Thursday, September 20, 2012

Barbera: Not Just A Pretty Name

My first food and wine-pairing epiphany was with a bottle of Barbera d’Alba and a plate of penne dressed with a simple tomato sauce. Before that moment, I didn’t put much thought into food with wine. Yet after that moment, my fate was sealed. It was not just how the Barbera lent the sauce a mix of dark woodsy and berry fruit flavors in the aftertaste. What really did it for me was how the Barbera reinforced the tomato flavors and made them taste more “tomato-y.” Add to that a dollop of brisk acidity, which is a textbook calling card of Barbera, and you have an amazing food-pairing wine.

Barbera is a light to medium-bodied red, generally with a low level of tannin yet with acidity to spare. On the nose and palate you can find a mix of bright red berry flavors, spice, floral and woodsy notes. In the right hands, they can be downright sexy. This consummate Italian varietal has also been seeing a good amount of success in California, yet to this taster’s palate, they can often be too ripe, bordering on jammy. Yet if there’s one place outside of Italy where it makes sense for Barbera to succeed, it is in California.

Barbera has also had its challenges. For one thing, it’s a vigorous varietal that tempts some of the less quality-minded producers to opt for quantity over quality wine. Another drawback can be the use of oak, which when applied with a deft hand results in a gorgeous and well balanced wine but when over-used comes across as way to much makeup on a natural beauty. The good news is that most Barbera (juicy, ripe and vibrant) can be found at great prices.

One of my favorite styles of Barbera comes from Alba, with their darker, softer personalities, but there is one drawback. In Alba, Nebbiolo is king (the single grape responsible for making Barolo), and since most of the perfectly exposed parcels are given to Nebbiolo, it leaves Barbera with the less favorable spots. However, there are many producers that put much more emphasis on Barbera, both where it is grown and the attention it sees in the vineyard. Suffice to say, these are wines that are worth seeking out.

In Asti, Barbera takes the spotlight, which also means the best vineyard locations. These are mineral and acid-driven wines, which demand a plate of rich mountain food. I love them for what they are and often crave them with a slice of white pizza, polenta with Parmigiano-Reggiano or just about anything with mushrooms on top.

Then there’s Monferrato, which is considered by many to be the birthplace of Barbera. Producers here have been making good Barbera for quite some time but they are only starting to see good representation in the States. In my recent tasting, I found these wines to be the most exciting with a mix between the richer Alba style and the mineral Asti style, plus an air of Alpine hills. They are fascinating wines that require the attention of anyone looking to better understand Northern Italian reds.

Below, you’ll find my notes on over 20 current release Barberas. Some are from the top names in Piedmont, and some aren’t even from Italy. I think you’ll find the list to be quite useful and I’m pleased to say that many of my favorite bottles, like the Guidobono, can be found for well under $20. Enjoy.

On to the notes:

2009 Elio Grasso Barbera d'Alba Vigna Martina – The nose was modern and ripe but not overdone with notes of toasty oak, plum sauce, spicy black cherry and crushed stone. On the palate, it was smooth as silk and rich with balanced acidity keeping it juicy throughout. Flavors of savory black cherry and saline minerals gave way to dry wood tannins. The long finish was saturating with dark cherry fruit. It’s very good now, but I would give this a few more years in the cellar for the tannin to mellow. (92 points)

2010 Guidobono Barbera d'Alba – The nose showed a mix of ripe crushed berries with cinnamon and spice, floral notes and hints of herbs. On the palate, it had a medium body and filled the senses with silky black and red fruits yet remained juicy and focused throughout. The finish showed tart cherry, which lingered on the palate complemented by a hint of tannin. (92 points)

2009 Vietti Barbera d'Alba Tre Vigne – The nose showed ripe red berries and slight confectionary notes with spice and sawdust. On the palate, it was dark and spicy with a dollop of fresh acidity and soft textures yielding red and black fruits. The finish was dry, showing medicinal cherry and dark chocolate. It was easy to drink and refreshing. (91 points)

2010 La Casaccia Barbera Giuanin Barbera del Monferrato – The nose showed alpine notes of tart red berries, herbs, wild flowers and hints of pepper. On the palate, it was smooth yet intense with focused raspberry fruit and gripping tannin which fleshed out nicely toward the back palate. The finish was medium-long with lingering acidity and tart red berries. (90 points)

2009 Marchesi di Barolo Barbera d'Alba Ruvei – The very attractive nose showed spiced berries, herbs and leather. On the palate, it was intense yet silky, with tart berries and spice, softening acidity, and excellent balance. The finish was lingering with dark fruits, not long but very smooth. (90 points)

2009 Domenico Clerico Barbera d'Alba Trevigne – The nose showed cinnamon spiced red berries, menthol, underbrush and a hint of green stems. On the palate, it was velvety smooth with black cherry, notes of dark chocolate and a bitter twang toward the close. The finish was long with saturating dark red fruits that turned to cranberry over time. (90 points)

