A millennium before there was Cabernet Sauvignon, there was Barbera, a northwestern Italian native with high-yielding, purple-black fruit; in fact, it’s such a heavy producer it usually needs to be pruned heavily to produce excellent fruit. It’s the third most-planted red wine grape in the Boot (after Sagiovese and Montepulciano), but Italian immigrants have brought it with them to the US west coast, Australia and South America as well. Depending on age and region, Barbera’s hallmark characteristics tend to be intensely aromatic fruity bouquets (cherry, blueberry and blackberry are often present). It might be a cousin of Mourvedre, sometimes grape lineage is a little mysterious, especially grapes as old as this one.
Barbera is hardy, soil-versatile (poor soils help keep its vigorous productivity under control) and has a long lifespan (hundred-year-old vines that still produce a decent amount of wine are not uncommon)-old vine Barberas often have the best aging potential, but in general this isn’t a wine you have to drink the minute you have it in hand (though no one here’s judging you if you do). Aging in pretty toasted oak is a common way to treat this grape and it usually leaves a signature trace of vanilla (and improved tannic structure). Barberas are often blended with other grapes that balance their high acidity and moderate astringency, but good 100% varietals are not rare. If you’re a fan of medium to full bodied reds with good intensity and lots of fruit, this might be your friend. Barbera is, generally speaking, an excellent BBQ wine, and as things heat up it’s good to note it can make pretty awesome rosés, a couple of which are mentioned here.
Eight Bottles to Try
Azienda Agricola Cogno Bricco dei Merli 2015 Barbera (Piemonte, Italy $35)
Intense deep red with purple reflexes. The nose is complex: Floral, plummy, spicy, with an intriguing note of dried apricots. Round tannins, a full-bodied, nicely structured wine with a decidedly lively acidity and great balance. Plummy mid-palate. Long finish with a slight saline note.
Isabel Mondavi Rosé 2017 Michael Mondavi Family Estate (Napa, CA $20)
A slight cheat; this one’s part Cabernet, but it’s really nice for summer so I don’t want to leave it out. Made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Barbera grapes which were harvested at the optimum maturity to capture the bright fruit flavors while retaining fresh acidity. The result is a fresh, aromatic wine, enticing aromas of strawberry, cranberry and ripe pear.
Marchesi Incisa della Rocchetta Barbera (Piemonte, Italy, $20)
In a word: Juicy. Full-bodied and silky, this is a deep, dark, intense-looking character with a big dramatic “jump out of the glass” bouquet led by blackberries and violets. A lot of black cherry on the palate, controlled acidity, nice long finish with some baking spice notes. Did I say juicy? I will say it again: Juicy. And kind of seductive.
Maryhill Reserve Barbera (Columbia Valley, OR $30)
What aren’t they experimenting with in the Pacific Northwest? From the Columbia Valley, this New World Barbera is big on smoky, leathery, toasted notes more than the Fruity McFruiterson iterations of Piedmont. 18 months in French oak might be a contributor; maybe it’s “Just the Climate.” Not sure, but this is a different style of Barbera than the typical Italian one and it’s also highly tasty, with great structure, firm tannins and Barbera’s signature black-fruit driven palate. At 15.5% ABV it’s not a lightweight and if you are one, that’s worth noting.
Michele Chiarlo Le Orme (Piemonte, Italy $16)
Yummy. This is an elegant Barbera from hilltop fruit in Barbera Ground Zero, the Barbera d’Asti DOCG. One of the more restrained wines on the list, it is still very robust and ripe, with a slinky, sensuous mouthfeel and nicely controlled tannins. Medium body, deep rich color, cherries and blueberries with trace florals.
Pertinace Barbera d’Alba (Piemonte, Italy $15)
A worthy addition to your “ridiculously versatile” section, this red is ideal for outdoor grilling but you needn’t limit yourself; it just loves food. Relaxed, easygoing tannin structure, fruity nose and palate (primarily bing cherry and blackberries). Super long finish.
Urban Legend Rosato di Barbera 2016 (Oakland, CA $24)
Not a typo: This wine is made in the hallowed wine country of Oakland, CA. They get the mention not only because this is personal hometown stuff (I am pretty sure it’s easily found at Whole Foods but if that is not true where you live they would, I am sure, be happy to ship you some), but because Barbera makes great pinks and this is a great example. It’s a silky mélange of strawberry lemonade and bittersweet grapefruit notes with a watermelon-heart hue in the glass and it’s dry as dry gets. Really gorgeous. Card carrying members of the “Rosé All Day” movement need to make sure this is in their repertoire.
Wind Rose Cellars Barbera (Washington, $25)
Wind Rose is a Washington winery that shares my tendency to fetishize Italian varietals. Their Barbera is a treat. Garnet-colored and definitely not a shrinking violet, the wine shows aromas of cedarwood and coffee instead of blackberry and cherry (heck, it’s Washington, of course it’s all about cedar and coffee). On the palate, ripe cherry and plum dominate and there is a slight trace of vanilla and a distinctly pronounced note of cocoa on the finish. It’s delectable and will probably be an even better friend if it’s been living with you for, say, ten years. But that doesn’t mean don’t drink it now. By all means, drink it now. Its soulmate is lasagna, but it gets along with everyone.