Barbera is like a clue, a cipher left in crabby, penciled writing on parchment grown brown and wrinkled. Like the iconic drifter who saves the town, no one is sure where Barbera came from. Its genetics indicate that it may have been introduced to Italy in the 1600s, but it also may be otherworldly enough that it comes, instead, from a sub-species of the grapes we know. Others say that Barbera was highly regarded in the Northwestern part of Italy, its potential birthplace, in the 1300s. This story tells of its deep color and balance of acid and sugar and that it was a staple wine throughout Italy, adorning royal tables in cities all over Italy.
Barbera made its way to California when representatives of the US Agriculture department were sent to Italy in the 1870s to acquire as many different grapes as they could, and from the average immigrant who brought with him to a new country something from the old, from home…something familiar and protective.
Prone to high natural acidity, Barbera found a home in many regions of California from cool coastal vineyards to the warmest inland sites where that abundant acidity added vitality to wines whose freshness had been leached away by profligate sun.
Barbera has found an auspicious home in the Livermore Valley where the combination of metered day-time sun gives way, early in the afternoon, to cold San Francisco Bay wind that serves to aid in the retention of moisture in the plant and malic acid in the grapes.
The Steven Kent Winery made its first Barbera in 2001 and sister brand, Mia Nipote, began using fruit from the Home Ranch vineyard in the center of the Livermore Valley appellation, in 2016. Both of these offerings are throw-backs to the wines of the Old Country in their acid-laden, rusticly-beautiful, dried-fruit flavors, pace through the mouth, and spice-tinged earthiness.
I have had the good fortune to recently drink Barbera that is 10-15 years old and, unlike many wines that see their best days when they are adolescents, the Italian just becomes more interesting and delicious.
Barbera’s affinity to food is profound too. Given its moderate weight and tannin (and its ubiquitous acidity), its pairs gorgeously with all kinds of pasta dishes, grilled meat, and well-spiced vegetarian fare. On a trip to Barolo in 2019, we had both the native Nebbiolo and Barbera with a signature pasta dish Tajarin with butter and hazelnuts. The Barbera cut through the richness of the egg-yolk-laden pasta while underscoring the beautiful flavors of the individual ingredients. Delicious!
Fewer than 200 cases of Barbera are made each year, and this variety has proven to be one of the historic club favorites for members of Steven Kent’s Collector’s Circle wine club and is finding new fans at Mia Nipote as well.