5 Nights of Barbera (#ItalianFWT)


Today I’d like to introduce you to my nominee for Italy’s Miss Congeniality Grape award: Barbera. It’s bright, it’s lively, it’s food-friendly, and you don’t have to wait a million years for it to be ready to drink. It’s sometimes referred to as “the people grape,” because while it never seems to get the limelight given to Italy’s superstar grapes, it is what people are drinking day-to-day.  Basically, she’s the fun girl next door you really want to be hanging out with at the party while the cool kids are hogging all the attention. 

Barbera is planted in many areas around Italy, however, it is definitely most associated with the Piedmont region in the northwestern country where it is the most planted grape. It’s believed to have originated here in the hills of Monferrato east of Turin, although this isn’t certain – it’s an ancient grape and its origins are fuzzy. Poor Barbera has long played second-fiddle to Nebbiolo in terms of fame in its home area. Nebbiolo is a fussy diva, both to grow and to make, but it commands high prices so it tends to get preferential treatment when it comes to getting the sweet spots in the vineyards.


I think Barbera may still have its Cinderella moment though. Persnickety Nebbiolo has generally not traveled well. Italian immigrants tended to bring their wine grapes with them as they settled in the New World. While Nebbiolo just never seemed to be quite a home anywhere but Piedmont, Barbera has been more adaptable. It also has a big plus in its favor going forward. This grape tends to show lots of acidity, and it keeps it even when it’s fully ripe in warm climates. I can absolutely see plantings climbing as global warming increases, particularly in areas that already tend to be warm like parts of California and Australia. 


Barbera has another plus in its favor even back home in Italy. While Nebbiolo tends to take years to be ready to drink thanks to its rather harsh tannins, Barbera is good to go much more quickly. There’s a saying that Barbera (along with Dolcetto) is what you drink while you waiting around for the Nebbiolo to be ready. This definitely holds true around here. I have lots of bottles of Barolo and Barbaresco that I’m waiting on to be ready. I also tend to treat them as special occasion wines, whereas Barberas are on regular rotation. 


Barbera tends to show flavors of bright sour cherries, often with a plush, plummy quality, sometimes mixed in with darker fruit flavors, as well as licorice, with a hint of pepper, and dried herbs. I personally also often get a savory tomato note, along with warm earthy flavors as well. You might also get notes of baking spices depending on if the winemaker chose to use oak. It’s made in a range of styles that can vary from juicy, bright and rustic, to deep, dark, polished, and spiced up with oak treatments. The wines tend to show a good depth of flavor and a medium to full body that often feels much lighter thanks to that bright acidity and fairly low tannins. 


This grape is one of my go-to’s for red sauce Italian and one of my very favorite grapes to pair with pizza. Its bright tangy quality works so beautifully with tomatoes, and the flavors of the sauce are mirrored so well in many of the wines that it makes me want to just grab a glass and hunker down next to a pot of simmering tomato sauce with a big hunk of garlic bread. The earthy notes work super well with mushrooms too. Barbera is also a great choice if you’re looking for a red wine to go with seafood thanks to those low tannins. 


Today we’re going to explore five examples from four different areas:

  • Barbera d’Asti DOCG  -  This is often considered the best region for Barbera since the grape has less competition for the prime vineyard real estate from its frenemy Nebbiolo. Barberas from this area are known for their finesse, liveliness, and elegance.

  • Barbera d’Alba DOC - Alba is also well-known for its Barbera, however, here it does have to compete with Nebbiolo for the prime spots. The Barberas here are known for their power and rich, bold flavor.

  • Canavese Barbera DOC - This region was new to me. It’s a subalpine region located north of Torino, bordering Valle d'Aosta. The area is known for its castles bringing in a touch of fairy tale flare. They produce red, white, and rosé wines. Nebbiolo is the most widely planted grape, followed by Barbera, Vespolina, and Bonarda. The white wine is made from the Erbaluce grape. The Barberas of the areas are described by the Italian Wine Guide as being “ruby red wine with purple reflections, with a vinous characteristic and slightly fruity aroma and a dry, balanced and full-bodied taste.”

  • Santa Ynez Valley, California - California wines almost always tend to express more fruit flavors upfront when compared to Old World wines, thanks to all the time they spend in the sun. The Santa Ynez Valley is in Santa Barbara county which has a great combination of factors in its favor. The hills here run east to west, rather than north to south, and this helps to channel wind inland. This helps grapes keep their acidity, even while they soak up the sunshine. Even for warmer sections of the county, like the Santa Ynez Valley, benefit from this and remain cooler than other inland sections of the state.


