Barbera, a grape variety common in Piemonte and in much of northern Italy, does not have much of a press. In the Langhe, where Nebbiolo reigns in the form of Barolo and Barbaresco, it was seen mainly as a short-term wine to drink while you waited, in the old days for 10 years, for your Barolo to come around. Elsewhere it was regarded as a commodity grape, northern Italy’s answer to the Sangiovese which dominates central Italy. The fact that there were ‘frivolous’ lightly sparkling reds – frizzante – from Barbera did not exactly help, though lightly chilled on a hot day they can be very appetising. But when looked at positively, Barbera’s versatility is a real strength. Depending on where it is grown and how it is treated it can turn out almost any style from dull, thin acidic jug wine to rich, ageable, rounded wines of international quality. Barbera’s appeal to the grower is obvious – it is reliable, relatively early cropping (two weeks before Nebbiolo and from less good sites) and can give high yields. If you regard wine as food, you will plant it anywhere you can. If you want density and finesse, you have to work rather harder and accept much lower yields.
This last weekend Janet and I drank three interesting, contrasting examples. At the moment Janet is choosing all the wines we drink so that I get to taste them blind. It is a big responsibility for her and a real challenge for me! She is signed up Barbera-lover for its simple red fruit, usually unoaked, and characteristic high acidity. She is not overly impressed by tannins so its low tannin count is a bonus. We started on Friday with a bottle we have had for a few years but which I had forgotten about. No doubt we bought Barbera d’Alba DOC, Enzo Boglietti 2007 in an attempt to bring down the average, per bottle, price of his outstanding Barolo … ah, the little tricks we wine lovers pay on ourselves to convince ourselves that prized bottle are not really that expensive. However, Boglieti takes his Barbera very serious and it is of outstanding quality – for which we paid £11 a couple of years ago, an absolute bargain. Of our three wines, this strikes the perfect midpoint with its moderately-rich, almost sweet-tasting, fruit which combines red plums with blackberries and a touch of smoke and palate weight from light oak. The acidity holds the richness in check, the density and quality of the fruit tell you that you are a million miles from simple refreshment. Even the best Barbera does not have the complexity and layers of interest of great Nebbiolo, but it is nonetheless a wonderful wine to drink and to cherish. Tasted blind I thought it was Primitivo from Puglia, which gives you an idea of its richness and weight, though I think I was more accurate about the former than the latter.
Wine number two was a wine we had recently bought at auction. We knew that the very best Barbera ages as we had drunk a magnificent magnum of Sandrone from 1998 with Mark Shannon, the Californian winemaker who now makes remarkable wines from the best bought-in fruit in Puglia. Buying at auction is always a bit of a risk but this was as safe a bet as there can be – six bottles in their original wooden case, reported to have been stored professionally and indeed it was in perfect condition. Like the 2007 discussed above, Ai Suma, Barbera d’Asti DOC, Braida 1998 (£28) threw an impressive amount of sediment, a testimony to the rich colour of the Barbera grape variety. Ai Suma is a special wine from Giacamo Bologna, the ‘creator’ of modern oaked Barbera. Nowadays the talk is about backing off from over-oaking the very best Barbera. But back in the 1970s, Bologna created a whole new category by applying what he had learnt on visits to France to create a fine wine made from this grape variety which had previously been just for wine for quick consumption. We would probably not have had the current trend for great fruit-purity Barbera if you hadn’t had Bologna’s excursion into oak. And after 15 years, in any case, the oak aromas have receded and the fruit (if it was there in the first place) reasserts itself. Ai Suma is a magnificent wine, not as well known as Braida’s single-vineyard Bricco dell’Uccellone, but a special selection of very mature bunches left on the vine to gain some further concentration in the best years. Still very deep in colour, the nose greets you with rich, black, raisiny fruit perfectly integrated with some coffee and chocolate notes. The palate is the real treat with its great density and luxurious texture, counterbalanced with Barbera’s fine acidity. Fifteen years young, it is will be fascinating to see where this goes next.
Our final wine was not in the same quality league as these two but it did show what medium-priced Barbera can do. I Tre Vescovi, Barbera d’Asti Superiore 2009, Vinchio-Vaglio Serra is a very good supermarket bottle and shows what can be done at the £9 level. It is produced by the cooperative in the area around Vinchio and Vaglio Serra in the steep hills of the Alta Monferrato. Once poured it took a while to open up in the glass but when it had done it showed bright red berry and blackberry fruit, a fragrance uncommon at this price level and the food-friendliness and refreshment of this versatile grape variety. The wine is made with fruit from (undefined) old vines and qualifies as ‘Superiore’ (lower yields, longer required ageing time with a minimum of six months in wood) It is aged before release for a year, six months of which are in large wood barrels. I think it has enough fruit concentration to age, as the winery suggests, for up to eight years.
After our Barbera weekend, here’s to next weekend!
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