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The Age of Barbera

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ewing Mulligan, director of New York's International Wine Center, is a master of wine and co-author of "Wine for Dummies."

It is almost dinner time at the Currado home in the Piedmont region of Italy, but no one is in the kitchen. No one is in the winery office, either, or in the tasting room.

The whole family--four generations--has gathered in the winery two floors beneath the house to watch Barbera grape juice ferment, its purple foam bubbling in the vats, its pungent perfume penetrating the air.

More than any other wine, Barbera is ingrained in the culture and the hearts of the Piedmontese people. It is the wine that parents have traditionally laid down for their newborn children to enjoy in adulthood, and it is the wine that appears most frequently on the tables of homes and restaurants throughout the region.

Ironically, the wines of Piedmont owe their reputation to another grape entirely, the Nebbiolo, which makes both Barolo and Barbaresco, considered by connoisseurs to be two of the greatest red wines of the world. The Piedmontese themselves acknowledge that Nebbiolo is their most precious patrimony. But Barbera, more often than not, is what they drink.

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The Piedmontese do not have a monopoly on the Barbera grape variety in Italy. Historically, the Asti district of Piedmont, in northwestern Italy, is considered the home of this grape. But early in the century, Barbera migrated to other parts of Italy because it is a hardy and prolific vine of the sort grape growers favor.

Barbera has been so popular with growers throughout Italy, in fact, that for decades it was the most widely planted grape variety in the country. Only recently has Tuscany’s Sangiovese grape edged ahead of Barbera in acreage planted.

Winemakers of the Piedmont region can lay claim, however, to making the finest Barbera wines in Italy, if not in the world.

Whether because of their particular climate and soil, the age of their vines or their special feeling for the grape variety, Piedmontese winemakers have transformed Barbera from a hearty and satisfying country wine into a world-class fine wine that sells for $10 to $25 a bottle, with some as high as $40.

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Lesser examples of Barbera sell for less than $10. Although the lesser wines are light-bodied, with very tart berry fruit, the finer Barbera wines have intense rich fruit and are medium-bodied.

The transformation of Barbera in Piedmont is a work in progress, begun about 25 years ago and growing. It is a two-pronged effort, involving improvements in the vineyards as well as modification of winemaking techniques.

In the vineyard, measures such as choosing better sites for planting Barbera and reducing the size of the crop have given winemakers riper and higher quality grapes with which to work. In the winery, fine-tuning of fermentation times and temperatures and, in some cases, aging the wine in French oak barrels have softened the wine and made it more pleasing to wine drinkers internationally.

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Not surprisingly, a spearhead of Barbera’s transformation was Angelo Gaja, a man widely recognized as one of the most innovative winemakers in Italy. “In 1971, we decided to produce a Barbera with a more specific pedigree than what we had previously made,” Gaja said, “and we singled out our Vignarey vineyard for that purpose. We aged the wine in used oak barrels that we brought from France.”

Aided by the fact that the 1971 harvest was a small one, Gaja made what he recalls was a completely atypical Barbera, richer, softer and more concentrated than the norm.

“I remember that a friend of mine, whose father made Barbera in another part of Piedmont, visited me in July of 1972 and was astonished with my 1971,” Gaja said. “He didn’t believe that young Barbera could ever be so soft. So he asked me, ‘Why did you mix southern wine into your Barbera?’ ”

He didn’t, of course. Blending the more alcoholic wines of southern Italy into northern wines is illegal in many cases and unthinkable for serious producers.

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By 1978, Gaja was using new French oak barrels to age his Barbera. But the new French oak, which contributes more tannin and flavor to the wine than previously used barrels, was not itself the pivotal secret in making a richer, more intense wine from Barbera.

“In fact, Barbera needs a delicate touch with new barrels,” Gaja said. “Because Barbera does not have a stony tannic structure of its own, it can easily become overwhelmed by too much oak.”

Among red wine grapes of the world, in fact, the Barbera grape is unique for its extremely low levels of tannin, the substance that gives red wines a rich, substantial mouth feel. Instead, the grape has very high acidity, a desirable characteristic in white wines but usually associated with harshness and astringency in red wines.

To overcome Barbera’s high-acid handicap, Piedmont’s best winemakers have learned that they must focus on the vineyards where Barbera ripens best. Greater ripeness can compensate for the natural acidity of the grapes and produce a rounder, softer wine.

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Thirty years ago, Alfredo Currado decided to plant Barbera grapes in a prime vineyard called Castiglione, where he has his home and his winery, Vietti.

“This land is part of Rocche di Castiglione, one of the very best Barolo sites,” he explained, “and it had always been planted with the Nebbiolo grape. But I saw that vineyard as a perfect terrain for Barbera, where the grapes could ripen better than in a lesser site.”

Today, the Vietti Barbera d’Alba from the Scarrone vineyard is one of Piedmont’s most sought-after Barberas.

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Barbera’s movement toward international acclaim quickened in the 1980s, when a particularly affable and popular Piedmontese winemaker and restaurateur, the late Giacomo Bologna, produced an oak-aged Barbera from the Asti area. The public acceptance of Bologna’s 1983 “Bricco dell’Uccellone,” even at more than $30 a bottle, proved that Barbera could enchant American wine lovers just as it had always enchanted the Piedmontese.

With their acidity tamed, their fruitiness accentuated and, in some cases, their aroma and flavor scented with toasty oak, the new-breed Barbera wines no longer need several years of aging to lose their harsh edge. They are enjoyable almost immediately because they have enough rich berry fruit to balance their firm acidic structure.

Yet today’s finer Barberas have retained the remarkable compatibility with food that Barbera has always had. All sorts of foods that challenge other red wines--pasta with tomato sauce, spicy dishes, bland turkey breast, bitter greens--find an accommodating companion in Barbera, thanks to the wine’s low tannin and crisp acidity.

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The number of wineries making premium Barbera wine today is still small. Probably fewer than two dozen brands of elite Barbera wines are exported to the United States, although some wineries, like Vietti, market several Barberas, each wine from a different single vineyard. In addition to Gaja, Vietti and Bologna, good producers include Giuseppe Conterno, Aldo Conterno, Giuseppe Mascarello, Coppo, Ratti and Moccagatta.

The late Renato Ratti, a Piedmontese winemaker and scholar, described Barbera 20 years ago as “a robust wine for robust tastes, and for food that is worthy of the same adjective.” Although Barbera today is still the pizza wine par excellence, the best modern examples of Barbera belie the humble, rustic connotations of Ratti’s description. They are fine wines that suit the most discriminating wine drinkers.


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