Barbera is a red Italian wine grape variety that, as of 2000, was the third most-planted red grape variety in Italy (after Sangiovese and Montepulciano). It produces good yields and is known for deep color, low tannins and high levels of acid.
Century-old vines still exist in many regional vineyards and allow for the production of long-aging, robust red wines with intense fruit and enhanced tannic content. The best known appellation is the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) Barbera d’Asti in the Piedmont region: the highest-quality Nizza DOCG wines are produced within a sub-zone of the Barbera d’Asti production area. When young, the wines offer a very intense aroma of fresh red and blackberries. In the lightest versions notes of cherries, raspberries and blueberries and with notes of blackberry and black cherries in wines made of more ripe grapes. Many producers employ the use of toasted (seared over a fire) oak barrels, which provides for increased complexity, aging potential, and hints of vanilla notes. The lightest versions are generally known for flavors and aromas of fresh fruit and dried fruits, and are not recommended for cellaring. Wines with better balance between acid and fruit, often with the addition of oak and having a high alcohol content are more capable of cellaring; these wines often result from reduced-yield viticultural methods.
The Barbera vine is very vigorous and capable of producing high yields if not kept in check by pruning and other methods. Excessive yields can diminish the fruit quality in the grape and accentuate Barbera’s natural acidity and sharpness. In Piedmont, the vine was prized for its yields and ability to ripen two weeks earlier than Nebbiolo even on vineyard sites with less than ideal exposure. This allowed the Piedmontese winemakers in regions like Alba to give their best sites over to the more difficult to cultivate Nebbiolo and still produce quality wine with Barbera that could be consumed earlier while the Nebbiolo ages. Harvest for Barbera usually takes place in late September-early October, usually two weeks after Dolcetto has been picked. In recent times, winemakers have been experimenting with harvesting Barbera later at higher sugar levels to produce heavier, more fruit forward wines. In some vintages, these producers may even harvest their Barbera after Nebbiolo.
Barbera can adapt to a wide range of vineyard soils but tends to thrive most in less fertile calcareous soils and clay loam. Sandy soils can help limit the vigor and yields. The grape rarely thrives in very alkaline or saline soils. Like many grape varieties with a long history, the Barbera vine has seen mutation and clonal variation arise with different clones of the variety found in Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and the Mezzogiorno. The different clones can be identified by the size and shape of their grape clusters with the smaller cluster clones producing the highest quality wine. In recent years, viticulturalists have been working with clonal selection to increase Barbera’s resistance to the leafroll virus.