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Barbera d'Alba
Barbera d'Alba is the DOC established in 1970 to cover Barbera produced around Alba in the same zones that produce Barolo and Barbaresco. In practice Barbera here is planted on the less favorable sites than Nebbiolo, but Barbera is increasingly treated as an important wine in its own right. Nearly 4,000 valuable acres are devoted to production of Barbera in Alba and that yields an average of 860,000 cases per year.

It wasn't all that long ago that the Barbera grape was the poor cousin in Piedmont. Barolo and Barbaresco, made from the Nebbiolo grape, were accorded noble status, revered locally and fashionable abroad. Nebbiolo required the best vineyards in order to ripen fully, but sluttish Barbera would grow just about anywhere.

For the grower it is a dream grape variety, not especially site-sensitive, routinely giving generous crops, good color, and zesty acidity. It is the workhorse grape of Piedmont, accounting for 80 percent of plantings 50 years ago, and even today half its vineyards are planted with Barbera.

Yet suddenly Barbera is in fashion. It took the acumen of one man, Giacomo Bologna of the Braida estate, to take the varietal seriously. I went to see him in 1985 and enjoyed his barrique-aged, single-vineyard Barbera "Bricco dell'Uccellone," not quite realizing that it was becoming a cult wine, a role model for all other serious Barberas to admire. Bologna, visibly fond of his food, died young, alas, but his work, as far as Barbera was concerned, was done.

The recognition of Barbera as worthy of something more than carafe-wine status is comparable to the transformation of Zinfandel in California in the 1970s, when Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards and Joseph Swan in Sonoma County rescued it from its lowly status. Zinfandel is now securely reinstated, and so is Barbera.

Recently, the producers of Barbera summoned wine writers from around the world to a "Barbera Meeting" in order to taste the recent vintages, acclaimed as some of the finest of the decade. In a triumph of good sense over regional rivalry, the growers of two different regions, Asti and Alba, joined forces to show their wines.

Almost 100 wines were tasted blind each day, and it soon became apparent that there is no such thing as a typical Barbera. It is as multi-faceted as, well, Zinfandel. Although nobody has yet invented a "White Barbera," there is fizzy Barbera, which can be better than it sounds. As for the dry wines, they range from fresh, fruity, and perky to dense, chocolatey, and powerful.

Debate raged over the appropriate style for Barbera, but the fact that it strolls down the catwalk of the palate in a variety of costumes is surely no bad thing. On a summer's day, a lively young Barbera is a perfect accompaniment to a plate of antipasti before lunch; at dinner, a richer, fruitier, oak-tinged Barbera is just the ticket with grilled beef or lamb chops in a red-wine sauce.

Barbera is marked by its naturally high acidity, which makes it an excellent match with rich foods and potentially aggressive without them.

There are regional variations among Barberas. Many Barberas from the Alba region are weighty and rich, befitting a region also responsible for Barolo. Some, however, are clearly afterthoughts for the grower.

In Alba the Nebbiolo grape has captured the best sites, leaving Barbera and Dolcetto on the less favored slopes. In Asti, where Nebbiolo is largely absent, Barbera takes pride of place, so much so that Boffa, and many other growers, release separate bottlings from single vineyards that were planted in the 1930s or 1950s, vineyards that give wines of superb concentration.

Overall, it's Asti that gives the most satisfying range of wines, whereas Alba, as far as Barbera is concerned, is a region of extremes: powerful, extracted, structured wines at best, and piercingly acidic and scarcely drinkable at their worst.