The grape variety barbera (bar-BEAR-uh) plays second fiddle to the more famous Barolo Italian grape. But over the last 20 years we’ve seen this grape receiving attention and Babera wines earn their place at the table. Once regarded as an ordinary everyday drinking wine, barbera grows around the world, but it is the vineyards of Italy’s Piedmont region that for centuries have produced the most concentrated and complex examples of this grape.
Here’s some trivia about this grape that makes for an interesting dinner conversation (at least for wine geeks). Barbera is thought to be nearly 1,000 years older than cabernet sauvignon. Researchers have found the grape can be traced as far back as the 7th century.
As with many a great dinner conversation, there is also a tale of scandal. A 1986 Time magazine article reported on a wine scare across Europe precipitated by the illegal use of wine additives. Eight Italians were found dead and more than 30 hospitalized after drinking Odore barbera. The wines were found to contain 5.7 percent methyl alcohol; the legal limit was 0.3 percent. Methyl alcohol is generally used in industrial applications including antifreeze, solvent and fuel. The scandal resulted in regulations that require all exported Italian wine to be carry a government certificate of purity.
Barbera can be refreshing in its youth with cherry and raspberry flavors or aged into a serious full-bodied style with a plummy spice taste. When made with care it can even deliver the undeniable “truffle” aromas and flavors reminiscent of the great wines of Piedmont.
This grape is often overlooked in food and wine pairing. As with most Italian grapes, its high acid content and soft tannins make it an almost perfect match with most foods.
- 2014 Paolo Marcarino Piemonte Barbera, Italy (about $14 retail)
- 2011 Michele Chiarlo Barbera D’Asti, Italy (about $21 retail)