As you ponder what grape varieties you might want to work with this coming harvest, consider one particular red with the following profile: Its grape berries are thin-skinned, making it susceptible to both sunburn and late-season rot. It comes naturally with quite high acidity, more like a white than a red, which often means that the sugar goes through the roof on the vine while you’re waiting for the acid to drop. The variety delivers good color, though not much tannin, and only medium body, and its flavors generally run more toward the savory (sometimes including burnt rubber) than the purely fruity. In the United States, it has passed its prime years and is now relegated mostly to California’s Central Valley jug and box wine production. And the last time it made world wine headlines was in the mid-1980s, when producers in its Italian homeland were caught adding methanol to their offerings. (This adulteration led to 30 deaths and at least 50 people were blinded in Italy by the tainted wine. The reason, as you’ve probably guessed, was economical. The tax on methanol had been lowered drastically, and unscrupulous producers sought to add some extra “kick” to their cheap wines with a dose of wood alcohol.
Of course, methanol occurs in small amounts in wine naturally, around 0.15%. However, the spiked wine included some bottles sold with 7% methanol, even though just 30 mL of pure methanol can cause blindness and 100 mL can be fatal. A 750-mL wine bottle with 7% methanol would contain 53 mL of methanol. In the wake of this scandal, the Italian government tightened its testing of wine, although — ironically — they were the only country at the time to already have set limits on methanol in wine. The limits were 0.2% in white wines and 0.3% in reds.)
If this sounds too good to pass up, then you’re a candidate for making Barbera. For all its baggage, Barbera makes great everyday wine, though only in the rarest of circumstances does it make great wine. This is not faint praise, and it’s fine with me. Around my house, saying some grape is perfect for everyday wine is the highest compliment, since we drink wine . . . every day.
Barbera creates hearty, full-flavored wines, and the acidity that often makes Barbera a terrible sipping wine makes it one of the most versatile food reds going.
I have found that among the fans of my little garage winery, Barbera is a polarizing wine. Some people can’t get enough of it, and some can’t get past the first glass. Particularly for people with palates trained on fat, fruity, low-acid California wines, Barbera can be a stretch — an acquired taste some never acquire. It’s a little like Bud Light drinkers confronting their first Belgian beer (leaving aside the fact that Anheuser-Busch is now Belgian-owned.) The upshot is that in anticipation of making your first Barbera, drink a lot of them to get on the proper wavelength.
Contradictory DNA evidence suggests that Italy’s Piedmont may not be the biological home of Barbera, but for more than a century, it has been the variety’s benchmark region. For the Piemontese, Barbera holds second place in the red wine pecking order. People drink Dolcetto, which comes around quicker, while they wait for the Barbera to be ready, and then drink Barbera while they wait — sometimes for years — for the Nebbiolo to become drinkable. Meantime, Barbera rules the table, without obtrusive tannin to fight with food or garish oak to distract from the meal.
Naturally, there are producers in Piedmont, and all the other places that grow Barbera, who try to make the wine more “important” by slathering it with oak. This is a lot like “improving” a poached fish fillet with the addition of fudge sauce; the fudge is plenty tasty, but you can lose your sole. Same with Barbera and new oak.
In the Vineyard
Barbera needs a fairly warm climate to ripen properly, and even then may come in on the later side. “Cool-climate Barbera” is an oxymoron. Ironically, Barbera’s plentiful acidity and color make it a valuable blender when grown in truly hot climates that bleach the color and any trace of acidity out of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon — but that’s not the fruit you want.
Depending on the growing location and vintage conditions, Barbera’s thin skins can present challenges. Excessive sun, either from heat spikes or too little canopy protection, can produce sunburn; a tendency toward splitting berries late in the season can lead to complications under rainy conditions.
Barbera has a reputation for being overly vigorous in the production of both fruit and canopy, but that seems to be a matter of vineyard conditions, soils, clone, and so on. Over-cropped Barbera can have trouble ripening, but there is no reason to overdo pruning and fruit thinning in pursuit of savagely low yields, either. Super-low-yield Barbera will still not be a candidate for cult wine status.
