In the January 11th edition of the Wall Street Journal, wine writer Lettie Teague urges all of us to reassess the place of Italian Barbera in the wine world. She maintains there has been a renaissance of sorts in the production value of this quintessential Italian wine grape and my experience at this end of the business bears this out. For the past ten years it seems whenever I am presented with a new Barbera the price-quality ratio is steeped more in the value direction than before. I even thought the Renwood Barbera of Amador County, California which I tasted three years ago was better than it should have been.
So getting back to the WSJ article, Teague interviews a New York Italian restauranteur who calls Barbera "his Pinot Noir". Being a Pinot junkie, I thought about that for a minute and going against my better judgment, I agreed with the premise. First of all, it's an Italian restaurant. Barbera, yes; Pinot Noir, no way. Secondly, as stated in the article, price matters. One can get way better fifteen dollar Barbera than Pinot Noir. Thirdly, and this one builds on the first two, there is the matter of consistency and staying power in a wine's flavor and Barbera has that within the lighter wine style format while Pinot Noir is hit-or-miss. Actually, Pinot Noir misses a lot.
Barbera is the third largest selling wine in Italy after Sangiovese and Montepulciano and it is every bit as food friendly as the other two. Ampelographers believe its origins lie either within Piedmont or just outside in Lombardy. Today there are three Barbera styles exhibited in the examples of Asti, Alba, and Monferrato of Piedmont. Barbera d'Asti shows the esteemed Nebbiolo-like oak-aged product with complexity, intensity, structure, and ageability. Barbera d'Alba limits the time in oak in order to show the inherently higher acidity of the grape and its abundant cherry/berry flavors. Monferrato shows Barbera in a slightly frizzante style with a blend of up to fifteen percent other local varieties. Of the three, Alba is the most popular and the style most imitated elsewhere.
In California, the Renwood mentioned above is most similar to Barbera d'Alba and the Amador County Sierra Foothills venue is the best for the grape in California. Unfortunately because of its current limited commercial appeal, most Barbera plantings are in the central valley where the juice goes into inexpensive jug reds. Barbera is also widely planted in Argentina and Australia and basically wherever Italian immigrants carried their vines.
So are we at least potentially on the cusp of a renaissance for Barbera in the wine world? Of course. Lost in the discussion is the fact that Barbera is a vigorous vine that does well in the hotter climes we are facing and interestingly enough, while losing vineyard space to Nebbiolo in Piedmont for commercial reasons, at the same time it gained popularity there and elsewhere. That is telling. In Piedmont ( and elsewhere) it is both the poor man's Nebbiolo and within the wine trade, the go-to everyday choice in Piedmont and elsewhere. It's just a matter of convincing everyone else to give it a try.
This Friday, the fourth of April between 5 and 8pm, we will be tasting reds and whites from Argentina and Washington State along with a few surprises. Please join us. And feel free to become a follower of this blog so I can get rich and retire!