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Revolution & Fame: Barbera d’Asti

No grape has known such a dramatic upgrade in its fortunes and image in the last 20 years than Barbera in Piemonte, north-west Italy.” – Jancis Robinson

Barbera in Piemonte has a very long history, many suspect dating back to the 7th century. The first documented mention is from the Middle Ages, by the 18th century it had a dominate position in Monferrato, Asti and Alessandria. Today, Barbera d’Asti accounts for the largest amount of Piemonte red wines produced.

The hills on which Barbera is grown date back 2 million years ago, to the Tertian age. The sea covered the area, as it departed it began the erosive process that currently shapes Piemonte [there are few stones and pebbles, resulting in erosion on the steeper hillsides]. There are 2 types of soil on these hills: white and Asti sands.

1. White Soils: More ancient, predominantly found in the areas of Canelli, Alessandria, Casale and the southern Asti region. Light grey in colour, they are a calcareous marl rich in calcium carbonate, silt and clay, with the occasional fossil shell being found. Vines grown in these soils result in full bodied, deeply coloured wines with good ageing potential.

2. Asti Sands: Marine sedimentary deposits dating to the Pliocene period, they are found in the middle of the Asti Monferrato zone, on steep slopes along both sides of the Tanaro River. Barbara from these soils have less acidity, therefore they don’t have ageing potential and are best for immediate enjoyment.

Traditionally, Barbera wines were light and for everyday consumption, glugged down with lunch and dinner. In the 1980’s, pioneering producers knew the grape had more potential than what was being realized and set about creating a renaissance for Barbera. In addition to choosing better sites [south side of the hills], they also lowered yields and used malolactic fermentation to decrease some of the acidity. They also began ageing in wood, a significant development for a grape so very low in tannins. The wood ageing brings structure, complexity and the ability to age.

Bestowed with the number one spot on Wine Enthusiast Magazine ‘The Enthusiast Best Wines of 2018’, Barbera is experiencing a revolution. Expect a more diverse selection on the wine shop shelves as this trend gains momentum.

So, what is it exactly that has Barbera gaining all of this recognition?

The stunning hills where Barbera is grown are a UNESCO site. In recognition of this historic relationship between man and vine, the official name is “Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato”. The majority of vineyards are sustainably farmed, with the majority of producers heading towards organic production. This is an area where the winemakers live and work on their property, with the intention of preserving it for future generations. It’s important to note that the area is an agricultural region, known for its hazelnuts and wheat production, which are adopting organic farming methods, as well.

The most widely grown grape in Piemonte [4600 hectares of vines], Barbera is naturally high in acidity and low in tannins. Extremely food friendly, it is a fantastic companion with a wide variety of dishes. It ranges in style from fresh and easy drinking to complex, age worthy and powerful. It expresses fresh, red fruits [cherry, raspberry, black cherry] and in warmer vintages hits plum notes. Baking spice, licorice and warm, earthy notes round out the palate. If wood aged, flavours of tobacco, chocolate, leather, earthy underbrush, forest floor and even more spice will be displayed. With its array of flavours, acidic backbone and versatility, Barbara d’Asti is generally regarded as the ultimate expression of the Barbara grape.

The technical details for Barbera d’Asti DOCG are the following:

1. A minimum of 90% Barbera, up to 10% of any other red grape allowed to be grown in Piemonte. In practice, the majority of winemakers use 100% Barbera. Minimum alcohol is 12%.

2. The Superiore must be aged for a minimum of 12 months, with at least 6 months of that time spent in wood, with a minimum alcohol content of 12.5%.

Filippo Mobrici and Kerin O’Keefe

I had the fantastic opportunity to attend the ‘Barbera Revolution’ Master Class and unveiling of the 2016 vintage of Barbera d’Asti. The class was curated by author and Italian Wine Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Kerin O’Keefe and President of the Consorzio Tutela Barbera d’Asti e Vini del Monferrato, Filippo Mobrici. Held at Foro Boario Pio Corsi, in Nizza, Monferrato, the heart of the Asti region, 19 wines from the 2016 vintage representing Barbera d’Asti DOC, DOCG and Superiore were presented.

2016 is being viewed as a 5-star vintage for Barbera d’Asti. February had a lot of rain, which compensated for the previous dry spell. Spring brought low temperatures that lasted thru June. The last half of august thru September was warm with little rain, the exact conditions needed for Barbera to ripen perfectly.

It is important to observe and recognize the effects of warmer temperatures that many wine growing regions throughout Italy now experience. Barbera loves heat and is naturally predisposed to making wine with high alcohol levels; 14-16% is the average. The naturally high acidity keeps it in check however, providing balance between the fruit and alcohol. With the pairing of warmer temperature and winemaker preference, the majority of Barbera wines have a generous alcohol level.

The following are 100% Barbera, they are wines that I found to be stellar expressions of Barbera and the hills of Asti.

