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Definitely a Food Wine: A Blind Tasting of Barbera

The other day, I was talking with my friend Charlie about when our next panel tasting would be. "I enjoyed the last tasting," he said. "I think the esteemed panel should reconvene, and taste some reds." 

I hastily agreed, and set out to plan the next panel tasting. Originally, I had thought that it would be a good idea to celebrate Cabernet Day with a panel tasting focusing on Cabernet. However, with Cabernet Day taking place on August 30th, right before the Labor Day holiday, interest for a tasting was not at a peak, so I elected to postpone the panel tasting until after Labor Day, and celebrate Cabernet Day with a quiz on Cabernet

However, Charlie was still keen on the idea of doing a tasting. "We could do a small tasting on Wednesday night," I suggested.

Our small selection of Barbera

"Sounds good to me," Charlie replied.

When I texted Charlie on Wednesday to ask what he wanted to taste that night, he wasn't tremendously specific. "Dry, light-bodied reds," was his response.

Thinking that I'd certainly had more vague and nebulous requests for wine recommendations, I asked Charlie if he thought Nebbiolo, Gamay, Pinot Noir, or Barbera sounded like grapes he'd want to explore.

"They all sound good," he offered. "Let's do all of them."

When I told him I wanted to focus on just one grape for the tasting, Charlie became decisive. "Barbera?" he proposed. "I have no idea what it is actually."

That response got me interested. Introducing someone to a new grape varietal? That's something I'm always up for. I have no idea why, but I love educating people, and exposing them to new things. It doesn't matter if it's a new song, a new sport, a new food, a new wine, I'm always eager to share things I like with others. In retrospect, that's probably a big part of what drove me to start this website, so if you're been reading, I hope you've picked up something new along the way.

Barbera is the most widely planted grape in Italy's Piedmont region, accounting for more than 50% of all plantings there. Along with Dolcetto, Barbera is generally consumed as an everyday table wine by the people of the Piedmont. Because they are not subject to the DOC aging restrictions that are imposed on the great Nebbiolo-based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, Dolcetto and Barbera are generally thought of as wines that are consumed while producers of  Barolo and Barbaresco wait for those wines to mature. However, this is not to say that the Barbera grape is incapable of producing world class wines, nor is it to suggest that a simple Barbera d'Alba cannot offer a tremendously pleasureable experience at the dinner table.

Barbera is a grape that is easily influenced by the effects of its climate, and various winemaking techniques (e.g. oak vs. steel aging, fruit extraction, etc.). On one end of the spectrum, Barbera can be lithe, light-bodied, with bright-cherry flavors, a slight earthiness, and sharp acidity. On the other end of the spectrum, Barbera can be rich, full and plush, with flavors of sour cherry and kirsch liqueur, and muted acidity. When we cracked open our bottles last Thursday, we encountered examples of both of these characterizations, but overall, found that Barbera is certainly a safe bet when shopping for wine, as well as an excellent value.

Barbera is native to the Monferrato hills, near the town of Asti, in Italy's Piedmont region. It is commonly found in three DOC zones within Piedmont - Barbera d'Alba, Barbera d'Asti, and Barbera del Monferrato. However, it is also found in lesser known Piedmontese DOCs such as Rubino, Gabiano, and Colli Tortonesi, as well as in the Oltrepo Pavese region of Lombardi, and Colli Piacentini in Emilia-Romagna. Other countries and wine making regions (notably California) have experimented with Barbera, but itis most at home in its native Italy.

Given the hastily organized nature of this tasting, we decided to limit ourselves to wines that would be commonly available. Charlie and I met at Cheese Trader's in South Burlington, as it was the wine shop closest to our work locations. Upon meeting, we selected four Barberas from the 2010 vintage, ranging in price from $11.99 to $14.99 per bottle. As opposed to focusing on a particular DOC zone, we opted for a broad spectrum of wines, and chose the following bottles:

Later that evening, Charlie and I reconvened at my home to taste the wines. We tasted the wines blind, and were joined by my girlfriend, my roommate, and my roommate's girlfriend. All four of the bottles were well received by the tasting panel, although the difference in styles between our four wines was quite pronounced. Our first wine, the 2010 Damilano Barbera d'Asti was light-bodied, with piercing acidity, and notes of red cherry, that were accented by a slight earthiness. "I could definitely see myself eating this with a pasta Bolognese," I announced to the group.