But the hardest part of Barbera viticulture is deciding when to pick. Every winemaker I talked to said that in contrast to most reds, where picking decisions are made on tasting for tannin evolution, Barbera judgments get made on perceived acidity. Two things come together here: Barbera doesn’t have much tannin to taste in the first place; and picking too early — just because the sugar is inching up or there is a threat of rain — can saddle the winemaker with a painful amount of acidity to deal with. Acidity won’t drop as far as with most other reds, but it needs to drop.
If all is well, Barbera should come in around 25 °Brix. If the sugar is extremely high and all converted to alcohol, a 15.3% alcohol by volume (ABV) Barbera is likely to be thin and hot, lacking the stuffing to provide any kind of balance. On the other hand, a 23 °Brix/12.8% ABV Barbera might well be undrinkable—unless it comes from Piemonte.
Even with patient picking timing, harvest acidity is likely to be more in white wine territory than red: don’t be alarmed with 7 or 8 grams per liter, that’s just the Barbera talking. On the flip side, pH should normally be blissfully low, down around 3.4 or 3.5, not up in the pH stratosphere that brings on spoilage and stability issues. Someone, somewhere may have needed to add tartaric acid to a batch of Barbera, but they aren’t talking. That heightened acidity shouldn’t worry you, since some of it will disappear during the alcoholic fermentation and more during malolactic fermentation, and what’s left will make the wine refreshing.
At the Crusher
Most Barbera winemaking is straightforward and traditional. In part because Barbera in the United States can’t command high prices, rarely do winemakers apply the fancy techniques associated with other varieties — cold soaks, whole-berry fermentations, délestage, micro-ox, and so on. It’s not that one or another of these methods might not make for interesting wine, it’s just that Barbera is more or less a working-class grape that does just fine with working-class winemaking. You don’t need to do any tricks to extract color; there are no tricks for extracting tannin, since it isn’t there.
When the grapes are crushed, check the basic chemistry. If the sugar level is too high for comfort (over 26 °Brix), bring it down with an addition of acidulated water. For that matter, if your grapes have too much acidity even for Barbera — say up around 9 grams per liter or more — a little unacidulated water can be one method of bringing it down to a reasonable range.
If you have the equipment or the connections to test for the proportion of malic acid, that’s worth doing for this variety. Barbera often has a high proportion of malic, which means that putting it through malolactic fermentation can have larger than usual consequences. It could bring searing acidity down to merely brisk, a good thing. Or if the malic proportion is quite high, edging toward half the total acid content, then a full malolactic could drop the acid too much and produce lactic (milk-like) overtones in the wine. It may sound weird to limit malolactic fermentation in a variety high in acidity, but if the proportion of malic is quite high, that may be the way to go.
Aside from adjusting the chemistry, two other things need doing at the crusher. First, a 25–50 parts per million (ppm) addition of potassium metabisulfite is a useful precaution, knocking back potentially troublesome microbes from the vineyard or your garage. I also routinely give my reds a small (75 ppm) dose of lysozyme to cut off unwanted lactic acid bacteria at the knees. Second, consider pulling off a bit of juice for a pink wine program. Barbera makes fine rosé on its own and gives a fine backbone to a pink blend. (My habit is throwing together about 5% of the juice of all the reds I work with in a given harvest, five or six of them, whatever they are, and I’m a happier camper when there’s some Barbera in the mix.) Since Barbera is pigment-rich, a few hours of marinating the crushed fruit will do nicely.
At the Fermenter
If your juice Brix is on the high side, make sure to pick a yeast strain that can handle high alcohol and plow through to dryness. (A few good options are mentioned in the sidebar, Tips from the Pros, on page 32.) Make a small initial addition of a yeast nutrient mix at the beginning and another halfway through the fermentation, If you want to do simultaneous alcoholic and malolactic fermentations, usually a good idea, add a malolactic bacteria starter as soon as it’s clear that the yeast is doing its thing. Otherwise, save the malolactic until the primary fermentation finishes.
