Archive for the ‘Barbera’ Category

Emptying the Bad-News Bin

December 18, 2012

It’s always a good idea, as the year dwindles to its close, to jettison as much of the bad stuff as you can, so you can start your new year with a calm mind, a clear conscience, and a hopeful outlook. So – be warned – I’m here purging my files of a few troublesome items that have been hanging around and nipping at my heels for too long.

soldera labelThe most serious item I suspect some of you already know about – the vandalism at the Case Basse estate in Montalcino. This happened at the beginning of December. During the night, person or persons unknown broke into the cellar and opened the spigots on all the huge casks of Brunello, vintages 2007 through 2012. This would be an outrageous loss for the owner even if the wines were just ordinary: six years of hard, devoted work literally down the drain. But by all reports these were wines well beyond that, standing at or near the top of quality among Brunellos.

gianfranco solderaThe owner of the estate and the maker of the wines, Gianfranco Soldera, is a perfectionist and devoted to his craft. As a winemaker, he has the respect of all his colleagues. As a person, the story is different. He can be very difficult (some would say impossible), with no low opinion of his wines and no reluctance to proclaim his disdain for many of the other wines of the zone. Rumors have persistently named him as the whistleblower who precipitated the Brunello scandal of just a few years past. He denies this, and I believe him: I suspect that if he had begun that whole brouhaha he would have been more than willing to take credit for it.

The attack on his cellar has shaken up the whole zone. Only another winemaker can viscerally understand what a loss like that feels like. In a small way, I have a sense of it, having had my own wine storage twice broken into, with a loss of many cases and some utterly irreplaceable large bottles. No comparison in magnitude, of course, but I do have an idea of the feeling of violation that Soldera must have experienced.

The Consorzio and its officials have been swift to deplore the vandalism and to express solidarity – backed up with promises of positive action – with Soldera, along with protestations of the solidarity of spirit of all the Brunello producers. Much as I wish the zone and its winemakers well, I can’t help but feel that is whistling in the dark. Whoever dumped Soldera’s wine, for whatever immediate motive, vandalism of that scale shows how very deep and rancorous the divisions within this important appellation are. I don’t know what the Brunello Consorzio can do to heal them, but somebody better get working on that problem PDQ.*

zraly bookItem 2. A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Tom Hyland published a review of the new edition of Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. While praising the part of the book that concerns itself with French wine (the bulk of it), Tom goes ballistic over Zraly’s offhand treatment of Italian wines, in terms of both the scant space allotted to them and the often erroneous data provided about them. Zraly’s dismissal of Italian white wines particularly infuriates Hyland. I quote Tom Hyland quoting Kevin Zraly:

“The Italians do not traditionally put the same effort into making their white wines as they do their reds – in terms of style and complexity and they are the first to admit it.” (page 187)

Can you believe he actually wrote that? I had to read the sentence several times to make certain my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. Yes, I’m quite certain that great vintners such as Leonildo Pieropan, Roberto Anselmi, Silvio Jermann, Sabino Loffredo and Ciro Picariello would admit they don’t put much effort into their white wines. What a truly outrageous statement!

I confess I haven’t looked into Zraly’s book for years now, for the simple reason that I recognize it as an anachronism, reflecting the attitudes of the wine world when the course on which it’s based first came into being, several decades ago. With every passing year, as new parts of the world succeed in producing quality wine, the “Complete” in the title has become more and more of a misnomer, and the almost relentless focus on the wines of France more and more inadequate as a reflection of the contemporary wine world or of the choices confronting the consumer. Keven Zraly is of course a New York colleague, a long-standing acquaintance, and a very decent person – but as Tom Hyland has made abundantly clear, his book (and the course?) is seriously out of date and badly needs a thorough revision.

A small aside: It’s fascinating to me how the reflex kowtowing to French wine just doesn’t die. I’m not entirely surprised to find the prejudice in favor of the always-and-forever superiority of French wine in Brits, who are invested in Bordeaux – especially in Bordeaux – in ways that Americans are not, but we’re supposed to be more open-minded, more flexible, more open to argument and proof. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. I love French wines. I learned wine on French wines, and I freely admit that many of them set the standards for their kinds (standards, alas, that they don’t all always meet anymore) – but their kinds aren’t all the wines in the world. Italian winemakers in my lifetime have risen to great heights with different kinds of wine – different, but of equal worth and quality. If we could all stop saluting Romanée Conti for a moment, we might realize that Cannubi or Rabajà deserve a genuflection or two as well.