THE WINES


Agostino Pavia & Figli Bricco Blina Barbera d’Asti DOCG 2016



100% Barbera  | Average Price: $15 | Farming: Sustainable | Additional details here and here.


Agostino Pavia is a specialist in Barbera, producing four different bottlings of Barbera d’Asti in their line-up. The company is now largely under the control of Agostino’s sons Giuseppe and Mauro, who represent the 5th generation of the family to be in wine production. They’re located in Agliano, one of the best-known villages for the grape in the Asti zone. They farm sustainably and maintain very low yields, so as to showcase the grape at its best. The “Blina” bottling is named for the old-vine vineyard it’s sourced from and is intended as a straightforward expression of Barbera. This wine sees no oak, spending one year in stainless steel, 5 months in bottle. 


The winery also has an agriturismo where guests can stay – noting for future travels!


Tasting Notes: Aromas of black cherry, red berries, black tea, dried herbs, black licorice, and a hint of cinnamon on the nose which must have been coming from the grapes themselves, since there is no oak here. All of the flavors return on the palate and joined by a dab of tomato paste and more mixed herbs. It’s deep and bright with easygoing tannins. The wine is straightforward (as intended), and a good example of the grape. I have similar notes for the 2014 bottling, but with a more rustic vibe and no spice on the nose.


Pairings: I have bought this wine often as I find it to be a good value, so I’ve had it with lots of different things including lasagna, pizza, and arancini with tomato sauce. I’m showcasing it here with a shrimp sauté as an example of a really good red wine and seafood pairing.




There’s no need for a recipe to make this. Simply suaté onions and peppers until tender, then add garlic, tomatoes (canned or fresh), salt and pepper, red chili flakes, and savory herbs of your choosing like oregano or basil. Once everything is tender and saucy, add in shrimp and cook until no longer pink. Serve on its own or on pasta, orzo, or rice. 



Bel-Sit Sichivej Barbera d'Asti Superiore DOCG 2001





100% Barbera | Average Price for all vintages: $15 | Additional details here.


Bel Sit was founded in 1870 and belonged to the Rivella family for 6 generations. It has belonged to Andrea and Gianpiero Scavino since 2019, although they have been producers since 1996. They’re located in the municipality of Castagnole delle Lanze, halfway up an amphitheater-shaped hillside with a southwest aspect overlooking the Langhe. 


The Superiore designation requires that wines have at least 12.5% abv (one percentage point above the regular DOCG requirement), and be aged for at least 14 months, 6 months of which it’s stored in oak or chestnut barrels. I’m not sure about this specific vintage, but the specs for the current vintages say that the wines are fermented in stainless steel vats, then are aged for nine months in French oak barriques, after which they’re allowed to mature for another 15-18 months in barrique.


Tasting Notes: Barbera isn’t a grape that’s known for aging particularly well, but this bottle from 2001 that I pulled from “my cellar” was holding up pretty well with almost 20 years of age when I opened it up last year. It was showing some age, so there were even more savory and earthy notes going on than one would expect to see in a younger wine. Flavors of mushroom, leather, and tobacco were all on display up front, then followed by flavors of sun-dried tomatoes and dried cherries. The grape’s acidity helped to maintain a sense of vibrancy.


Pairing: I find that having an older wine with mushrooms brings an added sense of perceived freshness to the wine and helps to better bring out the fruit notes. This trick worked here. I mixed sautéed mushroom in with leftovers of this Italian Braised Pork which topped crisped up leftover polenta with a generous sprinkle of Parmesan. The wine’s acidity cut through the pork’s richness beautifully, and the mushroom tied all the earthy notes together. 





I opened the next two bottles together and enjoyed them over two nights, and each won the pairing battle one night.



Fratelli Revello Barbera d’Alba 2018 DOC




Barbera| Alcohol: 14.5%  | Average Price:$18 | Farming: Practicing Organic | Additional details here and here.


Brothers Enzo and Carlo Revello took over their father’s nine-hectare estate in 1990, and added a family-run restaurant to the winemaking business, working alongside their wives. The brothers are also very close to respected winemaker Elio Altare, who offered guidance as they switched to making wine full-time after leaving other careers. In 2016, the brothers decided it was time to pass the reigns to the new generation, and decided to split the estate so as to be able to make way for their respective children. Enzo retained the Fratelli Revello label and part ownership of each of the Revello crus. The estate is now under the leadership of his daughter, Elena, and his son, Simone. 


Tasting Notes: Dark cherry notes hit on the nose, along with hints of spice, and a little sun-dried tomato. Dark berries, plum, and black cherry continued on the palate along with black licorice, white pepper, and hints of medicinal herbs. There is a plushness to the texture of the mouthfeel, although the body doesn’t feel heavy (medium/medium +), the acidity remains to create lift, and there’s just a dusting of medium - tannins. 