2010 Bruno Giacosa Barbera d’alba – The nose showed pretty red berries, hints of herbs and grasses yet somehow subdued. On the palate, it was soft and balanced with great textures, red berries and menthol, as the fruit turned tart. The finish showed fresh cherry. This was an elegant and complete wine, yet nothing stood out to me. (90 points)

2009 Elio Altare Barbera d'Alba – The nose showed red berries, savory spice, tomato leaf and tobacco. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with a zing of acidity, showing intense cranberry, herbs and bitter notes. The finish was medium-long with tart red fruits that saturated the palate. (89 points)

2010 Armando Parusso Barbera d’Alba Ornati – The nose showed red berries, with woodland and pepper notes. On the palate, it was lean yet fresh with red fruits and a savory, smoky quality made refreshing by brisk acidity. (89 points)

2009 Boroli Quatrro Fratelli Barbera d’Alba – The nose showed an attractive mix of wild berries, meaty, savory sauce and pepper. On the palate, it was intense with red berries verses soft cleansing acidity that kept this balanced. It was a nice, simple Barbera, not assuming yet very pleasant. (88 points)

2009 Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti Superiore Le Orme – The nose showed ripe, sweet red berries, candle wax and floral hints. On the palate, I found ripe red fruit with a good balance of acidity. The finish showed staying fresh red fruits and earth. This is highly enjoyable, but don’t try to overthink it, and it would make a great accompaniment to a plate of pasta. (88 points)

2009 Tenimenti Ca’Bianca Barbera d’Asti Superior Anté – The nose showed dark red berries, hints of licorice, spice notes and green stems. On the palate, it was soft with medium body, lower than expected acidity and flavors of tart berries that wrapped around the senses. The finish showed hints of cranberry, as tannin crept through slightly on the close. (88 points)

2011 Marchesi di Barolo Maraia Barbera del Monferrato – On the nose, I found wild berries, both red and blue, with hints of stems. On the palate, it was soft with tart berries but turned to cheek-puckering acidity and floral notes (lavender) lingering into the medium-length finish. (88 points)

2008 Tenimenti Ca’Bianca Chersi Barbera d’Asti Superiore – The nose showed dark red fruits, black cherry and tobacco. On the palate, it was rich and soft yet short with notes of red currant and hints of wood. The finish was short and simple yet pleasant. (87 points)

2009 Vietti Scarrone Barbera d’Alba – The nose showed rich, ripe cherry, cinnamon and dark chocolate. On the palate, it showed more dark chocolate, bitter red berries and teeming acidity versus a silky smooth mouth-feel. The finish showed tart red berries yet gave way to a sensation of alcoholic heat. (87 points)

2010 Jacuzzi Family Vineyards Barbera Mendocino Country – The nose reminded me of a cherry tartlet with savory grilled meat notes lingering in the background. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with gripping acidity, showing blackberry jam and pepper. The finish was chocolaty with hints of herbs. (87 points)

2011 McManis Janie Lynn Vineyard Barbera California – The nose showed floral red berries and spice. On the palate, it was smooth with cranberry fruit, yet light and diluted. The finish showed floral red fruits. (87 points)

2010 Marziano Abbona Rinaldi Barbera d’Able – The nose showed tart red fruits but was skunky, sweaty and herbal. On the palate, it was rich and intense with a nice zing of acidity that stayed with you. Intense, concentrated red berries and herbs filled the senses and then finished with staying acidic notes and chewy tannin. (86 points)

2009 Kramer Vineyards Barbera Walla Walla Valley – The nose showed red berries, herbs and notes of coconut. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with red fruits and an easy finish. (86 points)

2010 Bersano Costalunga d’Asti – On the nose, I found round red berries, a dusting of sugar and green stems. On the palate, it showed sweet red berries yet with good balancing acidity and hints of spice. However, the finish was very short and a bit drying. (85 points)

2006 Flavio Roddolo Barbera d'Alba – The nose showed medicinal cherry, cinnamon and hints of undergrowth, yet came across as dry and tired. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with brisk acidity and flavors that reminded me of a cherry Ricola. The finish was dry with lingering tart red berries. (84 points)

2007 Attilio Ghisolfi Maggiora Barbera d’Alba – The nose showed ripe black cherry, raspberry, vanilla, tobacco and spice. On the palate, it showed intense concentrated fruit against teeming acidity and tannin that attacked the palate and stayed through the tart finish. (83 points)

2009 Paolo Manzone Fiorenza Barbera D’alba – The nose showed red berries, herbal notes and medicinal cherry. On the palate, it was silky yet somehow dank, with overripe red berries and low acidity for Barbera. The finish showed tart fruit, but overall this wine came across as a little dirty and diluted. (82 points)

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