Ask a veteran wine lover, wine writer or critic what their favorite wine is and usually you’ll receive a thoughtful, but measured, response. “Oh, it depends on what I’m having for dinner,” is a perfect example. I often use this one. Not because I’m afraid I’ll pick a grape that’s yesterday’s news or one that’s too obscure. But rather, the response is genuine; when you’ve been fortunate to sample so many great varietal expressions from around the world, it’s difficult to pick just one. Honestly, I’ll select a wine on any given evening by what I plan to pair it with, or who’s dropping by, or for research etc.
Now ask me what Italian red wine I’ll most frequently enjoy with Italian cuisine and the answer is Barbera. This grape is native to the Piedmont region of Northwestern Italy; its calling card is high acidity and low tannin. This makes it a perfect match for the natural acids in tomato sauces. But the complement is not just textural. Barbera has beautifully balanced blackberry and cherry fruit, a medium body (not unlike Pinot Noir) and a beguiling, pleasant earthiness which also matches well with other northern Italian specialties like risotto and porcini mushrooms. The refreshing crispness of the variety also makes it a great pizza wine.
Barbera is planted all over the world, including California (check out the very good new releases from Shannon Ridge in Lake County, for instance). But for me, the best versions come from the Piedmontese enclaves of Alba and Asti. Barbera d’Alba is typically richer than Barbera d’Asti and therefore commands the higher prices. That makes Barbera d’Asti a comparative value. And as I discovered when I was there nearly two years ago, strong vintages like 2010, 2011 and 2012 can even the playing field for Barbera d’Asti, where a new generation of winemakers are striving to raise the bar here too.
ABC Fine Wine & Spirits has several wonderful Barbera d’Asti bottlings currently available to try. Don’t miss the triumvirate of single-vineyard expressions from Agostino Pavia & Figli: Pavia Bricco Blina ($12.99), Pavia Moliss ($14.99) and Pavia La Marescialla ($26.99). Other wines to seek out from the region include Valfieri Barbera d’Asti ($13.99) and the always consistent Michele Chiarlo Le Orme ($13.99).
Barbara d’Alba is usually fleshier in style than its cooler neighbor, and Cabutto Tenuta La Volta Barbera d’Alba ($23.39) makes a case for this argument. Many of the top producers of Barbera d’Alba are also synonymous with the great reds of nearby Barolo and Barbaresco, made from the Nebbiolo grape. In addition to their Barbera, Cabutto happens to make great Barolo too.
As far as choosing a pizza to match with my glass of Barbera, make mine a thin-crust, wood-fired oven pizza with homemade sage sausage and cippolini onions.
Jim Greeley, Southwest Florida wine supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @abcwinejimg.