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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Barbera - The Most Versatile Red Wine Of Them All

Way up in the northwest of Italy is the region of Piedmont where a late-ripening grape called Barbera dominates the vine plantings. Nebbiolo gets all the glory but Barbera is truly the unsung hero. California has had great success with Barbera and I hear Mexico is growing it too. Here's some history of the grape and why it may make the most versatile red wine of them all.

Home Grown (California), Michele Chiarlo (Piedmont), Fiulot (Piedmont)

You've probably heard of Barolo. It's called THE KING OF WINE! (insert French horn royal entrance here) It's made from the Nebbiolo grape, which is highly tannic and highly acidic so it makes pretty much the most ageable and expensive wines out there. There's also Barbaresco, made from Nebbiolo as well but arguably a bit softer. They both taste like cranberry juice and tar, which is a good thing if you can believe that.

Barolo and Barbaresco are actually sub-regions within the Italian region of Piedmont (pictured here in red), surrounded by the Alps, Appenines and Po Valley. As famous as those other two wines from this area are, there's another red wine that is on all the dinner tables of Piedmont instead... and it's called Barbera (bar-bear-ah). That's the name of the grape as well as the wine it makes.

For the longest time the grape growers of Piedmont would decide on where to plant Nebbiolo by observing where the snow melted first on the slopes, and then plant Barbera everywhere else. It was the table wine. The wine the grape growers, winemakers and locals would drink while they exported and made the big bucks on Nebbiolo. It's still kind of that way, but Barbera is now planted in better spots than it used to be, seeing better care, and it's doing pretty friggin well on its own out there on the international market.

Most say Barbera originated in Piedmont but there's some evidence that it may have come from Lombardy (the bordering region to the east). Officially the credit belongs to Piedmont because the earliest known documentation of the grape says so. Hard to argue with that.


For starters... the color is fucking amazing. Ruby just doesn't get more ruby, and there's these vibrant violet highlights on the edges. It's a pleasure just to look at.

You can drink Barbera alongside almost any food. You can drink it just by itself whether in the heat of the summer or in the cold of the winter. You can drink it in a box with a fox or in a chimney chute with a prostitute. So what makes it so versatile? There's a couple of reasons.

Barbera's low in tannin. As I explained in my last blog (The Chemistry between us... and wine) tannin will actually change your saliva by decreasing viscosity and increasing friction, leaving the inside of your mouth to chafe against itself without its natural lubricant. So Barbera is not nearly as astringent as a powerhouse Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, where you may need to coat your mouth by eating cheese or refresh it by drinking water to take the edge off and avoid completely drying out your mouth (although water is always a good idea when drinking alcohol for hydration, and cheese is always a good idea in any situation). It just goes down easy with no porcupine pricklies.

It's pretty high in acid. Acid actually cleanses your pallet, which is why it's clearly present in all "food wines". It leaves you craving another taste of the food you're stuffing your gullet with. Acid will also make you salivate, and the chemical reaction to saliva is pretty important for getting flavors from food. You really can't get anything from a saliva-deprived mouth so that acidity enhances your eating experience on a pretty big scale. Chianti is also high in acid and one of the greatest food wines of all time, but I can't friggin stand that stuff without food. It needs the accompaniment of a meal or else it's just too acidic and tart for a red. That doesn't sound too versatile to me.

It's fruit-forward with dark berries and raspberries and plums. This is what makes it great on its own. If you take an earthy or subtle wine and put it up against a fruit-forward wine the general public will almost always prefer the fruity wine because it's giving out the most immediate satisfaction without the addition of something else. Of course, if they had to judge it with food the outcome would probably be reversed.

The Italian Barbera's do have more of a dried herb and mint quality than the American ones but that big, dark fruit is still extremely profound.

It can be meaty. This is the x-factor where the true versatility comes in. This is how a low-tannin red can stand up to a bad-ass steak. This means there's concentration, fleshiness and structure. In simpler terms: it's rich. Pinot Noir lacks tannin and has high acidity like Barbera but by no means is it meaty. Pinot Noir is quite delicate so you want to pair it with delicate foods. Barbera can take care of a delicate appetizer and continue right along to the ribeye main course without blinking.

When you combine all of these things, Barbera simply has everything it needs to go with anything or nothing at all. I actually believe it's the perfect red with Mexican food when you give it a slight chill. Chimichanga's anyone?


Here's my absolute favorite part: it's affordable as all hell. It'll start around $12 for a quality bottle and you shouldn't have to pay more than $20 for a killer bottle.

The most common Barbera's from Piedmont that you'll find are Barbera d'Asti and Barbera d'Alba, which translates to Barbera of Asti and Barbera of Alba respectively. I'm sure you've heard of Asti Spumante, right? Well Asti is yet another region within Piedmont known for its Moscato-based sparkling, frizzante and still wines. Alba is known for its Nebbiolo and white truffles. They make quite a bit of Barbera in both Asti and Alba, and if your local wine shop doesn't carry at least one of them then they need a good smack on the face, quite honestly. You may also be able to find Barbera from other northern Italian regions outside of Piedmont such as Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna.

California Barbera is widely available as well. It was brought to the states by Italian immigrants in the 19th century and has been a jug wine contributor in Central Valley for ages, but only since the 1990's has it been taken seriously. The best ones come from the cooler areas within Napa and Sonoma. Because of the warmer weather they tend to be more New World style (obviously) than their Piedmontese siblings.

Other Barbera producing areas include Slovenia, Mexico, Mendonza (Argentina), and Victoria (Australia). If you actually find those wines available to purchase then I am one jealous son of a bitch.

Go out and give Barbera some love, if only because Barbera loves you. And isn't it all about the love, people?

- Joey Casco, CSW
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