Item 3. This concerns a couple of small but worrisome disappointments. At a pair of recent dinners, I poured for the fair Diana, Mistress of the Revels, and myself wines from two of Piedmont’s standard-bearer producers. (What I’m about to say is a little ironic in the light of that last paragraph, but what the hell? I can only call’em as I see’em.)

gaja 1The biggest disappointment was a bottle of Gaja’s Sori San Lorenzo of the 2001 vintage – a great vintage in Piedmont, from a great winemaker, and a wine for which I consequently had great hopes. All too quickly dashed, however: The wine lacked Nebbiolo intensity and showed no complexity whatever. My first thought was that it was in eclipse, but what flavors it was giving were wrong for that; it wasn’t dumb, it just tasted middling. I’m puzzled, and hope I just had a bad bottle – but the experience is worrisome.

Giacosa 2Especially since it was more or less compounded just a few days later when I opened a bottle of Bruno Giacosa’s 2008 Barbera d’Alba. ‘08 was a good year for Barbera, and Giacosa stands among the best winemakers in the Alba region, so once again I had high hopes for the wine, and once again they were disappointed. Just as the Sori San Lorenzo lacked Nebbiolo intensity, this wine lacked Barbera vivacity, on top of which it displayed prominent non-Barbera tannins. The taste was of a wine that had been exposed to too much wood and hadn’t been able to assimilate it. As my friend Charles Scicolone would put it, this wine had gone to the dark side.

Now, two disappointing bottles do not add up to a catastrophe. But because of the expense of Gaja’s and Giacosa’s wines, these are not everyday tipples for me. When wines like these disappoint, and disappoint in the ways these two did, it raises questions – it makes you wonder, and not in the marvelous sense one hopes for during the holidays.

‘Nuff said. The bad-news bin is empty. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

* Update: This morning (December 21) I received an email from Montalcino, informing me that an arrest has been made in the case of the Case Basse vandalism. The person charged with spilling the wines is a former employee of the estate.

Piedmont Panorama: Part Two

June 24, 2012

It’s such a joy to visit winemakers in Barolo and Barbaresco. No matter how packed your schedule or how long your day, each visit deserves and rewards however much time it takes. So each day of the Nebbiolo Prima this year, after tasting 65 to 80 young, rough wines in the morning I happily bolted my lunch and went off for an afternoon of tasting more Nebbiolos.

Last post I told you about my sessions with the Angelo Negro family and Tiziana Settimo. This post I want to fill you in on my visits to Renato Ratti, Boroli, and Roccheviberti.

Renato Ratti

The eponymous founder of this estate was a pioneer of the modern age in Barolo, and his son Pietro is carrying on with the same style and panache. We sat in the light-filled tasting room of his impressive new winery and tasted an equally impressive battery of wines – Dolcetto 2011 and Barbera (both Alba 2011 and Asti 2010), Nebbiolo 2010, Barolo Marcenasco 2009 and 2008, Barolo Conca 2008 – and then a vertical of Pietro’s prized cru, Rocche: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2001, 2000, and 1999.

The ’08 was big and tannic but balanced by terrific acid and fruit, the best wine of that vintage I’d tasted that day (that includes some 70+ in the morning session). The ’07 seemed slightly rustic and forceful, more forward and attention grabbing.

“2008 is a precise vintage,” Pietro says; “you can taste the differences of place from place. 2007 is exuberant; 2008 is more narrow but deeper – more interesting, with more acidity, more focus. 2006 is more classic, more fruity – same family as ’08, but more classic.” In fact, I found the 2006 very similar to the ’08, deep and composed, a wine to wait for. Both remind me of the 1974s, which evolved into some of the finest Barolos of the second half of the century.

Ratti’s 2005 you don’t have to wait for: It’s already together – a lovely middle weight, totally drinkable now. The 2004 went to the other end of the spectrum, a great vintage, along with 2001 one of the greatest, but nowhere near ready to drink. The 2001 showed itself more developed, the nose darkening to tobacco and coffee, even burnt earth, the palate deep, smooth, and complex – almost but not quite ready. The 2000 stood among the better examples of this too-hot vintage, but it will never be my favorite. “A great Barolo vintage,” Pietro says, “combines power and elegance.” His 1999 Rocche did just that – big Nebbiolo fruit and leather and porcini on the nose and in the mouth, with an endless finish. A lovely wine, with years of development still before it.

