The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals
Given Italian food's ubiquity, it's curious (and a bit of a shame) that more non-Italians don't drink barbera with their pizzas and muffuletta sandwiches. The wine is a trattoria staple in the old country, particularly in the northwest Piedmont region. Crisp and gutsy, it's the sort of red that's perfectly at home in a tumbler. No swirling or sniffing necessary (unless you're trying to impress, or alienate, your dinner date).
Barbera is also the country's third most planted red grape, behind sangiovese and montepulciano. Until the 1980s, it covered considerably more vineyard area, in fact. The retreat hasn't all been bad for barbera, though, because quality has been trading places with quantity.
I suspect that one of the key virtues that made barbera so popular in Italy is what has held it back, ironically, in countries where people commonly consume or judge wine in the absence of food: high acidity. Fans of soft, rounded, syrupy-thick reds may find it bracing. But pair it with pizza or, perhaps best of all, a platter of charcuterie and its charms will unfold. Usually medium-bodied, with subtle fruit flavours suggesting cherry and blackberry, it's low in astringent tannins, making it more suitable for early consumption than laying down for, say, more than five years (certain fine bottlings excepted).
Chiefly associated with Piedmont, where it is the No. 1 variety, barbera may be the go-to grape for simple lunches and dinners but it has always lived in the celebrity shadow of that region's star, nebbiolo, the red grape responsible for powerful and cellarworthy Barolos and Barbarescos. It ripens a couple of weeks earlier than nebbiolo, so the choice vineyard sites with the best soils and sun exposure have tended to be reserved for the latter. Uninhibited, the barbera vine also tends to yield copious fruit, which dilutes flavour.
But committed, quality-oriented producers have been improving barbera's fortunes over the past couple of decades by planting it on better ground and pruning plants to yield less but more concentrated fruit. They also broke with tradition and matured the wine in small oak barrels to soften texture and add complex aromas as well as wood tannins to promote longevity in the cellar. The pioneer of the style was Giacomo Bologna of the Braida estate in the district of Asti, whose rare, $50 Bricco dell'uccellone remains one of barbera's high-water marks. (It's a barbera you might want to savour in your best stemware rather than a tumbler.)
But you don't have to pay through the nose for decent examples, like Ascheri's basic blue-label offering, at $16 to $22 across the country when available.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) won top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.