A good red wine to match with food must have enough flavor to stand up to what you are eating but not so much to overpower it. If the food has a high fat content, such as a nicely marbled ribeye steak, the wine should have ample tannins to cut through the fat, but in the absence of fat, tannins should be moderate to low. Perhaps the most important trait of a food friendly red is ample acidity. This keeps the wine refreshing, vibrant, and palate cleansing and enhances the flavors of the meal.
With this in mind, one of my favorite wines to recommend is Barbera. Native to the Monferrato region near the town of Asti in Piedmont, Italy, where it has been documented as far back as 1240 in the records of the local cathedral, it is the third most planted red grape in Italy behind Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Although over 70,000 acres grow in Piedmont, and it was a favorite of Italian immigrants resulting in 8000 acres growing in California, it is surprising how few people know about it.
In the early 1980s, over 120,000 acres of Barbera were planted in Piedmont. Then, in 1985, unscrupulous producers added methanol to their wine to give it a little extra “kick.” As a result, 30 people died and over 50 were blinded. This bad publicity along with growers switching to more profitable Nebbiolo led to a marked decrease in production.
Barbera grows best in warm climates and tends toward high yields, so it must be aggressively pruned. It is very thin skinned, so it is prone to mildew, disease, and sunburn. It ripens two weeks earlier than Nebbiolo and two weeks later than Dolcetto, the other two major Piedmont grapes. The grape has a very high acidity, approaching that of white wine grapes. Leaving the fruit on the vine longer to lessen the acidity results in higher sugar levels, denser flavors, and a higher alcohol level in the finished wine. When this balancing act between acidity and fruit concentration is performed well, the wine is delicious.
Barbera is dark in color, has medium to low tannins, a high acidity, and flavors of red fruit and black cherries There are two styles—a lighter style that is usually made without oak aging, and a richer more complex style that is aged in used oak. They are both delicious and are wonderful with food, from pasta with red sauce, sausages, and pork to stews and braised and roasted meats. In Italy, the spicy fruity Dolcetto is the everyday and (ALL day) drinking wine, while the Barbera is the wine enjoyed with the main meal. (The higher priced Nebbiolo is for special occasions).
Besides being delicious and food friendly, really good Barbera can be found in the 15 to 25 dollar range. Mauro Molino Barbera d’Alba, aged in stainless steel, is fresh and vibrant with a mouth watering acidity and lots of red berry fruit and costs only $15.99. Rivetto Barbera d’Alba Nemes, also $15.99, is aged for a short time in Slovenian oak but retains its freshness and lightness of fruit.
If you are going to try Barbera, you absolutely HAVE to try the Barbera di Monferrato from Fabrizio Iuli. He calls himself a “Barberista” because although most Piedmont estates that make Barbera also make Nebbiolos and Dolcettos, he concentrates only on Barbera. His Umberta, at $15.99, is aged in stainless steel and is an explosion of exuberant red berry fruit fruit in your mouth. The Rossore (named because that will be the color of your cheeks when you drink it) is aged in French oak and is lush and complex with the underlying acidity and ample red and purple fruit that is classic for Barbera, This is one of my very favorite wines with Italian food and is well worth the $22.99 price tag.
Natale Verga makes a very drinkable Barbera for only $8.99. Although not world class, it is varietally correct, and a good way to find out if you like this grape without spending much money.
Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, if you want to taste what is probably the ultimate expression of the Barbera grape, try G.D. Vajra’s Barbera d’Alba Superiore. I first tasted this wine at a large trade tasting a year ago featuring at least a hundred wines including some very expensive Barolos and Barbarescos. Vajra’s Barbera was THE wine of the tasting. With beautiful aromatics of flowers, red and purple fruit, and massive complex layers of black cherry, plums, red currants, and vanilla, it has a bracing acidity that makes your mouth water and makes you want to consume the entire bottle with a very large amount of food. In a word, this wine is ridiculous. It will be $44.99 well spent.
Barbera is a wine that anybody who loves a good meal needs to try. It will bring even the simplest of dishes to life…and it will become a common occurrence at the dinner table. Cheers!