Thursday, March 28, 2013

For the Love of Barbera

This week on a Twitter conference, #SommChat, one of the guest speakers, John Ragan recommended wines for Spring. Barbera was one of them. One of the listeners tweeted, “Barbera is new to me. What is it? Is it sweet? Fruity? Dry? EXPENSIVE?”

When I first read it, I thought to myself, what? This person doesn’t know Barbera? Where have they been? I was in wine snob mode.

Then I thought to myself, “Here we are a bunch of wine professionals, sommeliers, etc., doing our wine speak, and this person who doesn’t know simply asked the question.”

Of course, the group sent her ideas, suggestions, told her a little about what Barbera is supposed to be. They were very supportive.

But it really got me to thinking about some Italian wine varietals and how underexposed they are to a large part of the wine drinking public. And that’s a darn shame, because there so many, sometimes too many, to choose from.

So, while it is still lent and I am still giving up Brunello (with all the anger and drama that is ensuing from Montalcino and Italy) for Lent, let’s fall into the arms of Barbera.

Last night I opened up a bottle of Bourgogne Rouge, 2008 to go with dinner. The wine lacked fruit; didn’t remind of the last time I had opened up that particular bottle, I gave it 15 minutes. Those minutes didn’t help it and dinner was almost ready.

I walked into the wine closet and pulled out a bottle of 2010 Bersano Barbera d’Asti “Costalunga”, a DOCG. What a difference. The wine immediately was open and ready with wet kisses. Why didn’t I just start with that wine?

I’ll tell you. I thought “I’m having such and such for dinner; I need to have a red Burgundy.” Really. I looked at the Barbera at first and thought, “Oh, that’s too simple, not important enough.” I really did.

How wrong was I? The Barbera delivered pleasure, forget about importance. It brought happiness. And how much more important can that be?

Our Barbera lady asked which ones she should be on the lookout for. She lives in Houston, so I did a little research on wines I know she would be able to find fairly easily. I also will suggest another wine which isn’t available in Houston, though it could be. If somebody wanted it. This is a wine that is already in a wholesale warehouse. It isn’t forbidden to be in Texas. Somebody just needs to need it. Transfer to a warehouse in Houston from Dallas is easy. Got it? Let me start with that one.
Bava Barbera d’Asti “Libera” – Roberto is a friend. His wines are simple, not jicked with. The Barbera is good slightly chilled, and very flexible with a wide range of foods. Texas BBQ works great with it, from pork ribs to extra moist beef brisket. Tomato dishes match well with this wine, lasagna, pasta with red sauce, with our without meatballs. Nice vales at around $14.00.

Marchesi di Gresy Barbera d’Asti is a little leaner. Higher acidity. A little pricklier. Folks who like Chinon reds might like this wine. I find the alcohol a little more restrained or tempered from the acidity. In any event, this wine settles down with salumi of all sorts. It can mingle with fish, not sole maybe, but definitely salmon or triggerfish, even. Pizza, of course, maybe with sausage, not too spicy. I have been enjoying this wine immensely. A little more expensive, over $20, but not much. These folks make wonderful Barbaresco and this is a good reference for their style of winemaking.

Pio Cesare Barbera d’Alba – well established winery, in the town of Alba. Pio Cesare has become famous in the last 40 years, for their Barolo and some of their modern wine blends. Pio Boffa makes no apologies for his love for Californian wine and technology. But the Barbera is reluctant to change its nature. The wine comes out hard, very serious. But with a few years on it, softens. I used to think Barbera d’Alba wines aged better than Barbera d’Asti. Now I’m not so dogmatic. What is different between the wines, generally, is that the Alba version can be a larger wine, more alcohol, more oak, more power, and sometimes more ageing. How much of that is winemaking, and not the grape? In the case of Piedmont, where they have been crisscrossing between active styling and passive recognition of inherent character, this has been a bit confusing for the consumer. The Pio Cesare wine is a solid bet; if you see it on a list in Des Moines, Iowa or Sugarland, Texas, it’s a good choice. Retail wise the wine hovers at the $25 mark, more or less.

Scarpetta Barbera Monferrato – This is collaboration between master sommelier Bobby Stuckey and his chef, Lachlan Patterson from Frasca in Boulder, Colorado. Much of what they make in Italy complements their Friulan based cooking, hence wines from Friuli. But this red from Piedmont, which they make with Fabrizio Iuli, takes the Barbera grape in another direction. What strikes me about this wine is how different it is from both the d’Asti and the d’Alba versions. The fruit is concentrated, almost a blueberry character. The wine is puckier and I mean that is an attribute, not a fault. If I were to put it on a light spectrum, this wine would register in the infrared sector. Not tannic, but definitely this wine compels one to find food, fast. A clever thing for the restaurant boys, as they will sell a lot of wine and food at the same time. But that aside, it has this uncomplicated structure to it, like a pair of really well made jeans that are well worn. Comfortable, but not compromising. I love this wine and at under $20 it’s a great find.