Boroli

This is a newer house, run by a team of brothers with a lot of modern technology but also great love for traditional Barolo character, both of which showed nicely in the wines. Villero is their best cru: it’s one of the choice sites in the Barolo zone, and Boroli does it justice. The 2004 sported big Nebbiolo fruit – juicy black cherry – along with tobacco and leather. I thought it elegant and balanced and still very young. The ‘05 Villero showed itself very accessible, as is characteristic of that vintage – quite drinkable already, although evidently still young and growing. This is what people have in mind when they talk about a good restaurant Barolo. 2006 also proved true to its vintage: a structured, big, austere wine, with great minerality – a wine for long, long cellaring to enjoy at its maximum. Villero 2007 was an almost complete contrast, fresh and amazingly accessible for so young a Barolo. It too will no doubt mature and deepen, but it’s so enjoyable now that it may be hard to wait for it.

Roccheviberti

This is the smallest producer I visited – about 20,000 bottles a year, and that includes some Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo, as well as Barolo. Production that small makes Claudio Viberti only a little more than a garagiste, but in quality he is approaching the top tier. He works roughly 13 acres, 5 of which are Nebbiolo, in the tiny village of Rocche within the commune of Castiglione Falletto. I went to visit him because, in the past two or three years, I had been giving his wines top marks at Nebbiolo Prima’s morning blind-tasting sessions, and I thought it was time I found out something about him.

I am very, very glad I did. His 2010 Dolcetto d’Alba Vigna Melera and his 2009 Barbera d’Alba Superiore were both textbook wines, so delicious and so characteristic that the first taste told me that I was in the hands of an excellent winemaker. His 2008 Langhe Nebbiolo confirmed that: It was all beautiful black cherry fruit that tasted fresh! fresh! fresh!

The vertical of Barolo Rocche di Castiglione that followed was the icing on the cake. 2008 showed classic Nebbiolo color, the true garnet bleeding to an orange edge, and the classic “feminine” Castiglione body, sapid, juicy, and well structured. The 2007 smelled of raspberries and roses and tasted of sweet black cherries, tar, and tea. The 2006 had a nose of dried roses, earth, and tea, and on the palate big acid and firm tannins supporting a huge body of fruit – a wine that seems to me will get better and better for decades. His 2005 showed the same dried roses in the aroma and great minerality on the palate, with excellent acidity and fine fruit. 2004 again smelled of dried roses, and on the palate was evolving beautifully, with plenty of still fresh fruit beginning to develop complexity and depth – a gentle, elegant, and deep wine.

These wines demonstrated an impressive consistency of quality and style from vintage to vintage. Claudio said that he ferments his Barolos for 18 to 25 days, depending on the harvest, and that he uses only French oak in large, traditional botti. His grandfather had started the winery for bulk sales, and he began making wine in 2003 – and he doesn’t make a Riserva because he doesn’t have the space. Honestly, I hope he never has: I wouldn’t want him to change a thing.

The Barolo and Barbaresco zones are real winemaker country. You’re never greeted ceremoniously by guys in designer suits. Instead, men and women in purple-stained jeans and equally stained hands welcome you with boundless enthusiasm for their wines and plenty of information about their last half dozen vintages – or more, if you display any curiosity. Is it any wonder that I visit as often as I can?

Putting La Morra on the Map and Other Nebbiolo News

June 14, 2010

Three short items today: a new vineyard map; a précis of Nebbiolo Prima, formerly the Alba Wine Event; and a buying opportunity for top-flight Barbaresco.

I spent an intense week in Piedmont last month tasting wines and visiting producers – I’ll report briefly on that here, in detail in future posts. I want to start with what is definitely good news: the map of the commune of La Morra that Alessandro Masnaghetti has just issued.

Alessandro Masnaghetti

As I explained in an earlier post, Alessandro Masnaghetti is a highly respected Italian wine journalist, the publisher, editor, writer, mapmaker – pretty much the whole writing and production staff – for Enogea, a bimonthly Italian-language journal devoted to the wines and terroir of Italy’s great red wine areas – most notably, Piedmont and Tuscany. He has been producing a series of vineyard maps, in Italian and in English, of individual communes in those zones. These maps are more accurate, more detailed, and provide more information about sites, expositions, and ownership, than any vineyard maps I have seen for any other wine region. So complete are they that you can even use them to locate the newly created subzones of Barolo and Barbaresco.

