It’s tough being the underdog, the bridesmaid to one of Italy’s greatest grapes, nebbiolo. But that is barbera’s lot in life. Ask wine fans about their favourite variety and nebbiolo is often mentioned, its haunting aromas and Rocky Balboa structure make these wines not only exhilarating to drink young but also provide long aging potential, numbering in the decades.
Compounding the issue for barbera is that it is often given the lesser vineyards to ply its trade; thankfully, though, some winemakers, such as Roberto Voerzio and Luca Currado from Vietti, have turned over some of Piedmont’s top Crus to barbera with impressive results.
But while the world is fascinated by nebbiolo, locals in Piedmont, more often than not, choose barbera to enjoy at home, and in local bars and restaurants. While the rustic tannins and deeply savoury fruits of nebbiolo take a little time to soften, the fleshier, juicier fruits and more supple structure of barbera is much better suited to youthful drinking.
But many mistake that delicious youthful exuberance as its only form. Given the right conditions and climate, barbera can make wines every bit as good as nebbiolo, if generally better suited to enjoy over the short and medium term. The key is its impressive energy, which shows itself immediately in incredibly vibrant colours and fruit, particularly dark cherry and beetroot with herbal complexity. That energy is replicated on the palate thanks to acidity that ranges from bright and fresh to tart and angular. In most barberas, oak absolutely plays a secondary role to gently support fruit as it can dominate this grape’s delicate nuances that are much of its charm. Grainy tannins also provide structure and when combined with that acid backbone, they make barbera one of the great food wine varieties. From a hearty beef ragù to roasted wild boar, nothing comes close to barbera for cutting through the richest dishes.
Barbera as a grape variety is relatively easy to grow but not always easy to get right. A quick look back to its base in Italy is a great indicator as to the kind of conditions in which it flourishes best. It is most at home in a coolish continental climate, where there is significant variation between the day and night temperatures during the growing season.
The hills around Alba and Asti in Northern Italy are some of the most continental high-quality vineyards in the world. They are also blessed with a good water supply and humidity, which help to retain the finesse and aromatics of the local wines.
While no region in Australia has quite the same climate, we certainly have plenty of good regions to choose from and that have shown themselves to be well suited to barbera. For many years, the King Valley has been a leader, no doubt helped by its proximity to the Australian Alps and their cooling influence. Other regions have also made a good contribution to the local style, including McLaren Vale, Mudgee, Orange and the Hunter Valley. But more recently, there has been a growing movement in the Adelaide Hills for this variety, with some well known names like Longview and S.C. Pannell joined by a cluster of younger winemakers trying to get their heads around what makes this variety tick.
The Hills is a diverse wine region, so for this relatively picky variety, there is still much to be discovered about which of the subregions are best suited. It will depend on the desired style. Some winemakers are opting for more traditional full-bodied wines and therefore warmer zones. Meanwhile others are pushing the boundaries towards almost pinot noir-like wines: lighter, fresher and for early drinking, sometimes with whole bunches in the ferment. It’s this melting pot of ideas and techniques in the Hills that makes it a region to watch for fans of barbera. You also get the feeling that it’s only early days and there is plenty to look forward to.
2020 Architects of Wine Barbera, Adelaide Hills, A$36
A beautiful expression of Australian barbera – fine and detailed with significant underlying concentration. Sweet dark cherry, a dusting of dried herbs and juicy red fruit aromas with oak sitting underneath. It is followed by a multilayered palate, cherry pip fruit with sappy elements plus a nice touch of whole-bunch spice. It’s also got that nervy acidity and angular tannins of the best wines from Piedmont.
2019 Coulter Wines C5 Barbera, Adelaide Hills, A$28
A ripe, modern and generously fruited style with plenty of appeal for newcomers to the variety. There are layers of open-knit dark cherry and chocolate fruit aromas with a fair dash of oak also in the mix. The palate is then quite fleshy and concentrated with restrained acidity and fine tannins providing an appealing texture while retaining the energy of quality barbera.
2019 Dal Zotto Barbera, King Valley, A$20
One of the traditional homes for Aussie barbera is the King Valley and it’s still the source of some of the country’s best. This is the early drinking version from Dal Zotto which is bright and expressive with sour cherry aromas plus tobacco lift with old oak in the background. It’s then more savoury and herbal on the palate than expected with crunchy acidity.
2018 Angullong Fossil Hill Barbera, Orange, A$28
Orange has long been a great home for barbera with its altitude providing good bite and freshness to the wines. Good typicity here with beautifully bright and fresh classic aromatics of just-ripe cherry with a touch of tar and dried herbs. It’s then dry, juicy and fleshy with sweet fruit following on the palate. The supple tannins with good fruit concentration and length make for a very satisfying finish.