Barbera is an ancient variety with its historical roots in Italy, where today it remains the second most widely planted red variety, after Sangiovese.
The highest quality Barberas come from the Piedmont region, where fifteen times more acreage is devoted to it than to Nebbiolo. Barbera d’Asti and Barbera del Monferrato each produce about three times as much wine as Barbera d’Alba. Colli Toronesi is produced in such small quantities it is rarely found outside its own region. Barbera is also produced in Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Sardinia. Barbera is also grown in Slovenia and is the fifth most widely planted variety in California.
Barbera vines are popular with growers, vigorous and reliably productive in a wide variety of soils and also highly resistant to fungal diseases. The fruit is naturally high in acid, which it retains very well, even in hot climates. Barbera grapes are also high in anthocyanins, but only low to moderate in tannin content. The resulting wines are deep, purplish black in their youth, but tend to early browning and lightening as they age. Tannin from oak aging can help somewhat to stabilize color.
Although normally indistinct in aroma, when cultivated in temperate areas and cropped for quality, Barbera can exhibit an attractive ripe aroma of red fruit, currants or blackberries that can be enhanced by vanilla, smoky or toasty notes added by barrel aging. On the other hand, neutral aroma, high color and acidity are all good characteristics for blending with other grapes and this is how Barbera is most frequently used.
Most California Barbera is grown in the Central Valley and finds its way into generic or proprietary blends. The Sierra Foothills, Paso Robles, Santa Clara and Sonoma, where very warm days are moderated by cool nights, produce some of the state’s best varietal Barberas.