Barbera is the middle child of the Piedmont red grape family, with nebbiolo the elder and dolcetto always given youngster status. Barbera is in fact the most planted grape there, outstripping nebbiolo by a large margin, and it is grown throughout the country. It’s potential in Australia is immense, too, with it holding acid well and delivering very gentle tannins and plenty of flavour.
Also known as
Barbera’s main synonym is barbera nero – hardly a confusing one – and while there are naturally many other synonyms, there are none that typically feature on a wine label. There is also a grape called barbera sarda, which is regarded by some as simply a Sardinian isolation of barbera, and by some others as its own distinct variety.
What barbera tastes like
Barbera is very much a grape that is in the darker spectrum of fruit, mainly forest berries, though it doesn’t have the distinctive similarities that say cabernet sauvignon has with blackcurrant or sangiovese has with cherries. Blackberry is a reasonable if not quite precisely accurate general descriptor. Often underneath that dark fruit, red forest berries will lurk, and tarry darker spice notes are not uncommon.
Vineyard & winemaking
Barbera produces the most plush fruit out of the three key grapes of Piedmont, with it being much darker in fruit profile than nebbiolo and with more weight than dolcetto. It is a grape that can readily achieve high alcohol and holds it acidity very well, and sometimes too well, with less-ripe years resulting in tart wines. The thing that barbera doesn’t have that those two others do is tannins, with it being quite soft in that department no matter the season. Often this deficit has encouraged makers to build those tannins with oak, but sometimes this can be jarring, with the wood also cloaking the vibrant fruit character. That said, it can work well when sensitively managed. Barbera is also a vigorous vine, with high yields and dilute wines likely without careful management.
Where is barbera grown?
Piedmont’s Monferrato Hills are the birthplace and most important area for Barbera, which includes perhaps the most famous province for the grape, Asti. Barbera is Piedmont’s most planted grape variety, with three times the acreage of nebbiolo. Piedmont also accounts for 67 per cent of Italy’s plantings, with neighbouring Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna soaking up another 23 per cent. That remaining 10 per cent is not trivial, though, with there being around 1,800 hectares in the rest of Italy, and it’s relatively widely spread, right down to the south in Puglia, where it holds its acidity in the heat and returns good crops.
Barbera around the world
Although barbera is a pretty adaptable vine that produces a good crop, it’s not widely grown outside of Italy in the Old World, however it has been planted quite prolifically in the US and Argentina. In both instances, these plantings have been due to reasonably large-scale Italian immigration. In Argentina, Mendoza and San Juan have been the centres for barbera, while California’s warmer zones have accounted for the majority of the plantings in the US.
Barbera in Australia
There are a bit over a 100 hectares of barbera planted in Australia, with the Riverina accounting for almost 70 per cent of it. The Italian variety hot spot of the King Valley unsurprisingly accounts for another 10 per cent, then the Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale and Adelaide Hills combined roughly another 10, with the balance spread across the country.
Photo of barbera grapes seen here, courtesy of Chalmers vineyard.
Some of the best Australian barbera
Alpha Box and Dice
Chalk Hill Winery
Lowe Family Wines