Garrone Evasio Barbara d’Asti DOCG 2016
Well-structured and pure, packed with juicy berry fruit supported by fresh acidity and good tannins. A trace of mocha highlights the plush finish.
Soil: Clay
Alcohol: 14%

Caudrina ‘La Solista’ Barbera d’Asti DOCG 2016
Layers of silky red fruit with a sprinkle of nutmeg are wrapped in fine tannins and bright acidity. Wonderfully easy drinking.
Soil: Sand
Vinification: cold maceration for 24-36 hours, fermented with the skins for 10-12 days.
Alcohol: 14.5%

Terre Astesane ‘Anno Domini’ Barbera d’Asti DOCG 2016
Superbly integrated fruit/spice/earth notes are dusted with baking spice and wrapped in balancing acidity and tannins. Woodsy, forest floor rounds out the finish.
Soil: Calcareous
Alcohol: 15%
Aging: 12 months in steel

Michele Chiarlo ‘Le Orme 16 Mesi’ Barbera d’Asti DOCG 2016
All of the cherries [red, black and sour] crushed black peppercorn and earth are accented by fresh acidity and silky tannins. Well structured, with an engaging earthy angle.
Alcohol: 13.5%

Family Winery Berta Paolo 1842 ‘175 Vendemmie’ Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG 2016
Silky layers of dark fruit and peppery spice are supported by polished tannins and fresh acidity. Straightforward and well balanced.
Soil: White, calcareous limestone with sandstone and clay
Aging: 50% in 2500L barrels, 50% in 225L barriques for 12 months
Alcohol: 14.5%

Bersano ‘Cremosina’ Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG 2016
A tannic backbone supports wild cherry, blackberry, plum, sandalwood, white pepper, earth and woodsy oak. A fantastic fusion of fruit/spice/earth.
Soil: Calcareous limestone and clay
Aging: 12 months in big barrels
Alcohol: 14.5%

Sommelier Alberto Bracco presenting Araldica Castelvero Il Cascinone ‘Rive’ Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG 2016

Araldica Castelvero Il Cascinone ‘Rive’ Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG 2016
Sumptuous and plush, layers of dark fruit, peppery spice, licorice and earth drape over a framework of fresh acidity and silky tannins. Chocolate and fruit linger between each velvety sip.
Soil: Calcareous limestone and clay
Aging: 12-13 months, 75% in wood casks, 25% in barriques
Alcohol: 14.5%

Marchesi Alfieri ‘Alfiera’ Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG 2016
Juicy plum, blackberry and black cherry are accented by peppery spice and a dash of creamy mocha. Bright acidity and firm tannins harmonize and further the big, muscular structure.
Soil: Calcareous clay and limestone
Aging: Malolactic fermentation, 15 months of wood aging
Alcohol: 14.5%

Pico Maccario ‘Epico’ Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG 2016
Barrique aging is well balanced, giving a plush frame to concentrated black cherry, plum, blackberry and crushed white peppercorn. Balancing acidity and firm tannins ease into vanilla, cigar box spice and dark fruit on the lengthy finish.
Soil: Mostly clay
Ageing: 12-14 months in barriques
Alcohol: 15%

Tenuta Bricco San Giorgio ‘RossoMora’ Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG 2016
Plum, raisin, black cherry, black currant, pomegranate, a streak of sandalwood and a shake of crushed black peppercorn. Fruit, spice and woodsy oak saturate the lengthy finish. A big, muscular wine packed with fruit and spice. [Direct from my notes: “Kicks ass, takes names”.]
Soil: Calcareous marl from marine sedimentary soil and sandstone
Aging: 12 months in barriques
Alcohol: 15.5%

Tenuta Olim Bauda ‘Le Rocchette’ Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG 2016
Wildflowers and warm summer hay accent concentrated dark fruit, soft baking spice and licorice. Fresh acidity pairs with Herculean tannins. Baked berries, chocolate and pepper span the lengthy finish. A bold sip with approachable periphery.
Soil: Pliocene era sedimentary sandstone
Ageing: 18 months in big barrels
Alcohol: 15.5%

Tenuta Il Falchetto ‘Bricco Paradiso’ Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG 2016
Tangy fruit is the star here, with cherry, red currant, cranberry and pomegranate supported by robust tannins. Anise, mint, peppery spice and espresso comprise the lengthy finish.
Soil: Calcareous limestone and clay
Aging: 14 months in barriques
Alcohol: 16%

Gianni Doglia ‘Genio’ Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG 2016
Very aromatic, with red fruit, flowers, earth and spice. Intense flavours of wild berry pie and a dash of chipotle spice are given a sense of agility by fresh acidity and silky tannins. Well structured, well balanced, and accessible, even with all of its power.
Soil: Calcareous limestone and clay
Aging: 20 months, with 30% in tonneau and 70% in barriques
Alcohol: 15%

Cascina Castlet ‘Passum’ Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG 2016
A vein of minerality winds thru concentrated, juicy dark fruit, wildflowers, earth, spice and cedar. A savoury edge carries thru to the velvety finish. Acidity balances the intense flavours, silky tannins are the backbone. Complex, compelling and focused.
Soil: Calcareous limestone and clay
Aging: 9-10 months, with 50% in French oak barrels and 50% in barriques
Alcohol: 15.5%

Media event organized by Consorzio Asti DOCG and Consorzio Barbera d’Asti e vini del Monferrato.

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