Damilano Barbera d’Asti – these folks set up shop in Barolo. They make a lot of good serviceable Nebbiolo. But their Barbera is a sleeper. It’s a charming wine, not loud and noisy, really kind of a mellow wine. Good healthy back bone, so the food aspect is part of the architecture of the wine. About $17 in the stores, if you find this on a wine list for under $50 order it, it will not disappoint. And while it is not a Barolo, I think it assumes a little of the attitude from the winemaking style and the contact in the cellar. It’s not Cannubi, but it is very lovable.

I mentioned at the beginning the Bersano Barbera d’Asti. Bersano has kicked around for years and has now been reinvigorated as a result of cutting their ties to the big spirit houses that ushered them into America many years ago. Now the family is back at the helm and the winemaking is going back to a more original philosophy. Barbera is not and never will be Nebbiolo. I know, mom liked Nebbiolo best. But there are plenty of us who have an abiding affection for this grape. Bersano seems to understand that, they stare at their roots in the mirror and don’t try and cover them up with modern solutions. The wine was delicious, so much better than the serious Burgundy I was trying to foist onto the meal. About $18.

Lastly, and I could go on with many more, but I will finish with one last winery – Vietti.
Vietti makes a lot of different Barbera wines, five that I know of. I’m going to talk about only one, the Barbera d’Asti “Tre Vigne.” I think that is a good starting point for Vietti (and ending point for this post) in that the wine is one I go to again and again for predictable pleasure. I love their Nebbiolo wines; their Perbacco Nebbiolo is a fabulous value. But sometimes Nebbiolo is just too much for the evening. Often when I get home from a long day, in the wine business, I just want something smooth and caressing but not too demanding. The “Tre Vigne” delivers that simple pleasure; not wishy-washy, just a fresh, spicy, honest glass of red wine to go with my meal. Right at, or around $20.

There you have is seven Barberas for seven brothers. Find one, take it home, love them. All week long.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Mike Dunne said...

They make Barbera in Italy? How long has this been going on? Must have lifted the idea from California. Speaking of which, since you will be in California the first week in June you might want to consider sticking around for Saturday's Barbera Festival, just 40 miles east of Sacramento. Around 80 wineries, all of them Californian, all of them making Barbera, are to pour. Would be fun to see your take on California Barbera and how it compares with interpretations in Italy.

Gary York said...

Barbera is just such a great wine. Easy with food. And many different styles, everyday wines and special occasions. Barbera can really do it all. And unless you try, you can't break the bank on Barbera.

Giacomo said...

Great post Alfonso!

I'll add two to the list that struck me as memorable.

1. Elio Perrone Tasmorcan Barbera D'Asti. This wine is pure pleasure. Such ripe, beautiful fruit offset by fresh but not aggressive acidity. Only had it once but I keep thinking about it.

2. Vietti Scarrone. So deep. So smokey. But damn expensive. Respect to Vietti for saving prime land for this plot of Barbera.

tom hyland said...

Nice group of Barbera, Alfonso. I am particularly fond of the Bersano "Costalunga" and have included a writeup about it in my new book "Beyond Barolo and Brunello."

I wrote that this wine "reminds us of what a typical Barbera d'Asti used to taste like back in the 1960s and '70s." It's a style I wish more producers would consider, instead of the super ripe, flashy examples so often praised these past few years by a few Italian wine gurus. Wine is, after all, about the pleasure of enjoying it with a meal!

Alfonso Cevola said...

Mike-Great idea!

thanks all, for your notes, ideas and shameless self-promotion :^)

Alfonso Cevola said...

thanks, Tom....

for those of you who are curious, Tom's book can be found here -


Gregory Graziano said...

As one of the older continuous producers of Barbera in California, since 1990, I have a great story about Barbera and Pio Boffa of Pio Cesare. In the early 90's I was pouring some of my Italian varietal wines for the buyer at the old Prego Restaurant in San Francisco. I could see signore Boffa a few tables away listening to me talk about my Barbera, Moscato, Nebbiolo etc. After my presentation he came over and introduced himself and asked if he could taste my wines, for he had no idea anyone was growing these varieties in California. After tasting through the wines, he was very gracious and complementary to them. After tasting the Monte Volpe Barbera, which was the label for my Barbera at the time, (it now called Enotria Barbera) he very enthusiastically stated “This is how we should be making Barbera”. I was very proud and thanked him for the great complement. We in California do a wonderful job with Barbera and I especially like his because it is full of fruit and well balanced somewhat similar to our wines.
Gregory Graziano
Graziano Family of Wines

Alfonso Cevola said...

thanks for the walk down memory lane, Greg.

I remember happily selling your wine in those days in Texas...

California Barbera can be quite nice too. Glad you guys and gals are making it.

Gary York said...

I know that Barbera is grown/made in california. And even in
Virginia. But I have yet to find one that has impressed me that didn't come from Alba, Asti and Monferrato. If you think about how good Barbera from Piedmont is, and the price, it is an easy choice.

Anonymous said...

Then why do the Italian ones get the same or lower scores than California on CT?

Alfonso Cevola said...

Maybe because people with American palates are doing the scoring? Do you really use CT as a gauge for which wines you will buy?

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