Friday, February 20, 2015

BARBERA; Taking a Shine to Ordinary!

Hills of Monferrato, Italy
There's something about Barbera. And, as it turns out, I really like this kind of wine. Barbera is not a grape variety widely enjoyed by most wine lovers, and when it does appear it is typically hidden on a table of food.  Fruity and acid-driven,  it is perhaps the quintessential food wine.  In the home vineyards of Italy it is a vigorous vine, producing good dark-skinned yields of a quaff-able red wine that is high in acid and modest in tannin; making it the casual table wine of many a ristorante and trattoria in the regions of the North. Its many clones, are widely planted from Lombardy to Campania, but it is around the ancestral hills of Monferrato, south of the River Po where this workhorse variety can create something noticeably unique. Today, in a broad swath that are the demarcated and controlled wine regions by the River Tanaro, surrounding the villages of Alba, Asti, and, of course, Monferrato DOC's is where this common, often ordinary grape variety shines.

From about the 1970s, with the developing administration of the Italian DOC regulations(modeled after the earlier French AOC-system), there has been a quality push, a regulated standardization in viticultural practices and winemaking techniques which have benefited the consistent quality of the regions wines, even lowly Barbera. In the hills around Alba, there the prized Nebbiolo grape of Barolos dominate the best vineyard sites, Barbera was a second or third site crop that benefited from the quality Barolo producers cellar techniques. Further north in Asti, Barbera found better south-facing hilltop sites, improved by the new limits on yields, and found producers heavily dependent on the varieties success.  Its red-jewel color and nose of plum candies presented a tartly refreshing red wine brightly echoing of red plums, cherries, a nuance of pepper, or even cloves.  To recognize regional wines of higher minimum alcohol, and wines that aged for at least a year(6 mo. in oak), a superiore designation was regulated.

Some of our recent favorite Barbera's include:
  • Sant'agata Barbera d'Asti Baby 2011
  • Vietti Barbera d'Asti Tre Vigne 2012
  • Renato Ratti 'Battaglione' Barbera d'Alba 2013 

As Barbera grows in a variey of soils & climates around Italy, it is natural that immigrants would plant the reliable vine in many New World locations.  At a recent tasting of Barbera's from California's Amador, Lake, Lodi, and even from Napa County, a Barbera d'Asti was included. Amador County saw Barbera plantings as early as 1856, in soils that are alluvial to decomposed granite, and having a diversity in vineyard elevations. Lake County soils are the result of geologic upheaval; sandstone & shale from the sea floor, to volcanic with a peppering of obsidian.  Here elevation can moderate temperatures without a significant marine influence seen in parts of Napa. And the inland Lodi vineyards are typically of alluvial & clay soils deposited by once great rivers running out of the Sierra Nevada.  Each domestic region produced very fruity, drinkable sub-$20 wines, but I found a multiple dimension lacking in each of them.  It was the affordable Barbera d'Asti to which I took a shine.
If it is possible to smell history, then that is what I was smelling. In each nose their was a complexity, an earthiness that made my head spin. Was it dusty dried plums or stewed cherries and steamed wood that I was recognizing? Where the California wines were big, juicy in the mouth, the Italian was a taught, restrained and a more focused tasting engagement that had more depth.

Increasing, I find that the wines I am drawn to are those that make me thirsty for more.  Wines that are acid-driven often do just that. Acid puckers the mouth, produces a dry sensation that causes the saliva glands to get working.  If there is a depth of dry fruit in the mouth as well, I find the feeling to be mouth-watering, and making me thirsty for more. Ordinary Barbera does not do that for me, but a complex and well balanced Barbera, the kind that is consistently produced by many of the wineries of Italy does.  And, its personality is a terrific match for a broad range of foods that make it even more delicious.

In the marketplace, for about the same money as most domestics, there is a modest selection of Italian Barbera's, and they are worth searching out.  Back in the taverns of Piemonte, regional Barbera can be quite vin ordinaire, just as it should be for those tables. But looming in the village or commune tier above, awaiting our exploration, are some outstanding examples of a widely planted grape variety for the cost of a song.  Deliciously, these Barbera's have me taking quite a shine to ordinary!


Learn more, Drink more!