Despite being a bit of a black sheep, Barbera can offer an excellent stepping stone into the wines of Northwest of Italy. Barbera is the third most planted red grape in Italy, yet in its homeland of Piedmont it has at times been an after-thought.
Nebbiolo is the undisputed king and gets the best, sunniest sites to ensure full and even ripening late into the season. Dolcetto the ‘little sweet one’ ripens early in the season, weeks before the focus turns to Nebbiolo, and often gets the better cool sites to retain freshness in the wines that are humble and perfect pizza night wines. Barbera has bounced between the two extremes, often getting the second-best sites behind Nebbiolo and at times being taken more seriously than it should.
Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s many producers were drawn into the ‘bigger is better’ mania, electing to use high proportions of new oak, usually small format French oak, to age their wines and impart more structure in the way of tannin to the wines. Barbera couldn’t be in a better place now that the lavish use of small and new oak has passed, and so too has the desire of winemakers to ‘internationalise’ their wines. The trend is very much towards regionality and looking for ways to make a wine as reflective of where it is grown, Barbera is not Shiraz, nor Merlot and shouldn’t be made to look like them, but it can certainly have an appeal to some drinkers of those varieties.
A red that is medium-full bodied but feels a touch lighter thanks to the balance of its structure leaning towards higher acidity and lower tannin which help to give a sense of freshness and vibrance to the flavours. The flavours are certainly more akin to fuller-bodied wines leaning on black berry, dark brambly fruits and sometimes some slightly tart berry flavours paired to a mix of purple flowers and dried herbs notes. In some instances, you will see more spices coming through – cinnamon, vanilla clove but often this is from the use of oak.
The Bera Estate sits to the west of Alba, past Barbaresco. They have been bottling wine since the 1970s after several generations in the wine industry and have since been slowly but surely expanding production and vineyard area to include some Barbaresco and Langhe Nebbiolo to complement their Barbera and Moscato.
They take Barbera seriously with three separate bottlings – this is the ‘entry-level’ bottling ($26) made for its appeal as a young, fresh wine. It delivers the ripe juicy blackberry and cherry fruits clearly and simply with a subtle savoury edge and backbone of brisk acidity and fine supple tannins giving the soft, plush mouthfeel that makes the grape so easy to drink.
For a slightly different take we move into Barolo and the commune of La Morra where Renato Corino produces supremely elegant, polished and precise wines. A perfectionist in the vineyard and cellar his Barbera ($38) leans more towards the red fruits – sour cherry, cinnamon spice, and a delicious twist of liquorice towards the finish. Slightly firmer structure which carries the wine through a long finish with great finesse.