If you’re a wine enthusiast, you may have heard of Barbera d’Alba. Made from the Barbera grape, this red wine hails from Northwest Italy.
Sure, Barolo often steals the spotlight in Piedmont, one of Italy’s most prestigious wine regions. But here’s a little secret: Barbera is what everyone’s actually drinking.
It’s the juicy, food-friendly wine you’ll find on almost every local restaurant table in the area. Plus, it won’t burn a hole in your wallet! It’s the perfect companion for both everyday sipping and fabulous dinner parties.
So, keep reading to learn all about Barbera d’Alba. I’m uncorking its origins, characteristics, and food pairings you won’t want to miss.
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History of Barbera d’Alba
Barbera is an ancient grape variety that goes back to the Middle Ages. But while it’s thought to have been around as early as the 7th century, it took a bit of time to find its way to the Piedmont region. Nowadays, it’s one of the principal red grape varieties. In fact, it’s the most planted variety in the region overall.
In 1970, the Barbera d’Alba DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) was established. What’s a DOC, you ask? Well, it’s like a stamp of approval that guarantees the wine comes from a specific place and meets certain quality standards.
Barbera has often played second fiddle to noble Nebbiolo, the grape used for the more prestigious Barolo and Barbaresco wines. Nebbiolo gets planted on the best sites, aged in top-notch barrels, and is given more attention in both the vineyard and the winery.
But in the 1980s, a few trendsetter producers recognized Barbera as a hidden gem. They gave it some love by planting it in prime spots, taking it easy on the yields, and aging it in smaller French oak barrels called barriques.
And guess what happened? The quality skyrocketed! These days, many are following suit, creating delicious Barbera wines at far more wallet-friendly prices than your average Nebbiolo-based wine.
Barbera d’Alba Wine Region
The Barbera d’Alba DOC is in the beautiful Piedmont region. Thanks to the protective embrace of the Alps, this place is like a cozy sanctuary for vineyards.
The mountains act as a shield, keeping pesky winds at bay and creating a rain shadow effect. Just perfect for grape growing.
The vineyards here have found their sweet spot on the foothills of the Alps, perched up to 600 meters above sea level. The steep slopes bring the magic of excellent drainage and bask the vines in ample sunlight.
Just south of Turin, you’ll find the city of Alba, which is surrounded by the Barbera d’Alba DOC. With limestone and clay soils, it’s an ideal environment for growing this red grape variety.
Barbera d’Alba’s territory overlaps with the Barolo DOCG and Barbaresco DOCG. The best Barbera vineyards sit close to Barolo, enjoying the sunny hillside views.
Now, let’s talk about Barbera itself. It’s a vigorous grape that used to be encouraged to overproduce. This sadly led to some lackluster versions with diluted flavors.
But today, smart producers limit yields through pruning, resulting in smaller clusters and more concentrated, complex wines.
Barbera takes its time to ripen, preferring warmer sites. In the past, it was picked too early. But now growers have learned to give it the necessary ripening period for full flavor development.
Barbera d’Alba Winemaking
You’ll find Barbera d’Alba in two distinct styles. You can go for the youthful and fruity version, or dive into its bold and spicy side.
Traditionally, producers would use large neutral oak like Slavonian oak casks or stainless steel tanks for fermentation and aging. This keeps things light and fruit-forward. Perfect for popping open and enjoying right away!
However, many producers are shaking things up and turning to smaller French oak barriques. This adds boldness and spice to the wine, giving it the potential to age for a few years. Though let’s be honest, it won’t hang around as long as its tannic buddy, Nebbiolo.
Barbera d’Alba must have at least 85% Barbera, but it can be blended with up to 15% juice from the Nebbiolo grape. This can help add more structure and complexity to the wine.
Keep an eye out for wines labeled Barbera d’Alba Superiore. These gems have been held for 12 months before release, with at least 4 months spent in oak. They’ll be the most ageable versions of this red wine.
Characteristics of Barbera d’Alba
Barbera grapes have a dark pigment. So, the wines can have an intense ruby color. Barbera d’Alba in particular tends to be darker than its more elegant neighbor, Barbera d’Asti.
Barbera is known for its high acidity and low tannins. That’s what makes it such an easy-drinking wine. And easy to pair with food too!
This dry wine’s fruity flavors can sometimes give the impression of sweetness. And the lack of tannins contributes to its juicy appeal. But don’t be fooled as it’s rare to find one with residual sugar.
Alcohol levels can be on the high side, ranging from 13.5% to 15%.
Prepare your taste buds for a symphony of red and black fruit, including cherry, plum, raspberry, and blackberry. You might even catch floral notes like violet and a kick of black pepper spice.
Italian Barbera often has an herbaceous character, setting it apart from New World versions from places like California. And if the wine has spent time in oak, you’ll get an extra layer of vanilla and baking spices like nutmeg and cinnamon.
Barbera d’Alba vs. Barbera d’Asti
While these two wines share the same grape and come from Piedmont, they each have their own unique personality.
Barbera d’Asti hails from the larger Asti area, located more centrally within the region. It holds the DOCG classification, Italy’s highest. While Barbera d’Alba has the second-highest classification as a DOC.
Barbera d’Asti often secures prime vineyard positions, so it has a reputation for being higher quality. But that’s not always the case. And your personal taste will ultimately guide your preference between the two.
Barbera d’Asti tends to be paler in color with red fruit notes and a touch of spice. On the other hand, Barbera d’Alba typically has a deeper color, fuller body, and flavors of dark fruits. And you’ll more commonly find notes of vanilla from the use of small French oak barrels.
The blend also plays a role, as Barbera d’Asti requires a minimum of 90% Barbera. While Barbera d’Alba allows for 85% Barbera. And Asti has the option of incorporating the lighter, softer Dolcetto instead of the high-tannin Nebbiolo.
Lastly, the Superiore classification of Barbera d’Asti requires a longer aging, with a minimum of 14 months before release and 6 months in oak.
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Barbera d’Alba Price
The joy of Barbera is that a good bottle doesn’t have to break the bank!
When it comes to Barbera d’Alba, you’ll often find excellent value for your money without compromising on quality. The price range can vary depending on the producer, vintage, and specific vineyard sites.
On an average stroll through the wine aisle, you can snag a bottle of Barbera d’Alba for anywhere between $15 to $30. Of course, there are also some top-tier producers whose prices reach beyond that range.
Food Pairings for Barbera d’Alba
Barbera d’Alba’s high acidity and low tannins make it a great food wine.
The vibrant acidity can slice through rich and fatty dishes, leaving your palate refreshed and ready for more. And there are no overpowering tannins here. So, delicate dishes and spicy flavors won’t be left in the dust.
And it’s a perfect wine pairing for pasta dishes with tomato sauce. Or cream and cheese-based sauces.
Barbera also works beautifully with denser vegetables like root veggies. And its herbaceous flavors are harmonious with earthy mushrooms and dishes featuring aromatic herbs like sage or anise.
Oh, and don’t think I forgot about wine and cheese pairings! Semi-hard cheeses like cheddar, gouda, and Comté are a match made in culinary heaven with Barbera. And for those who adore blue cheese, well, you’ve just found your wine soulmate.
For more on Northern Italian wines, check out my post on Prosecco vs. Moscato d’Asti.
Barbera d’Alba Wines to Try
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What’s your favorite Barbera wine?