In Barbara’s native Italy, most wines are named for the region. For example, Chianti is not a type of grape but is a region in Tuscany where some of the best-known Sangiovese red wines are made. In the Piedmont region of Northern Italy, Barolo and Barbaresco are the most notable wines. These too, like Chianti, are a place and not a grape variety. Both of these wines are made from the Nebbiolo grape. And typically, both are bold wines that require a little age to soften their sharp edges. Barbera, on the other hand, is a grape, originating in the Piedmont area. Wines made from this grape are bright and meant to be drank young. These are the wines for the everyday dinner table.
The grapes are both rich and light bodied. The dark pigments of the grape skins create a dark, nearly black color but the tannins are low, so the wine is lighter in body. Most Barbera from Italy usually exhibit more herbaceous flavors than the wines made from the same grapes grown in New World regions.
The Barbera tannins are low and acidity is high making it a great wine for afternoon sipping and for pairing with many traditional Italian dishes. Expect a wide range of fruit flavors from cherry, dried strawberry, plum, and blackberry and then moving into violets or lavender, dried leaves, vanilla, nutmeg, and anise. Some call the flavors “brambly.” While different websites have different descriptions of what this word means in wine, it seems the most common is in reference to a bramble bush, which is a wild, tangled, blackberry bush. The term “brambly” then refers to a green or leafy element alongside the blackberry fruit flavors.
While Barbera is being grown in small amounts around the world, there are just under 70,000 acres worldwide: 52,600 in Italy, around 7,000 in the US (CA Sierra Foothills, Central Valley, Santa Barbara), Australia with around 2,000 acres, and Argentina around 1,300, and of course, a little bit in Texas. So far, I’ve heard of plantings at Reddy Vineyard in the High Plains, plus Peter’s Prairie and Tallent Vineyards in Mason in the Hill Country.
Most of what you’ll find on a store shelf are bottlings from Italy, including Barbera d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba, or Barbera del Monferrato. Just like Chianti refers to a region, d’Asti, d’Alba, and del Monferrato are referring to the regions where the wine comes from. In general Barbera d’Alba tends to have a little more weight in the mouth and a bolder expression than the other regions. Those from Asti are lighter and higher in acid. Italian Barbera is generally under $30 and drink like a pricier bottle. These wines pair very well with a meat pizza, any pasta with a tomato sauce, mushroom dishes, grilled steak, or a simple antipasto with salamis and hard cheeses.
Our comparative tasting included six wines shared by a group of 10 industry professionals. I’d like to give a huge thank you to Chris McIntosh for sending me his 2022 Edge of the Lake Vineyard Barbera. I helped out my friend Susan Johnson at Texas Heritage Vineyard one day last year, and she gifted me a bottle of the 2018 Texas Heritage Vineyard Barbera. My dear friend Sarah Garrett with Serrano Wine pulled her 2023 Barbera from barrels to share with us. She used four different French coopers and blended equal parts in her sample. All three of these wines are crafted from Barbera from Reddy Vineyards, which has about six and a half acres, with some of the vines aged 20 years.
The last Texas example was a 2012 Becker Vineyards Le Quattro Stagioni with is a 50/50 blend of Barbera and Merlot. This is a wine I purchased from the downtown tasting room back in 2018 or 2019 and I was eager to open it and share. Finally, we had two Italian bottles: Bussia 2020 Barbera d’Alba from Total Wines and Luca Bosio 2021 Barbera d’Asti from our local Fredericksburg H-E-B.
It’s true, all of the wines had different flavors. I am super excited for the Serrano wine to be bottled, but that won’t be for another year, or more. In its youth, it was bright and fruity, and I can tell it will be a fun wine when it is released in 2025. I was thrilled with the Becker blend, which exhibited a rich mocha or cocoa note that was not present on any of the other wines. And finally, the d’Asti was only $13 from H-E-B, so I consider that a win for any night I want to pop a frozen pepperoni pizza in the oven. You should also look for an example from Peter’s Prairie Vineyard. I didn’t get to try one in this comparison, but I have tried it in the past and enjoyed it.
In summary, Barbera is a moderately priced red wine that has complexity while being light on the palate, making it a great fit for afternoon sipping. Cheers!