This newest map, of La Morra commune and nearby Roddi and Cherasco, is fully up to the standards set by its predecessors. It completes Masnaghetti’s survey of the vineyards of Barolo. So he has now issued complete maps of both major Nebbiolo denominations, Barolo and Barbaresco, containing as much vineyard and producer information as any wine maven could desire. The maps can be obtained by contacting, in Italy, almasnag@tin.it or, in the US, www.rarewineco.com.

Map detail: the village of La Morra and some nearby vineyards and wineries

Nebbiolo Prima: the Short Version

Now for the less good news. What used to be the Alba Wine Event (I always liked the acronym) is now Nebbiolo Prima, with new (and definitely not yet up to speed) PR crew replacing the very competent Wellcom staff who previously ran it. So there were glitches, not least important of which were the temperature of the wine storage (tasting samples were too warm) and tasting room (chronic trouble with the air conditioning) – both of which make serious problems when you’re tasting 85 newly bottled Nebbiolo wines every morning.

Here is the summary of the event. The 2007 Barbarescos are charming – very accessible, with lovely fruit, good acid, decent structure. They may not be the longest-lasting wines ever to come out of the zone, but they will be enjoyable drinking over the next ten years.

Charm, on the other hand, is not a word to use in connection with 2006 Barolo. These are tough, enormously structured wines, complex and deep, but leatherbound right now and maybe for the next five years. If you miss old-fashioned Barolo as I do – wines that took years to come round and then got better and better for decades – 2006 is your vintage.

Buyer, Be Aware

Here’s an important piece of news that should affect your wine budget: Produttori di Barbaresco, the superb cooperative that every year offers some of the best wines and finest bargains in Barbaresco, has decided not to bottle separately any of its cru wines in the 2006 vintage. All have been vinified separately but will be blended back into the “basic” Barbaresco.

The reasons for this are, apparently, first, that there is too much wine already in the pipeline, and, second, that in 2006 the cru wines reflect the vintage – as in Barolo, it is that kind of dominating vintage – much more than they do their individual terroirs. Whatever the reasons, this makes a fantastic buying opportunity for Nebbiolo fans: a first-rate vintage from a first-rate producer at bargain-basement prices. I have already seen Produttori 2006 Barbaresco here in New York for as little as $30 a bottle. That’s a whole case of a fine, long-lived Barbaresco for the price of a single bottle of Gaja. Need I say more?

‘Sno(w) Joke: A Tale of Barbera, Barriques, and Hard Winter in Asti

March 15, 2010

I love Barbera. I think it’s one of the world’s greatest, most versatile food wines. Its juicy acidity and vibrant cherry fruit enable it to partner happily with any number of dishes. I was really looking forward to the Barbera Meeting, an annual March event in Asti for journalists, this year disconcerting everyone with an unexpected foot of snow.

Winter was hard: cold vineyards photographed from inside a warm room

This year’s meeting also had a new feature: an online, live, by-the-moment feed to its own blogsite, barbera2010.com. The Barbera Boys (and one comely woman), a group of young American bloggers collected by Jeremy Parzen, would do their best to keep up with the flow of wine and news all week long.

They even stirred up a lot of local interest, not least by saying plainly how unhappy they were with the oakiness of most of the wines. La Stampa reported this aspect of the event for two days running. That oak constituted Asti’s second great disappointment, after the relentless snowfall. Where was my beloved Barbera juiciness and raciness? Where did all this oak come from? (The answer to that was all too obvious.)

The perturbation of the bloggers on this point was very welcome to me and my New York colleague, Charles Scicolone, who might otherwise have seemed lone voices crying in the wilderness. (If Jeremy and his gang were the Barbera Boys, Charles and I must have ranked as I Babbi di Barbera, or maybe even I Bisnonni.)  But I’m getting ahead of myself: First you need to know a little about the occasion.

The whole Barbera Meeting was orchestrated by the wonderful women of Wellcom (Thank you, Marinella prima e seconda, Annalisa, Federica, and Marta, for all your help) and sponsored by the Asti growers’ Consorzio. A battery of sure-handed Italian sommeliers presented the guests (ungrateful ones, as it turned out) with 35 to 65 wines each morning in a blind tasting.

