De-confusing Italy: Part 1 ~ Barbera

April in Piedmont. Photo by Gina on a previous Premier Vineyards Tour.

I have grown to love the grapes and wines of Italy since working at Portalis. They have so much to offer. Throughout the country, from the far south of Sicily to the mountainous north of Piedmont and all the way in between, Italians grow acre after acre of grapes. However, with all the wine regions of Italy, and all the grape varieties grown, understanding Italian wines can become quite confusing. In this confusion, the wines of Italy become intimidating, therefore unapproachable. No one wants to appear as the unsophisticate standing in a shop in front of a tower of Italian wines not knowing the difference between a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and a Montepulciano. Don’t worry, if you don’t know the difference you are far from being alone.  In early days I needed a little lesson on this, but really it is pretty simple: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is a grape variety grown in the Abruzzo region of Italy while Montepulciano is a town in Tuscany known for Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a wine made primarily from sangiovese (known locally as prugnolo gentile). …Are you lost? Yes, Italy can be so confusing. But so worth de-mystifying as it produces some of the best wines from the grand dame classics: Brunello, Barolo, Barbaresco and Amarone, to great everyday drinking wines, for example sangiovese of Tuscany and the dolcetto and barbera of Piedmont.

Nebbiolo vineyard north of Alba. Photo by Gina

Over the next few months, I plan to set out on a wine venture to sort out the complex system of Italian wines by focusing on a region or a grape. Let’s start at the top, or if you prefer, in northern Italy with Piedmont. Piedmont (map) is the mountainous northwest region of Italy with Switzerland to the north and France to the west. It is renowned around the world for producing the prestigious Barolo and Barbaresco wines made from the nebbiolo grape.  Only the best of the best land is planted with nebbiolo vines destined to become Barolos and Babarescos. However, Piedmont produces much more than just those two wines and grows many different kinds of grapes. They grow white grapes: arneis, cortese and moscato and for reds they grow: dolcetto, bonarda (a blending grape), nebbiolo (also used to make Gattinara and Ghemme wines when blended with Bonarda) and barbera. 

Barbera is Piedmont’s most widely planted grape producing wines that are juicy and deliciously straightforward. Barbera is predominately grown around the towns of Alba and Asti in Piedmont. On the label you will see Barbera d’Alba or Barbera d’Asti denoting the two different villages from which the wine was produced. Piedmont is hilly and mountainous; Alba lies in the Monferrato range while Asti is in the Langhe range. The barbara grape produces wine that, in general, is supple and velvety filling your mouth with cherry, fig, chocolate and a hint of licorice. The grape’s natural high acidity leads to wines that are lively and have zip. Barberas from Asti and Alba express slightly different qualities from each other. In Alba, babera wines are deeper, darker and richer. Their fruit, more intense: the cherry becomes black cherry, the fig becomes dried fig. All around delicious! While in Asti, the barbera wine is bright and vibrant. The fruits are fresh, the balance is soft and elegant and every bit as tasty. I recently drank Pio Cesare 2008 Barbera d’Alba, it was dark and rich with notes of dried plum, dark chocolate and black licorice.  From start to finish, the bottle was greatly enjoyed by all. At Portalis, we pour Pico Maccario 2009 Barbera d’Asti by the glass and it is always an easy recommendation due to its silky fleshy body and bright fruits with hints of smooth vanilla that make it a great sipper on its own or with some nibbles like our charcuterie plate. Stay tuned for more on Italy…I’m off to do some more “research”.


Pio Cesare 2008 Barbera D’Alba
$22.99 | mixed case $18.39

Pico Maccario 2009 Barbera D’Asti
$14.99 | mixed case $11.99