Did you know that Barbera has two personas? Persona #1: It is the red table wine in just about every Italian restaurant around the world. Persona #2: It doesn’t get a lot of respect. So what’s the problem? In this article, we’ll dig in and find out.
Let me start by saying that Barbera is strictly a food wine and not a sipping wine. What makes it that way? Well, it’s probably the most acidic red wine around. The high acidity makes the wine somewhat challenging to drink straight up. Yes, you do get notes of black cherries, blackberries, currants and plum. But the puckering sensation dominates. You really need food to help sing Barbera’s praises. And Barbera’s acidity is what makes the wine pair so beautifully with Italian dishes, especially tomato-based dishes. You pair Barbera with a hearty tomato-based pasta dish, and both the dish and the wine sing.
I believe the first reason that Barbera is underrated is that it isn’t a sipping wine. I don’t know why, but I think sipping wines get a lot more respect than food wines. Let’s take Napa Chardonnays as an example. They are delectable sipping wines, with their beautiful oaky, buttery notes. But they can be very challenging to pair with foods. So Napa Chardonnays are food unfriendly and sipping friendly. Yet they get tremendous accolades and respect.
A second reason for Barbera’s lowly position is its origins. It comes from the Piedmont region of Italy, where Barolo and Barbaresco get such high accolades that there’s almost nothing left for poor little Barbera. Barolo and Barbaresco are made from the Nebbiolo grape, which produces big, bad, high tannin, ageable reds. Barbera just can’t be described as a big, bad red. It’s low in tannin, not very ageable and do we dare say wimpy (it doesn’t even have distinctive aromas), in comparison to Barolo and Barbaresco.
Another popular grape grown in Piedmont is Dolcetto, which is known for giving you a delicious berry party in your mouth.
Poor Barbera is sandwiched between two big, bad reds and a delicious berry party. No wonder it doesn’t get a lot of attention or respect.
A third reason for Barbera’s low regard is its high productivity. In the Piedmont region, Barbera’s production is 15 times that of Nebbiolo. It can grow well in a wide variety of soils. It’s highly resistant to fungal diseases, and it’s a consistently high producer. Grapes that grow easily get less respect than grapes that grow with great difficulty. You might recall Miles from the movie Sideways. He hated Merlot, which is a relatively easy grape to grow. He loved Pinot Noir, which is one of the most challenging grapes to grow.
What are winemakers doing to help the lowly Barbera? They are planting the vines in better sites, reducing yields and paying more attention to wine production. The result is better Barbera.
What are we as consumers doing to help the lowly Barbera? Hopefully we’re drinking a lot of it with our Italian dishes. I encourage you to open up a bottle of Barbera the next time you have a tomato-based pasta dish and say “Salute!”
I would love to hear what you think of Barbera. Please share your comments here.