In its native Italy, Barbera is the third-most-planted red wine grape — after Sangiovese and Montepulciano — but here in the Northwest, it isn’t much more than a niche variety.
But interest in the bright, rich red variety is beginning to grow as winemakers and consumers begin to stretch their imaginations and exploration of wines beyond Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Barbera is most often associated with the Piedmont region, which is in the northwestern corner of Italy. In Piedmont, Barbera is grown alongside Nebbiolo and Dolcetto.
It ultimately is made into an approachable wine with lots of rich, ripe fruit backed by ample acidity and modest to low tannins. This makes Barbera a perfect accompaniment to tomato-based Italian dishes such as pizza, lasagna, linguine and spaghetti and meatballs.
Barbera has been proven to grow well in a diversity of regions, and it certainly has found a comfortable home in the Northwest, particularly in the warm and arid Columbia Valley of Eastern Washington. The dry, sunny conditions appear to be ideal, and the handful of winemakers who work with the grape find it creates delicious, food-friendly and crowd-pleasing wines.
Here are five superb examples of Barbera, all from Washington and Oregon wineries. Each won a gold medal at the third annual Great Northwest Wine Competition, which was staged in March at the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River. They are made in small amounts, so ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.
Lady Hill Winery 2013 Red Willow Vineyard Procedo Barbera, Columbia Valley, $25: Lady Hill Winery is in the Willamette Valley town of St. Paul, Ore., and it brings in grapes from throughout the Northwest. This luscious Barbera comes from highly touted Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley and is crafted by winemaker Erik Brasher. Aromas of black cherry, cola and minerality give way to flavors of blackberry and boysenberry. Mild tannins provide just enough grip to create the perfect structure.
Coyote Canyon Winery 2012 Barbera, Horse Heaven Hills: $26: Mike Andrews owns this small winery in Prosser, and these grapes come from estate vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills. This expression of the racy Italian grape offers aromas of plump red and purple fruit, followed by luscious flavors of blackberry, Bing cherry, sarsaparilla and a vein of minerality. Its mild tannins make this beautifully approachable.
Cathedral Ridge Winery 2013 Bolton Vineyard Reserve Barbera, Columbia Valley, $48: This young wine from a top Columbia Gorge producer in Hood River uses grapes from near Dallesport. The resulting wine opens with complex aromas of minerality, plump dark fruit and a hint of dark chocolate, followed by round, luscious flavors of espresso, blackberry cobbler and a touch of French vanilla.
Mt. Hood Winery 2012 Barbera, Columbia Valley, $28: Winemaker Rich Cushman crafts the wines for this Hood River producer. It opens with notes of cherry reduction sauce, sarsaparilla, horehound and slate. On the palate, it offers flavors of plush Rainier cherry, round pomegranate and ripe red plum. Mild tannins make this a delicious wine to enjoy now.
Cascade Cliffs Vineyard & Winery 2013 Barbera, Columbia Valley, $60: Longtime Columbia Gorge winemaker Bob Lorkowski is known for producing superb reds in boutique amounts, and this beautiful Barbera is another great example. It opens with aromas of elegant spices, ripe raspberry and a sprinkling of cocoa powder. On the palate, it offers flavors of Rainier cherry, black raspberry and pomegranate. Racy acidity provides ample structure, and this is a perfect wine to enjoy with rich Italian dishes.