I’m a Pacific Northwest wine girl. Give me my Willamette Pinots and Walla Walla Syrahs all day long – they’re my woobie, my comfort zone, my home. Outside of the United States, I have put a stake in the ground in France. I’ve passed my French Wine Scholar exam, been inducted into the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, spent two weeks tasting in the French countryside, and stocked my wine fridge with more grower Champagne than I care to admit.
All of this brings me to Italy.
I don’t know much about Italian wines and I sure the hell am not comfortable with the ungodly number of DOCGs (74), DOCs (332) and IGTs (118). I mean, seriously, that is – to quote Hubs most eloquently – a “metric shit ton” of information for a single wine producing country. So to get me out of my comfort zone and expand my palate I took a deep breath and signed up for the Italian Wine Scholar exam.
Unlike the French Wine Scholar exam in which I was studying – for the most part – regions and grapes I at least had some degree of comfort with, with the IWS I feel like I’m starting from scratch. Sure, I know about Dolcetto and Nebbiolo – but Freisa or Bosco? Truth be told, before the IWS course I’d never even heard of these grapes! Thankfully the good folks at the Wine Scholar Guild graciously indicated “need-to-know” areas in the textbook so I’m not cramming my brain with minor details that won’t be on the exam.
My primary reasons for pursuing the IWS certification are twofold: (1) learn more about Italy in preparation for my WSET Diploma (starts in May!); and (2) get out of my comfort zone and expand my palate. I definitely tend to gravitate towards Syrah and Pinot Noir with regularity . . . too much so to be honest. If I can discover a few other go-to wines during my IWS studies, that would make all of these outlines and flashcards worthwhile (I think). Also, by almost every conceivable measure Italy is the largest wine producing country in the world – so, you know, I probably ought to be conversant about their grapes!
Fortunately, early on in my IWS studies I “re-discovered” Barbera which was a little like seeing an old friend on your first day at a new school. I’ve had it several times before, but always socially, never as part of my academic pursuits, which I honestly think makes me appreciate it even more. It’s a classic, “everybody loves a comeback” grape.
While Barbera’s exact origin is unknown, it’s believed to have existed in the Monferrato region of Piemonte (Northwest Italy) since the 7th century. So essentially, about a thousand years before Cabernet Sauvignon came into being! Currently, Italy is home to almost 85% of the world’s Barbera plantings with approximately 52,600 total acres. To put this into perspective, Italy’s Barbera production is roughly equivalent to every single grape grown in the entire state of Washington (see “metric shit ton” reference above).
Barbera used to be produced en masse and hailed as “the people’s wine”, with much of it being – to quote Miles – “quaffable, but far from transcendent.” Over the past 20+ years, Barbera has had a dramatic upgrade in its image and is no longer constantly playing second (or third) fiddle to other Italian red varietals. Producers are planting Barbera on more prized vineyard sites. Yields are being kept in check by careful pruning. And finally, to balance its crazy high acidity and diminished tannic structure, more producers are opting to age Barbera in smaller oak barrels as opposed to the traditional large neutral casks. This often results in a wine that has a layer of spicy complexity, mellowed acidity and a delicious combination of lively red fruit with vanilla notes.
When I was visiting my Dad during the holidays, we went on our traditional wine-tasting afternoon in the Red Mountain AVA (which he is fortunate enough to live practically next door to). While at one of our favorites, I noticed an older vintage of Barbera on their shelves. Knowing that there’s less than 100 acres of this grape grown in the entire state, I was curious what my home state’s version of this wine would taste like compared to the Italian classic. Here are my thoughts:
Kiona Vineyards 2010 Barbera, Red Mountain, WA. 14.5% abv. Medium ruby-garnet colored. The aromatics make me think of a delicate Cabernet – red currants and an almost vegetal note (I tend to get this with a lot of Red Mountain wines). This seriously smells like our friend Paul’s bourbon soaked cherries that he gave us a few years ago and we haven’t actually tried yet because I’m afraid I’ll be on my lips after having just one! Lots of secondary and tertiary aromas here as well – spice, charred oak, coffee, sandalwood. The wine is medium bodied and acidity is definitely pushing high. There’s a little bit of heat from the alcohol, noticeable but not overwhelming.
Cantina del Pino 2015 Barbera, Barbera d’Alba, Italy. 14.% abv. Color here runs a little more ruby-purple. This wine smells pretty – roses, black raspberries and cherries, pomegranate, but the aromatics are not nearly as strong or complex as the Kiona. On the palate, lots of the same juicy fruits with round/smooth tannins. This wine is very straightforward – it’s tasty, but there’s just not a lot going on.
While I enjoyed both, I surprised myself by preferring the Red Mountain Barbera over the classic Barbera d’Alba. The d’Alba was simple – very sour fruit driven with not a whole lot else going on. Nonetheless, both tasted delicious with my pizza! Barbera pairs wonderfully with a variety of foods – tomato based dishes like pasta or pizza, BBQ chicken or charcuterie.
Try it out for yourself – and check out the outline on Barbera!