Most of us are looking out at the snow, waiting for the sommeliers to start pouring

Each such session was followed either by visits to various wineries in the differing Barbera zones – Asti, Nizza, Monferrata, Alba – or by presentations about Barbera by enologists and producers. Each day concluded with a stand-up tasting with the producers of the zone visited, followed by a frequently delicious but always overlong dinner – so we got back around midnight, with blackened teeth and tongues, to the hotels we’d left that morning at 8:45. It takes guts – in many senses – to be a wine journalist.

As I said, I had looked forward to this Barbera Meeting with almost cliché-keen anticipation. I’ve loved Barbera in all its forms, from the simplest quaffing version to the more complex, single-vineyard, low-yield, carefully barriqued specimens that the Braida estate pioneered with its now-benchmark Bricco dell’Uccellone. Unfortunately, there is now increasing interest throughout the whole Barbera kingdom in turning the wine into something bigger and more substantial, into – to use the word we heard endlessly during the meeting – an important wine.

This meant that the wine most producers sent to the blind tasting, for us to sample at our breakfast of champions, was not their simple Barbera but their “important” one – and what quickly became clear to us all was that, in Asti, the road to importance winds through a forest of oak. Now, it is a fact that Barbera, because it has so few tannins of its own, can deal with barriques better than most Italian varieties can. But barriques, which are a recently-arrived technology in most Italian wine zones, need very careful management. A little oak can ruin a lot of wine, and we tasted a lot of ruined wines in Asti. Oak should give structure and nuance to a wine. It shouldn’t replace the grape as the primary flavor component. Unfortunately, in the blind tasting most mornings, we smelled oak on the nose, tasted oak on the palate, and chewed oak in the finish. It wasn’t Piedmont Barbera: it could have been any wine from any grape made anywhere.

Worse: when various journalists – both bloggers and the quill-pen brigade – asked the producers about “all that oak,” we were answered with first evasions, then denials – one winemaker told me that I couldn’t, couldn’t, taste any wood in his wine, when that was all I could taste – and even hostility. Commendable passion and pride, perhaps, but mighty poor public relations – and a wasted opportunity to hear what a knowledgeable segment of its audience was telling them.

Whiteout: the snowstorm at its worst

Fortunately, there is a brighter side to the story. When we had the chance to sit down with winemakers one by one and taste through their whole line of wines, we invariably found that they all had that gorgeous, juicy Barbera we were looking for. It was almost always the wine they showed us almost apologetically as their “basic” Barbera, their “entry level” wine. When pushed, they also usually admitted that this was the wine they themselves drank all the time; the one we were getting in the morning was the one they made “because the market wants it.” Since we journalists represented the international market (we were from all over the US and the UK, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Russia, Croatia, and a half dozen Asian countries) and we hated those wines, there seemed to be a major disconnect here.

Happily not all the producers were so perversely market-mad. Fabrizio Iuli, who is a craftsman of Monferrato Barbera, probably keeps his wines in barriques longer than anybody else in the zone – but you can’t taste the wood in his wines, just gorgeous Barbera juice. That clearly shows that it isn’t the oak that’s at fault, but the hand that wields the oak. Iuli’s answer to a question about that should be engraved on every winery wall in Asti: “It is a very trivial idea to think that oak makes a wine important.” 

Fabrizio Iuli in his Barriccaia

In defense of the traditional Barbera that we all love as opposed to the internationally-styled, heavily-wooded Barbera that supposedly the market wants, Jeremy Parzen posed a simple, devastating question. “If Italian food conquered the world,” he said, “why can’t Italian wine?” 

I think it could, if the makers would simply let it be Italian and not francocalifornicate with it.

Luck or Cunning?

November 18, 2009

Warning: This one’s mainly for passionate wine geeks.

Michael Apstein is a man of many qualities: friend, fellow wine writer, medical doctor, boon companion – but most of all, he is an agent provocateur. He sent this innocent-sounding question in a comment on my October 4 Barbera posting:

Can you generalize about the differences between Barbera d’Alba and d’Asti or does the producer’s hand trump geographic differences?

That seems straightforward – but the good doctor is really asking the King Kong of wine questions, one that pretty much divides the wine world: What carries the most weight, terroir or technology? Viticulture or viniculture? Geography or cellar savvy? Nature or nurture? Luck or cunning?