Aim for a warm fermentation, with temperatures in the mid-80s °F (~29 °C) for at least a couple of days. If getting the temperature up means wrapping an electric blanket around the fermenter, it’s worth it.
Once a cap of floating skins starts to form, do two or at most three punchdowns a day; there’s no reason to pulverize the skins. Monitor the temperature and the falling Brix at least once a day.
Since Barbera is not a particularly tannic variety, there’s usually no need to press early, unless you are intentionally aiming for a light, picnic-style Barbera. (Or to put it another way, making your Barbera into a Dolcetto.) Press when the new wine reaches dryness as measured by a hydrometer or until the cap starts to dissolve and fall. Your Barbera press wine can normally be blended with the free run wine without fear, again because there is little danger of excess tannins.
Settle the wine for a day or two in carboys to let the gross lees settle and then rack into whatever vessels are going to be its home for aging. If you haven’t already started the malolactic fermentation, do it now. Test for malolactic status two or three weeks after it’s kicked off, and once it shows completion, stabilize the wine with a dosage of SO2 keyed to the wine’s pH.
Aging and Finishing
Like most reds, Barbera benefits from barrel aging. It can certainly be made in carboys or stainless, both of which keep it quite fresh, but also derail the further development, rounding and concentration that the slow oxidation of barrel-aging facilitates. Barbera’s sharp elbows make barrels, even small ones, the container of choice.
But be very careful with new oak. Barbera is only a medium-bodied wine in the first place, and its cheerful cherry-berry fruit can easily get buried. There are clearly differences of opinion on this, both in Piemonte and the New World, and bottles can be found that grew up in new French barriques and are ostensibly built for the cellar. As you may have picked up, I’m in the low-to-no oak flavor faction, along with writer Matt Kramer (see the accompanying sidebar, on page 32). Oak that’s on its second or third or fourth fill is just the ticket. If your barrel is entirely neutral, and you want a dollop of vanilla in the mix, use oak chips; adding chips to a neutral barrel offers much more precise control than putting wine in new wood and hoping it doesn’t take over.
If you don’t drink a lot of Barbera, it may taste a little odd as it ages, until you get used to it. You won’t find the power and tannin wallop of a Cab, or the swirl of baby fruit from a young Syrah or Grenache. Not to worry; that means your wine is on track. With two or three rackings, your Barbera should come around in a year or so in barrel, sooner if you age it in carboys.
To retain Barbera’s freshness, rack it fairly early, perhaps at two months and again at four months, getting rid of most of the lees and avoiding the possibility of sulfury, reductive odors. While you still have lees, however, stirring every week or two to help extract mouthfeel components from the dead yeast cells is worth the effort.
Barbera is frequently blended in Italy; in fact, outside Piemonte, it is almost always blended, not bottled as a single variety. It works well with the whole Mediterranean grape roster, from Italy to southern France to Spain and Portugal. Mixing it up with Zinfandel and Petite Sirah is as Californian as the Golden Gate. In addition to adding to flavor complexity, Barbera brings acid and color to blends that need them.
Barbera is unlikely to need fining for excess tannins, though fining for clarity, especially in a young wine, may be appropriate. A light filtration also pays dividends for appearances, particularly when gravity has not had enough time to settle all the particulate matter.
Filtration is not likely to strip your wine of anything noticeable, although careless filtration can introduce unnecessary oxygen.
At bottling, give your Barbera a final 25 ppm dose of SO2 as a going-away present, and make sure cleanliness is the order of the day in every detail. When you are done, drink some Barbera immediately with lunch to remind yourself what a great food wine it is.
Putting Barbera to Work
Store your freshly-bottled Barbera standing neck up for a few days to allow the air pressure built up from corking to equalize, then lay it on its side and give it a couple weeks to get over bottling shock. Then put it to work.
Remember, this probably isn’t a cocktail wine, but a sit-down-at-the-table wine. Aside from the obvious impulse to open a bottle with anything Italian, try Barbera with anything involving tomato sauce, from any country on earth, and even with foods sporting a bit of spicy heat. Heat and acidity can co-exist happily, unlike heat and tannin. The acidity also makes it a better foil, in my book, for cheese than heavier reds.
