'Asti.
As of 2000 there were 70,000 acres (28,300 hectares) of Barbera planted, making it the third most widely planted red grape variety in Italy. In the Piedmont region Barbera is widely grown in Asti and Monferrato regions. While there is no officially defined Classico region, like Chianti Classico, the region of the Asti province between the towns of Nizza Monferrato, Vinchio, Castelnuovo Calcea, Agliano, Belveglio and Rocchetta are considered among locals to be the "heart" of Barbera in Piedmont. In 2001, the town of Nizza was officially recognized as a sub-region within the greater Barbera d'Asti DOC. Being one of the warmest areas in Asti, Nizza has the potential to produce the ripest Barbera with sugar levels to match some of the grape's high acidity. The wines of Barbera d'Asti tend to be bright in color and elegant while Barbera d'Alba tend to have a deep color with more intense, powerful fruit.
Outside of Piedmont Barbera is found throughout Italy. In the Lombardy region, it is seen as a varietal in Oltrepò Pavese with wines that range from slightly spritzy to semi-sparkling frizzante. Elsewhere in Lombardy it is blended with Croatina and as part of a larger blend component in the red wines of Franciacorta. Southeast of Piedmont, Barbera is found in Emilia-Romagna in the hills between Piacenza, Bologna and Parma. In Sardinia, the grape is used around Cagliari in the wine known as Barbera Sarda and in Sicily, the grape is used in various blends under the names Perricone or Pignatello made near Agrigento. Barbera was an important grape in re-establishing the wine industry of the Apulia and Campania regions following World War II due to its high yields and easy adaption to mechanical harvesting.
The Barbera vine is very vigorous and capable of producing high yields if not kept in check by pruning and other methods. Excessive yields can diminish the fruit quality in the grape and accentuate Barbera's natural acidity and sharpness. In Piedmont, the vine was prized for its yields and ability to ripen two weeks earlier than Nebbiolo even on vineyard sites with less than ideal exposure. This allowed the Piedmontese winemakers in regions like Alba to give their best sites over to the more difficult to cultivate Nebbiolo and still produce quality wine with Barbera that could be consumed earlier while the Nebbiolo ages.
Harvest for Barbera usually takes place in late September-early October, usually two weeks after Dolcetto has been picked. In recent times, winemakers have been experimenting with harvesting Barbera later at higher sugar levels to produce heavier, more fruit forward wines. In some vintages, these producers may even harvest their Barbera after Nebbiolo.
Barbera can adapt to a wide range of vineyard soils but tends to thrive most in less fertile calcareous soils and clay loam. Sandy soils can help limit the vigor and yields. The grape rarely thrives in very alkaline or saline soils. Like many grape varieties with a long history, the Barbera vine has seen mutation and clonal variation arise with different clones of the variety found in Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and the Mezzogiorno (Southern Italy). The different clones can be identified by the size and shape of their grape clusters with the smaller cluster clones producing the highest quality wine. In recent years, viticulturalists have been working with clonal selection to increase Barbera's resistance to the leafroll virus.
Winemakers working with Barbera have a variety of ways to deal with the grape's high levels of tannins and acidity. The most common has been through blending with varieties lacking those components and creating a softer and potentially more balanced wine as a result. In the 1970s, the French oenologist Emile Peynaud recommended that Barbera producers use small oak barrels for fermentation and maturation in order to add subtle oak spice flavours and limited levels of oxygenation to soften the wine. The polysaccharides picked up from the oak, was found to increase the richness of Barbera. At the time, his recommendation met some resistance from the tradition minded Barbera producers but the success of the "Super Tuscans" which introduced new oak barrel treatment to Sangiovese caused many producers to reconsider.
In addition to the subtle oxygenation and spice notes, oak imparts to the wine ligneous wood tannins which give structure to the wine without adding as much astringent bite as the tannins derived from the phenolic compounds of the grape. This, coupled with reduced maceration time contributed to the production of softer wines. Lower yields and harvesting riper grapes with more fruit and sugar has been found to be a better balance for Barbera's high acidity.
Like many grapes that are widely planted, there is a wide range of quality and variety of Barbera wines from medium bodied, fruity wines to more powerful, intense examples that need cellaring. Some characteristics of the variety are more consistent—namely its deep ruby color, pink rim, noticeable levels of tannins and pronounced acidity. The acidity of Barbera make it a valued plantings in warm climate regions where acidification is usually needed. The colour of Barbera makes it a value blending grape and it was historically used in the Barolo & Barberesco region to add colour to the naturally light Nebbiolo grape.
The use of oak for fermentation or maturation can have a pronounced influence of the flavour and profile of Barbera. Barrel influenced Barbera tend to be rounder, richer with more plum and spice notes. Wines made with older or more neutral oak tend to have more vibrant aromas and cherry notes. While some producers delay harvest in order to increase sugar levels as a balance to Barbera's acidity, over ripeness can lead to resin-like flavours.