As summer approached last year, we wrote about a few good warm-weather wines. That brought a note from Philip Davidson of New York City, who said, in effect, “Hey, don’t forget Barbera,” the juicy red most famously from the Piedmont region of Italy, where its unusual combination of low tannins and good acidity make it a mealtime delight. So, this year we got back to Davidson and asked, “Hey, what’s so special about Barbera for summer?”
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
“I call Barbera ‘The Happy Wine’,” he replied. “This wine just makes me smile. It has so much adaptability to the broad gamut of summer foods. Depending on the label and shipper, it works with light-to-medium to even heavier red meats. I particularly love it with hamburgers and chicken right off the grill. It works well with chicken salads and meat salads. I have no hesitation using it with freshly grilled steaks. My preference is to drink Barbera ever so lightly chilled. Sitting on the patio and enjoying the sensation is immeasurable.”
With those words fresh in our minds, we visited an informal Italian restaurant and ordered a Barbera. It was Il Maestro 2005 Barbera d’Asti and it cost $22 (around Rs950). The wine was so charming, easy and hunger-inducing that John immediately asked the waitress to bring us a plate of olives and provolone cheese. The pairing was marvellous and life-affirming.
A week later, at a fancier Italian restaurant, we ordered another Barbera: Scagliola “Frem” 2005 Barbera d’Asti, which was $38. This was equally good, but different — sleeker, more structured, with darker tastes, yet still with the same earthiness and core of lemony acidity. It paired beautifully with Dottie’s veal shanks, but the big surprise was how well it also matched John’s grilled swordfish. How many wines could dance with both?
So, of course, we decided to conduct a broad, blind tasting to check out the current state of the two best-known Barberas, Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti.
While Piedmont is known for Barolo and Barbaresco, people there drink Barbera as an everyday treat. Over the years, we have written about and recommended quite a few Barberas from Piedmont because, like Davidson, we find them fun, easy to pair with food and very real. Their earthiness and acidity, combined sometimes with a charming rustic roughness, make any meal seem like an Italian feast. In general — very general — we have found over the years that the wines from Alba have more heft, power and richness than the livelier, fruitier and more acidic Barberas from Asti, the larger of the two zones (Barbera d’Alba, by the way, must contain 100% Barbera, while Barbera d’Asti may contain up to 15% Freisa, Grignolino or Dolcetto).
We also have found in the past that there are other stylistic variations of Barberas on shelves that aren’t region-specific. We found this time that the trend has continued. Much like our accidental tasting at the two Italian restaurants, where both wines were from Asti, there are delightfully simple, gulp-now Barberas and there are far more serious, richer, more structured Barberas, made from choicer parcels of land and treated to expensive oak. Not all of them on either end are successes. While on the one hand, some of the more informal Barberas are so lemony and simple that they taste bitter and slightly harsh, on the other, some of the more serious Barberas are far too ripe and oaky, tending toward heavy and losing the core of lemony acidity that makes Barbera special.
Fortunately, most of the wines in our tasting were lovely in their own way and there was a way to tell them apart: price. Overall, the wines from both regions that cost around $20 or less were the charmers, wine that could take a slight chill and would be great with barbecued chicken. The wines that were more expensive had more layers of flavour, richer tastes, more body. They’re steak wines. Consider these notes: “Serious wine. Structure and sleekness (a combination of smooth and racy). Really can stand up to fine Bordeaux in the class department. Not afraid to be grapey (especially blackberries) and lemony, but still with plenty of layers and real power. Big yet balanced. Tastes expensive.” This turned out to be Vietti “Scarrone” 2005 from Alba. This is one of our long-time favourite producers of Barbera and trust us: At around $40, this wine is a good value.
Our best value was also Vietti — “Tre Vigne” Barbera d’Asti. It’s interesting how the two Viettis showed the different sides of Barbera, with the “Scarrone” from Alba full-bodied (it got 16 months of oak) and the “Tre Vigne” from Asti lighter on its feet (it’s from young vines and has got 12 months of oak). In both cases, though, they tasted like real fruit, with loads of life and zingy acidity. The importer, Remy Cointreau USA of New York City, says Vietti made 800 cases of “Scarrone,” of which 350 cases were imported into the US, and 7,000 cases of “Tre Vigne,” of which 5,000 cases were imported. They’re available in 36 states.
When we went back and checked our notes from our tasting, the most surprising result was that while many of our long-time favourites were good — names such as Prunotto, Michele Chiarlo, Pio Cesare and Mauro Veglio — they were outshone by some of the little guys. For instance, Agostino Pavia and Figli “Blina” is a terrific deal at $13.99 and, while we bought it from a retail shelf with the rest of our wines, it turns out that the winery made only 1,100 cases of this Barbera and only 275 cases were imported. Bottom line: Quite a few merchants across the country are passionate about Italian wine, so find one, ask for a special, small-production Barbera and you’re likely in for a treat.
Some US wineries make Barbera, too, of course. One of our first loves — and, as far as we can tell, a first love among many of our readers — was the Barbera made by Louis Martini in California. Martini no longer makes Barbera and, in fact, California’s Barbera acreage is shrinking—down from 11,000 acres in 1997 to 7,500 acres in 2007. The wineries that make it now, in general, produce a small amount. But we found enough for a small sample and tasted them blind, just because we were curious. What we found was that too many American wineries make Barbera into a big, clunky wine that’s not very pleasant, lacks the charm of the Italian version — and is often higher priced to boot. In our tasting, the best was Unti Vineyards 2006, from a cute little winery in the Dry Creek Valley ($24.99). It tasted like real Barbera, which meant it was time to bring on the olives and cheese.
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