Don’t drink it all immediately, of course. A year or two in the bottle can continue the rounding integration process — and you might squirrel away a couple bottles for a decade, just to taste what happens. By then, your Barolo might be ready to drink, too.
Barbera by the Book
First and foremost, keep in mind that this a straightforward wine, one that is not usually subjected to a lot of manipulation in the winery. Once the grapes are harvested, ideally after the acid has fallen to a reasonable level (for Barbera), crush the grapes and make any adjustments to the sugar and acids before fermentation. Punch down twice daily, but don’t overdo it — no fancy maceration techniques are needed for this thin-skinned grape. Your biggest choice when making wine from Barbera may be when to inoculate for a malolactic fermentation, during primary fermentation or after. Although naturally low in tannins, don’t try to compensate with a heavy-handed addition of oak. Stick to well-used barrels. When the wine is ready, enjoy it . . . every day.
Kramer on Barbera
Matt Kramer, longtime columnist for Wine Spectator magazine, often wraps his blunt opinions in graceful writing. In a 2002 piece called “Tree Hugging,” he bemoaned the international trend toward bathing every wine in toasty oak:
“Sometimes the toasty-oak regimen is used to make an otherwise uncommercial wine palatable. Barbera is a choice example. Although Barbera producers are (understandably) loath to tell you this, the signature smell of Barbera is rubber. Now, most folks really don’t like the smell of rubber in their wines. Also, Barbera is acidic and, when tasted without food, this too isn’t exactly a come-hither quality.
“So when Piedmontese wine producers discovered that a good dollop of toasty oak not only obscured Barbera’s intrinsic rubber smell, but also sensorially softened its acidic hit, it was a no-brainer. What’s more, the toasty oak made a largely unfamiliar wine taste very familiar, like Bordeaux or Burgundy.
“It’s tempting to say, ‘Look, it’s all just a matter of taste.’ True enough. But the taste of what exactly? The less that comes between us and the actual taste of wine, the better. Otherwise, all wines really will start to taste alike — of guess what?”
It could be the rubber Kramer had fixed on was the result of rustic winemaking, Brettanomyces, and excessive reduction, but his concern for the way oak homogenizes the variety of wine is on the mark.
Tips from the Pros
I talked with three winemakers with several vintages of Barbera under their belts — Chris Leamy at Monteviña / Terra d’Oro in California’s Amador County, Pietro Buttitta at Rosa d’Oro in nearby Lake County, and Luca Paschina at Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia.
All three agreed that the trick in the vineyard is to pick Barbera based on the development of its acidity and flavor balance, not on the taste of tannins, which aren’t the issue for this grape. “Lots of time,” says Leamy, “the sugar will get to 24 or 25 [°Brix] with incredibly high acid, over 10 grams per liter, undrinkable. People get nervous and pick, and end up with too much acid.” Waiting out the drop in acid can mean harvests well into the time of year when rains are an issue; Buttitta says they have picked Barbera as late as early November.
Since the acidity is usually high, the low level of tannins is a good thing, says Paschina: “If both were high, you would have a very angular wine.”
Yeast choices mentioned by the three included D254, BM45 and BRL 97 (“Barolo”). Leamy warns against over-aggressive punchdowns during fermentation, since the thin skins can disintegrate and turn the wine into mud, making it hard to clarify and encouraging reduction.
All three are cautious about the use of new oak. Paschina says new oak flavors become evident quickly; Buttitta says the natural spice of the variety can get lost in the spice of oak. Leamy makes two different lines of Barbera, one lighter and fresher with mainly neutral oak, one more concentrated with more new oak.
How about the burnt rubber thing? Paschina has never encountered it and suspects its may have been an artifact of old-time winemaking. But Leamy says there is a tendency toward a “bicycle tube” aroma, which he combats by racking early and often, mildly aerating the wine. Buttitta has two clones planted, one of which sometimes edges toward the “tire fire,” but that characteristic disappears in the blend.