LUCK . . . ?

Let’s start with some facts about human ingenuity. There is probably no harvest so bountiful, so perfect, so overflowing with vinous potential that some winemaker can’t screw it up through sheer wrong-headedness and stubbornness. Our world could not have achieved half its astonishing lunacy without an overabundance of that human capacity. So in an absolute sense, in every sphere of life, nurture will beat the hell out of nature every time. In wine terms, there is no terroir, no matter how distinctive, that can’t be bent out of recognition by the devoted application of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of new barriques, concentrators, reverse osmosis procedures, and similar marvels – just as surely as it can be undone by old-fashioned, non-temperature-controlled fermentation, dirty tanks and cellars, excessive oxidation, and so on.

. . . OR CUNNING?

Beyond that lamentable fact, there is a real question about how much terroir we can actually taste in a wine – or what we are in fact tasting that winos call gout de terroir. Some recent studies, as reported by Jon Bonné, seem to show that there is no reflection of a soil’s chemical or mineral composition in the wines ultimately drawn from it – so where does all that Kimmeridgian chalk that generations of Chablis connoisseurs have claimed to taste actually come from? Can it be the effect of vinification procedures rather than the fruit of the sacred terroir? The cunning of the winemakers rather than the luck of the location? Say it ain’t so, Joe!

Alas, it could be. The vast majority of wines in which we discern and revere the gout de terroir are old-world wines – the great Burgundies, Champagne, Savennieres, Barolo and Barbaresco, and even our humble (well, not entirely humble) Barbera. These are all wines that have been grown in the same soils and vinified in more or less the same ways over centuries. During those centuries, field techniques and cellar techniques converged on a norm. The resulting wine gradually embodied what we have come to refer to as gout de terroir – the characteristic taste and style of wines from these places. In other words, gout de terroir is as much cultural as it is natural, a fusion of nature and nurture.

So, can you generalize about the differences between Barbera d’Alba and d’Asti or does the producer’s hand blur or even obliterate geographic differences? Even allowing for the fact that a sufficiently motivated wine manipulator could produce a wine that I wouldn’t even recognize as a Barbera, much less an Asti or an Alba, I would say Yes, we can generalize about those differences. Precisely because these are long-established wine zones, with equally long experience with Barbera, each has evolved its characteristic and recognizable way of making the wine. The winemaker’s hand has learned over the years to supplement or complement the effects of terroir. The producer’s techniques combine with those qualities to make a Barbera properly of Alba or of Asti. Sure, I can conceive of a winemaker in Alba reproducing the bright acidity of Asti, or a winemaker in Asti duplicating the roundness and darker fruit of Alba – but I can’t imagine that they would want to.

The situation changes greatly when you move to new territories, new vineyards, a vinous new world. Does anyone have any clear idea of what, for instance, Napa gout de terroir is? Or Santa Lucia Highlands? Or Russian River? There has not yet been sufficient acculturation, not even sufficient agreement about what grapes to grow, to talk about what best expresses the character of the terroir. In such circumstances, technology reigns supreme, and the appropriate phrase to describe their best products is to talk about a “well-made wine,” because it is the making that defines the wine. Nature needs time to assert itself; technology is immediate.

So – for most established old-world wines, I think we can safely generalize about the characteristics of their growing areas, not because nature strong-arms winemakers into a pattern, but because over time winemakers have acculturated themselves to their terroir and evolved, in partnership with it, a culturally based model of what their region’s wine should look like, smell like, and taste like. That is gout de terroir, and it is as real as anything is.

Barbera: Work Horse and Race Horse

November 4, 2009

Barbera is probably the most widely planted grape variety in Italy. (It’s grown other places as well, including California, but I’ve tasted very few from outside Italy that were worth the trouble of uncorking.) While in most parts of the country it provides a service as a blending grape with other indigenous Italian varieties, in the north – especially in the Piedmont – Barbera really shows its breed and vinous potential. It does its very best work in the hills around the town of Alba, the heart of the growing area for the great Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as the white truffle capital of the universe. Soil that can make those intense fungi can also produce impressive wines – Barolo and Barbaresco are so impressive in fact that around Alba Barbera is mostly an everyday wine.

