by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW
When people ask us what is the wine we drink the most, we unhesitatingly reply, "Barbera!" We love its fresh, lively taste, and we find it extremely compatible with food. Although the Barbera grape grows in many places around the world, including California, Argentina and even Mexico, the finest Barbera wines come from the Piedmont region of Italy, where Barbera originated.
Barbera is Italy’s second most-planted red grape variety, after Sangiovese, but nowhere is it more beloved than in Piedmont. Along with Dolcetto, Barbera is the wine the Piedmontese themselves consume the most. Although Barolo and Barbaresco, Piedmont’s two great Nebbiolo-based wines, are more internationally known, Barbera is a far more useful wine because it is less expensive than those great wines, and more versatile at the dinner table.
Barbera is a unique red grape variety. The skins are deeply pigmented, resulting in dark-colored wines, and the grape also has very high acidity, but practically no tannin. The wines are crisp and refreshing, rather like white wine, without the mouth-drying tannins of most red wines. But their flavors of berries and cherries along with spiciness clearly peg the wines as red. Barberas are not big reds; they are generally medium-bodied, and even in warm vintages that create high alcohol levels, the high acidity of the wines enables them to wear their alcohol well. Because these wines are not huge but do have racy acidity, they pair well with today’s foods. For example, we don’t know any wine that goes better with tomato-based dishes—whether it be pasta, pizza or whatever—than Barbera.
Different Zones, Different Wines
All of the best Barberas come from southeast Piedmont, around the towns of Alba, Asti and Alessandria. Three Barbera appellations exist, all from contiguous zones: Barbera d’Alba, Barbera d’Asti, and Barbera del Monferrato. We don’t see much Barbera del Monferrato here in the States, even though the Barbera grape is thought to have originated in the Monferrato hills, which stretch from the province of Asti east into Alessandria province. For example, when we gathered Barberas to taste for this column, we found only Barbera d’Alba and Barbera ‘d Asti wines.
Generally speaking, there is a distinct difference between Alba and Asti Barberas, even though their zones are next to each other. Barbera d’Alba, grown in the same fairly warm south-facing hillsides that produce Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as around those two districts, tends to be fuller-bodied and rounder, with slightly less acidity than Barbera d’Asti, and generallhas darker fruit aromatics. The Asti zone, north of Alba, is best known for sparkling wines (Asti and Moscato d’Asti) along with Barbera. The typical Barbera d’Asti is lighter-bodied and livelier with tarter fruit flavors and more acidity than most Barbera d’Albas. Of course, Barbera d’Asti wines made from old vines and aged in barriques can be as full-bodied as any Barbera d’Alba. We always used to favor Barbera d’Alba, but the Asti Barberas have improved so much in quality lately that we have begun to crave their racy, lively style even more than the Alba Barberas.
How the Styles Differ
Barbera today falls into two basic styles (with some producers in the middle between these two styles): the traditional style, which uses little or no small-barrel aging, and the more modern—we could say, more international—style, which feature French-oak aging for the wines. Regardless of the style, a signature characteristic of a good Barbera wine is vibrancy of aroma and flavor.
Wines in the traditional style tend to be lighter-bodied and crisper. Wines in this style go particularly well with simple tomato-based pastas or pizza or fresh tomato dishes. Some of these wines include:
• Vietti, Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne or Barbera d’Alba Tre Vigne
• Marchesi di Gresy Barbera d’Asti
• Icardi Barbera d’Asti
• Marcarini d’Alba Ciabot
• Coppo Barbera d’Asti l’Avvocata
• Giacomo Conterno Barbera d’Alba (over $20 retail, but high quality)
• Borgogno Barbera d’Alba
• Marchesi di Barolo Barbera d’Alba Ruvei
• Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti Le Orme
The relatively new barrique-aged Barbera wines have more weight; they are fine with beef and other meat entrées, as well as meaty tomato sauces such as a classic ragu. Wines in this style that we recommend include:
• Vietti Barbera d’Asti La Crena
• Vietti Barbera d’Alba Scarrone or Scarrone Vigna Vecchia
• Coppo Barbera d’Asti Camp du Rouss
• Prunotto Barbera d’Asti Costamiole
Barbera wines age well, up to 15 years or more. The currently available vintage, 2004, is excellent. Both 2001 and 1999 are also very good. We enjoy drinking Barbera slightly cool, out of large, round, Burgundy-type glasses with apple-shaped bowls.
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