Thursday, July 30, 2015

Barbera: A Spit Bucket Primer

The workhorse of Piedmont is one of the most versatile Italian varietals. It has come a long way since its days of relegation as blending buddy for Nebbiolo. Almost half of the region’s production is dedicated to Barbera 70,000 acres (28,000 ha) as of 2000. It is the 3rd most widely planted red grape in all of Italy. It’s known for its deep ruby color, bright cherry flavors, sharp acidity, and near absence of tannin. Depending on where it is grown and the winemaker’s practice in the cellar, the grape may show itself to be fresh and approachable, slightly rustic, and even a substantive wine that is a force to be reckoned with. It is considered to be native of Monferrato, in Southeastern Piedmont near the hilly Asti and Alessandria, but also grows in Alba, Rubino, Gabiano, and the Colli Tortonesi. The vigorous-growing vine requires constant pruning to prevent excessive yields, which, if not kept in check, can dilute the quality of the wine. Sandier soils help lessen its rigor though the grape tends to show best in chalkier and loamier soils. Fortunately, Barbera is blessed with a high level of acidity which helps maintain crispness and structure. Because it ripens a couple of weeks earlier than Nebbiolo, in late September or early October, the grape has historically been viewed as a cash crop for growers in the region. Recent DNA studies suggest Barbera may be related to Mourvèdre. How you like them apples (or berries really?) The jury is still deliberating.

A lease agreement from the mid 13th century, belonging to the cathedral in Casale Monferato refers to a bunch of vineyards planted with de bonis vitibus barbexinis (the name from antiquity). The first written proof of vinification dates back to the 17th century and is kept in the town of Nizza. In 1798, Count Giuseppe Nuvolone-Pergamo of Scandaluzzo, deputy director of Società Agraria di Torino, included Barbera on the first “definitive” list of Piedmontese varieties. Around that time, Barbera wines were relished by officers of the Savoy army who claimed the wine gave them courage on the battle field.

By the early 1900s, Italian immigrants brought vine cuttings along with them as they set sail for the Americas. Barbera set its roots in both in the Central Valley of California and Mendoza, Argentina. For a while, it spent time consigned to the bulk wine or blending category. In Italy, Barbera d’Asti received DOC status in 1970 and it was right at this time that the infamous Emile Peynaud encouraged winemakers to use smaller barrels and a carefully monitored oxygenation to soften the astringency and the potentially reductive quality of Barbera. By the 80s, Giocomo Bologna decided to give the varietal the royal treatment, growing single-vineyard Barbera called Bricco Dell’Uccellone. His Braida cellar increased concentration and extraction, aging his wine in French barrique thus creating a “Super Barbera.” For good or bad, this pioneering move created a paradigm shift and a wave of disciples cranked out burlier wines.

In recent years, Barbera has evolved into a Zeligesque wine that evokes myriad styles based upon mood and context. It is both worthy for everyday consumption and cellaring. The grapes great versatility, ranging from wines with fresh fruit and laser-beam sharp acidity, to plusher wines with dried berry flavors, medium-bodied, to the bigger, bolder wines, that show a smokier, leathery character. Some growers have also been extending the harvest later to reach higher sugar levels and offer crowd-pleasing fruit-bombs.

Barbera d’Asti DOC

Since Nebbiolo is not planted in Asti, Barbera is given the best vineyard sites and thus has a chance to thrive in this zone where it often produces brighter red berry fruit with mouthwatering acidity, a perfect food-pairing companion. The town of Nizza is the warmest area of the appellation and makes the ripest, most approachable wines. According to DOC law, a minimum of 85% Barbera must be used, the remainder may consist of any combination of Dolcetto, Freisa, and Grignolino. The wine requires at least 11.5% alcohol and must be made before March 1st, immediately following the harvest.

Barbera d’Alba DOC
Often described as more robust and ageworthy than its northern neighbor from Asti, it is sometimes vinified for early consumption, but offers a darker berry flavor, is generally, although not always lighter in acidity. The soil type is mainly limestone-rich, chalky, and the growing area runs through the rolling Langhe hills, including the famous Barolo and Barbaresco.

Other Appellations include Barbera Delle Langhe DOC, Barbera Del Monferrato DOC

DOCG Status
In 2008 both Barbera D’Asti Superiore and Barbera Del Monferrato Superiore got bumped up to DOCG status. Both require an additional minimum of 1% alcohol and need an additional 14 months of aging

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