One of the most endearing – but also confounding – things about European red wine is the concept (some might call it puzzle) of what is commonly known as the “quality pyramid.”
In theory, this pyramid of wine classifications is meant to combine two concepts: 1) quality regulations regarding how the wine is made, and 2) indications of where the wine originates.
In practice, this pyramid can puzzle the hell out of the average wine lover. Why are the wines at the top more expensive than those at the bottom? If I like a wine in the middle, does that make me uncouth? And so on…
Maddeningly – but also luckily for red wine lovers – the puzzle of the quality pyramid becomes a downright riddle when you consider Barbera from Piemonte. It actually becomes more difficult to understand the pyramid when it applies to wines like Barbera. That’s because Monferrato and Piedmont are capable of producing high quality versions of that well-known grape across the entire “pyramid.”
Let’s break it down a bit, so we can make this whole thing look less like a scrambled Rubik’s cube, and more like a kid’s picture puzzle that’s only missing a piece or two (for a quick primer, it will help to have a look at our Pyramid of Quality article first).
Let’s start near the top with Barbera d’Asti.
Barbera d’Asti achieved official DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) status in 1970, and was promoted to DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) in 2008. According to the DOCG regulations, Barbera d’Asti red wine must be made before the first of March immediately following the grape harvest, must have an alcohol content of 11.5% or higher, and has to be made from a minimum of 90% Barbera grapes. If someone wants to produce a Barbera with the Nizza DOCG designation, then things get even more stringent. The wine must have be 13% or higher alcohol by volume, be 100% made from barbera grapes harvested in that small subregion, and be aged for at least eighteen months (six of which must be in barrels).
Now, let’s take a step “down” the pyramid a little bit. You can also have Barbera made under the Piemonte DOC, which stipulates that the wine must be a minimum of 85% Barbera from the region (which is larger than that specified for the Barbera d’Asti DOCG), and 11% alcohol, but there are no aging requirements.
See, it’s not too tough. As you go down the pyramid, you generally have larger production and grape-growing areas, with less stringent production requirements.
But here’s where things get tricky (sorry!). Because we are talking about Barbera from Piemonte and Monferrato here. We are talking about what is widely regarded as the area that grows the best Barbera grapes in all the world. So what does the “quality” part of the pyramid really mean in that context? For wine lovers, it means that the answer to the riddle, the missing piece of the puzzle, is Choice.
Given how versatile the Barbera grape is when it comes to making wine, the quality pyramid levels basically mean that we wine lovers have a lot of options for how we want to experience that wine. Are you on a budget, and looking for a wine that will play nice at the dinner table on a Tuesday night when you’re ordering a pizza, or whipping up some pasta with zesty tomato sauce? Piemonte DOC Barbera will fit that bill just about perfectly; it’s zesty, fresh, fruity, easy to drink, and ready to go as soon as it is released. In the mood for an authentic Italian meal, with a panoply of meats, sauces, breads, and veggies? Then it’s worth springing for a Barbera d’Asti DOCG wine; it will have deeper, darker, more robust fruit flavors, spicier aromas, and more complexity than the Piemonte DOC Barbera, but will still have the freshness that makes Barbera a good match for a wide range of foods (this also makes it an ideal Thanksgiving wine… but that’s another story for another day…).
If you’re going all-out for something special – beef, lamb, duck, and the powerful sauces and side dishes to match them – then Barbera from the Nizza DOCG is your best option. These wines will be richer, fuller, and more structured than their Barbera d’Asti DOCG counterparts, and usually with darker fruit flavors and more spice aromas. That additional structure will help them age gracefully in the bottle, too, which might be just the ticket if you’re looking for an affordable but also formidable wine as a gift for the boss, for example.
What the quality pyramid really means for Barbera in Piemonte and Monferrato isn’t that you’re somehow trading “down” if you don’t shell out for the wines at the tippy-top. And it doesn’t always mean that you’re getting a significant quality jump by shopping at the top of the pyramid (though it often can mean that). It means that you have a significant amount of options when it comes to your Barbera red wine, and most of them are really, really, really good. It means that you can explore the best instances of the full range of flavor and occasion diversity offered by this grape, without ever having to leave Northern Italy. It means that the wine gods have smiled on these Barbera vines in this place, and we get to reap the benefits.
In other words, it means that red wine lovers like you and I are just very, very lucky!