Monferrato_label (2)We should all be so lucky: Barbera, even in its simplest guises, is delicious, bracing, and welcoming. It offers itself to the drinker easily. You can quaff it by itself or all through a meal without thinking any more about it than that it’s good. But if you choose to notice it, it will give you something to think about. Pay attention to what’s in your mouth, and you’ll notice that Barbera’s flavor isn’t simple. First you’ll taste its fruit, cherryish and winy at the same time. Then you’ll be aware of its acidity, almost but not quite separable from the fruit. Then you’ll perceive different sensations; first tactile – a little combination of prickle and smoothness on the tongue and cheeks – then flavors – some earthy notes, hints of mineral, or similar reminders of the soil that all grapes ultimately draw their character from.

mic_barbera_dasti (2)This is a wine you can have fun with, and a wine you can learn from. If you’re in the process of introducing yourself to wine, Barbera can be a whole tutorial by itself. Because of its peculiar properties – it’s very high in acid and very low in tannin – Barbera can be drunk young as well as aged long. (Acidity is what lets wines age. Alcohol and tannin merely help – sometimes.) Because it lacks strong tannins of its own, it can be fermented and/or aged in small oak barrels and still emerge drinkable, which is more than can be said of most Chardonnays and Cabernets (but that’s a subject for another post). These small oak barrels – barriques – are the darling toy of modernist winemakers everywhere, and the Piedmont is no exception. Barbera’s oak-tannin-tolerance has meant that many winemakers are producing upscale, barrel-aged, Super Barberas, very stylish bottles that are a whole wine and price realm away from everyday drinks. Some of them are gorgeous; some are merely expensive.

If you’re exploring Barbera for the first time, stick with the simpler ones till you get the hang of them. Once you acquire the taste, which is easy to do, you’ll probably continue drinking them the rest of your life, no matter how much farther afield you eventually go, Barbera being that pleasing and food-friendly. There are three key zones in the Piedmont: Alba, Asti, and Monferrato. The Asti Barberas are normally the brightest, most acidic, and lightest-bodied. Alba’s are fuller-bodied, a touch less acidic, rounder in the mouth. The Monferrato Barbera stands about midway between, but with some distinctive mineral notes in its aroma and taste because of its very different soil. All are enjoyable, and all will match splendidly with a whole range of foods – literally from soup to nuts. Do yourself a favor and try one or two. Tasting different wines – even two different Barberas – side by side is the quickest and surest way to learn wine and discover your own taste preferences.

Here are some good names to know for quality Barbera. It’s important to bear in mind that almost every serious winemaker in the Langhe (the larger zone around Alba) produces a basic Barbera and often a barriqued, more costly one. The “basic” Barbera almost invariably offers very good value.

Bersano: Producer of a whole gamut of Piemontesi wines, including several Barberas, all from the Asti zone, but with slight variations in style (e.g., Costalunga, Superiore Nizza, Superiore Generala). All represent solid value.

Braida: This estate created modern Barbera with its oak-aged Bricco dell’ Uccellone (expensive, but still a benchmark for the grape). It now makes many Barberas in different styles and price points: Barbera del Monferrato La Monella (inexpensive and charming), Barbera d’Asti Montebruna (fragrant and vivacious), Barbera d’Asti Bricco della Bigotta (a big, polished Barbera), and Barbera d’Asti Ai Suma (for lovers of powerhouse wines: a big, almost super-ripe Barbera).

Chiarlo: Michele Chiarlo produces two distinctive Barberas. Barbera d’Asti Superiore La Court takes all the prizes and commands a prize price, while Barbera d’Asti Superiore Le Orme sells for a fraction of its price and provides solid Barbera character and pleasure.

Einaudi: Another producer of the whole range of Piemontesi wines, at almost every price point. Its basic Piedmont Barbera is a particularly notable value.

Marchesi di Barolo: This distinguished large firm makes, in addition to several excellent prestige bottlings, a lovely Monferrato Barbera called Maraia: a real bargain.

Renato Ratti: Famous for its lovely Barolos, this house also produces a classic Alba Barbera labelled Torriglione.

Revello: Very sleek and stylish Barbera d’Alba Ciabot du Re (expensive), plus a very moderately priced basic Barbera d’Alba.

Vietti: This long-established firm makes several top-flight Barberas: to wit, Barbera d’Alba Scarrone and Scarrone Vigna Vecchia, and – especially — Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza La Crena. The “basic” Barbera d’Alba Tre Vigne and Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne present superb value.