Pairings: This was a great pairing for an Easy Cioppino. The acidity matched the tomatoes in the soup, and the fairly light tannins didn’t compete with the shellfish. It also worked quite well with gnocchi with beef ragu, but in this case, we would’ve liked just a little more tannin to match the meat.



Cantine Briamara Barbapreve Canavese Barbera DOC 2017 




100% Barbera| Alcohol: 13%  | Purchased for $16.70


I couldn’t find much on this winery, other than a little snippet on the Torino DOC website. This is apparently still a young company that is still evolving from dynamic owners. Elisa and Massimiliano combined the experience they gained from their families and have been focused on grape growing. The back of the bottle has some additional info.


I purchased this wine via Garagiste, and the email offer on this wine also had considerable details on the winemaking which are here abbreviated:


Vineyard altitude: 350 meters above sea level

Soils: Morainic, of glacial origin

Land exposure: South

Yield per hectare: 60 quintals / Ha

Vinification: destemming and crushing, maceration in steel tanks for about 10 days, with short and delicate pumping over.

Aging: 12 months in used Slavonian oak tonneau, minimum 2 months in bottle.

Serving temperature: 16/18 ° C.

Aging Capacity: Exuberant in youth, over time it tames reaching excellent harmony and a delicate balance.

Food matches: Excellent with medium-aged cured meats and cheeses, traditional appetizers, stuffed pasta, second courses with meat.


Tasting Notes: Lightly smoked cherries, red licorice, red plums, and sandalwood aromas hit on the nose. Some darker fruit notes join the smoky cherries and red plums on the palate, with some hints of dried fruits mixed in with the fresh fruit notes. Hints of white pepper, tomato paste, and dried herbs lead to a savory finish. The wine showed a lot of depth and despite being a little lower in alcohol and body than the Fratelli Revello, it showed more structure with more grippy tannins by comparison.


Pairing: This was excellent with Cauliflower Gnocchi with Beef Ragù. The combination of acidity and that extra bit of tannin in the wine worked deliciously with the meat sauce.



I made this basically the same way as this Easy Pork Ragù, but with leftover braised meat. I’ve been making variations of this a lot and you can do this with any leftover braised meat. Check out these recipes for options:

It also wasn’t bad with the cioppino, however, the extra tannin worked against the wine in this combo.



L.A. Lepiane Walker Vineyard Barbera Los Olivos 2018



100% Barbera| Alcohol: 14%  | Price:$30 (sample), but currently sold out | Farming: Grapes are sourced from Walker Vineyard which is farmed organically. | Additional details here.


I spoke with L.A. Lepiane's winemaker Alison Thomson for participation in the Slow Wine Guide last fall, but her Barbera has been my favorite California expression of the grape pretty much since I first tried it a couple of years ago. It’s a wine that just makes me happy. 


She’s pretty much a one-woman show. Food and wine were important in her family. She also had a grandfather who immigrated from Italy and started a grocery store and winery in California, so the traditions were in her blood. She spent time in Piedmont learning on an internship where she learned the rituals of wine at the table.  She completed a masters in agronomy at UC Davis and then went on to work at wineries around California.  The time in Italy stuck with her though, and several of the wines she now makes under her own label are made from Italian grapes. She uses only neutral oak on this wine and minimal sulfur.


Tasting Notes: This wine tastes like summer to me! Sunny, bright red berries greet you on the nose while light floral notes waft in as from a terracotta pot somewhere in the background.

It’s exuberant on the palate with that mix of warm yet bright red fruits and wildflowers. Barbera’s savory notes of tomato and herbs join in on the finish. 


Pairing: I took this wine to share with Greg’s parents in San Diego at Christmas. We enjoyed it with dinner that was a bit of a mix of components. I made arancini out of a mushroom risotto I’d made a few days earlier. Meanwhile, Greg cooked some herbed chicken breasts sous vide which gives them a tender, silky texture.  I made a creamy mushroom sauce to enjoy with them both. This brought out a bit more of the wine’s earthy side, but its vibrance was in no way hidden. 


*****

The rest of the Italian Food Wine Travel group is also exploring Barbera this month. Be sure to check out their posts:


Additional sources used for this post and extra reading:

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4 comments

  1. "Italy’s Miss Congeniality Grape" love it! You found really reasonably priced wines. What a great way to prove that sustainable agriculture doesn't have to cost the consumer an arm and a leg.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks so much Andrea! And yes agreed, it's really great to find sustainably made wines at good prices.

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  2. Fun post! I agree that Barbera wins for Miss Congeniality! Great selection of wines and pairings as well.

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