My sentiments regarding the wine were echoed by other tasters. However, our second wine, the 2010 Cantine Valpene "Rosso Pietro" Barbera del Monferrato, from the portfolio of renowned importer Kermit Lynch, was nothing like the first. The acidity was muted, and the nose had a powerful aroma of sour cherry and kirsch-liqueur. It was plush, almost jammy. "This is definitely a wine I'd pair with a steak," I found myself saying. "I mean, you could pair it with a pasta dish, and it would go well, but it would really compliment an Italian seasoned steak beautifully. With its lower acidity, and richness, it's really begging for meat." 

Not everyone in attendance was ready to agree with me, saying that they still would pair it with pasta, but they did concur that this plusher style of Barbera had appeal for pairing with steak.

Each of our final two wines demonstrated a similar, but less extreme flavor profile than those we had seen in the first two wines. Our third wine was 2010 Pico Maccario "Lavignone" Barbera d'Asti. It was fresh and bright, brimming with red cherry flavors, but lacked the earthiness and acidity of the 2010 Damilano Barbera d'Asti. It was very soft on the palate, almost like a gentle, subtle kiss. I expressed disappointment though, that it lacked any defining acidity or richness. We found it pleasant, but it was my least favorite of the wines. Reactions from the rest of the tasting panel were mixed, with some expressing a definite preference for this more subdued style, and others appreciating it, but finding another of the wines to be better suited to their palate.

Meanwhile, the final wine, the 2010 Scagliola "Mati" Barbera Piemonte, demonstrated a plush style, but was not as rich and full-bodied as the second wine. It had a more pronounced acidity than the 2010 Cantine Valpene "Rosso Pietro" Barbera del Monferrato, and the aromas and flavors were more reminiscent of black cherry than sour cherry. This was the panel's favorite wine, although it should be noted that all of the wines were well received, and were deemed them both good wines, and good values. After revealing the identities of the wines, we reflected on the tasting while consuming the rest of the bottles. As we talked about what we had liked and disliked in the wines, one of the tasters piped up. "You know," he said, "what I like about these wines, is that I could buy a whole bunch of them, and be happy with the result. They're not so expensive that I can't afford to drink them everyday, and they have a range of styles. I can definitely see myself buying a bottle like one of these, coming home, and pouring myself a glass while I cook dinner. I'd be happy with that."

Barbera can be a chameleon in terms of its character, its vast range of styles influenced by everything from geography, to winemaking practices. Although our tasting focused on Barbera in the twelve to fifteen dollar range, it is worth remembering that Barbera can easily approach the upper ranges of the price spectrum. These world-class wines, such as the Quorum Barbera, or Braida de Bologna's Bricco dell'Ucellone, are likely to be more structured, more densely fruity, and more intensely oaked than the wines seen in our tasting. However, they are not wines you are likely to drink every day. While the Barberas we tasted were not tremendously complex, they are wines perfectly suited for everyday drinking, particularly as a companion to dinners, such as red sauce pastas, herb-rubbed steaks, hamburgers, and pizza. At the end of the day, the panel agreed, these Barberas were a welcome option as an everyday table wine.

"I have to be honest," Charlie said as the evening drew to a close. "I didn't know what Barbera was before this evening. But this is a wine that I'd feel good about picking up for ten to fifteen dollars, taking it home, and knowing I was going to enjoy it with dinner."

I had to agree with Charlie. I've always been a fan of Barbera, but his assessment of the grape after trying it for the first time made me see Barbera in a new light. Despite Barbera being the most widely planted red grape in the Piedmont, many American consumers aren't familiar with it. Because of this, it's not a wine that retailers have to worry about stocking in mass quantities. Therefore, it's a safe assumption that if you encounter a wine shop with a sizeable selection of Barbera, it's a selection that has been carefully assembled by someone who's a fan of the grape. Moreover, because Barbera isn't as commonly requested as wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, or Chianti, there's less of a chance that you're going to encounter a Barbera that has been carelessly produced for the sake of making a quick dollar. 

The varied styles of Barbera can make selecting one someone akin to rolling the dice, as in the lower price tiers, there is nothing to indicate whether you'll encounter a bottle that is rich and plush, or one that is tart and earthy. However, if you're able to indicate the style of wine that you're looking for, a good wine retailer can help you find a style that suits your taste quite easily. But if you're left alone to decide on a Barbera, don't despair. Both styles have their merits, and are unquestionably worthy of having a place at the table.


Reader Comments (1)

That's a solid line up of barbera. The Cantine Valpane and Scagliola "Mati" are personal favorites. I particularly like the rigid vein of acidity that props up the fruit of Scagliola "Mati". It keeps the wine bright while yielding enough on the mid palate to allow depth to the fruit flavors. Great article.

September 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Kelley

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