Barbera d’Alba Serragrilli
Barbera is a dark-skinned red grape variety found in several Italian wine regions, including its native Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, Puglia, Campania and even the island regions, Sicily and Sardinia. At the turn of the 21st Century, it was Italy’s third most commonly planted red wine grape, after Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Barbera grapes are used both in blended wines and varietals – the latter are becoming increasingly common as Italy continues its move towards varietal labelling.
Barbera (like so many Italian wine grape varieties) has ancient origins, although it has only been traceably documented since the 17th century. It was first cited in an official document in 1798, by Count Giuseppe Nuvolone-Pergamo of Scandaluzzo, deputy director of the Società Agraria di Torino (Agrarian Society of Turin). The count is credited with creating the first definitive list of Piedmont’s wine grape varieties. Barbera-based wines were well regarded even then, for their rustic yet generous character. They and were a favourite among Savoyard army officers, who considered the wine a “sincere companion”, which helped them maintain their courage in battle.
The variety has travelled widely in the past two centuries, landing in Australia, Argentina and California, most likely following Italian migration patterns. It has this in common with Nebbiolo, although Barbera has adapted much more readily to these new environments than its fussy Piedmontese cousin, and is now responsible for wines of high quality in each of these countries. As with Nebbiolo, there is considerable debate over how Barbera is best treated; traditionalist favour longer maceration and less oak, while modernists champion rounder, more approachable styles softened by barrel maturation.
Being naturally high in acidity, Barbera can be grown in warmer climates without producing overblown, flat wines. Even warmer sites in Sonoma Valley and the Sierra Foothills of California have produced balanced Barbera-based wines. This acidity complements the cherry flavours found in typical Barbera wines, and has contributed to the (largely justified) stereotype of Italian red wines as being ripe, bright and tangy rather than voluptuous and earthy.
When young, most Barbera wines have a bright-red cherry character, distinguished from Nebbiolo (which often overshadows Barbera) by softer tannins and certain roundness. When matured in barrel and allowed to age in bottle for a few years, this turns to a denser, sour-cherry note. A warm Merlot-like plumminess is also commonly detectable, although the variety is more closely related to Mourvedre than Merlot. When overheated, a Barbera vine will produce comparatively flat, dull wines with notes of baked prunes and raisins, while its trademark cherry flavours turn towards kirsch.
Barbera reaches its zenith in Piedmont (see Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba), where the vine performs particularly on well-drained, limestone-rich slopes with a warm southerly aspect.
Since the end of the nineteenth century the land of Collina Serragrilli has been farmed by four generations of the same family. From the days when grapes were sold in vats, and wine in bulk in barrels loaded onto ox-drawn carts, the business has been passed down from father to son. Today it is run with integrity and enterprise by the latest generation of the Lequio family with the help of their husbands and in-laws, whose background is also in wine. Grandfather and great-grandfather were noted local vignerons who left behind vineyards of the highest quality, and the winery remains at the forefront of winegrowing in the area.
All the vinification and storage procedures take place on the ground floor in order to facilitate operations. The winery is fitted out with the finest in winemaking equipment, and is fully temperature controlled. By choice, no use is ever made of concentration or reverse osmosis, which could affect the wines’ properties and taste. In the area given over to storage there are small and medium-sized barrels. The red wines mostly age in barriques (holding 225 litres), tonneaux (500 litres) and 1000-litre casks, all strictly made of French Allier oak. Larger 20 and 25-hectolitre casks made of Slavonian and Allier oak are used for the aging of the traditional-style Barbaresco, while the “Serragrilli” cru matures in barriques and tonneaux. Finally, there is the so-called “barricaia”, or barrique cellar, which is to be found underground where the Lequio family used to produce wine a century ago. Here the humidity and temperature are ideal not only for storing the wine, but also for preserving the wood of the barriques and tonneaux, ensuring that no gaps appear between the staves and result in the loss of wine. The barriques have a lifespan of only 4 years, after which they are replaced. This makes the ageing process extremely costly, but the results are truly exceptional.