Bodacious Barbera and Delightful Dolcetto: The Everyday Red Wines of Piemonte
Okay, so I'm a lousy poet. Elizabeth Barrett Browning didn't praise Barbera, and someone needs to do it. In recent months, I've discovered to my relief that I'm not the only Barbera-phile in the Bay Area (maybe we should call ourselves Barberarians?). On quite a few occasions, I've initiated conversations with a customer who's buying Barbera. It usually goes something like this: "This is delicious Barbera." "Yeah, I know - I drink it all the time." "Me too - I just love Barbera." "So do I - it's the perfect everyday wine." "Exactly!" Who says what is entirely interchangeable, and it's not what you'd call a profound
conversation, but it's always comforting to find someone who shares one's passion.
The remainder of this article is for Barbera lovers who want to know a little bit more about the object of their affection, as well as for those who suspect that they might be susceptible to its charms. I'll also talk about Barbera's cousin Dolcetto and the parts that these two wonderful wines play in Piemontese life - and can play in yours as well.
The Barbera and Dolcetto grape varietals come from the Piemonte region in northwest Italy. "Piemonte" means "foot of the mountain" in Italian and reflects this region's position and topography as the foothills of the Alps. In English-speaking countries, Piemonte often gets translated, by way of French, into "Piedmont". I'll use "Piemonte" in order to avoid any suggestion that we're talking about wine grapes grown in one of the more upscale communities of Oakland or in the Appalachian mountains of the Carolinas.
Barbera and Dolcetto are two thirds of the great triumvirate of Piemontese red wine grapes. Nebbiolo is the third member of the triumvirate. Nebbiolo makes the noblest - and most expensive - wines from Piemonte, including Barolo and Barbaresco. We'll reserve those wines for another paean in a future newsletter this year. Barbera and Dolcetto are traditionally the everyday wines - the wines that the Piemontese drink as they wait for their Nebbiolo to age.
Italian wine law - for the most part - follows the French model of placing primary importance on the location where the grapes are grown rather than on the grape varietals. Thus, Italian wines labels almost always indicate a more-or-less specific location: Barolo is from grapes grown in the Barolo zone around the town of the same name; Chianti Classico is from grapes in a legally delimited zone that stretches between Florence and Siena. You just have to know that Barolo is from 100% Nebbiolo grapes and Chianti Classico is mostly Sangiovese grapes.
For some other wines, however, Italian law dictates that wines be labeled with both the grape varietal and the location. Most Barbera and Dolcetto fall into this category. Thus you'll see Barbera d'Alba (Barbera from the region around the town of Alba) and Dolcetto di Dogliani (Dolcetto from around the town of Dogliani d'Alba, so-named because it's near the major town of Alba!).
Dolcetto is the most exuberantly fruity of the three Piemontese red wines. It's dark in color and evokes dark fruits such as blackberries and blueberries. Dolcetto usually is lower in acidity but higher in tannin than Barbera. Dolcetto's tannins are not the full-bore, teeth-rattling tannins of young Cabernet Sauvignon or Nebbiolo, though; rather, they're softer and more supple. Dolcetto also can display a pleasingly bitter edge, somewhat akin to bitter chocolate.
Traditional Piemontese meals begin with a seemingly endless procession of cold and warm antipasti plates, and Dolcetto is the perfect accompaniment to this parade of flavors. Outside of Piemonte, Dolcetto's qualities make it delightful for quaffing and with simple antipasti plates that feature salumi and cheeses. Dolcetto also works well with many vegetable and chicken dishes.
Most good Dolcetto comes from the Langhe - the region in southern Piemonte around the major town of Alba. Many of these wines are labeled Dolcetto d'Alba. You'll also see the names Dolcetto di Dogliani and Dolcetto di Diano d'Alba, which indicate wines from more specific regions around the smaller towns of Dogliani and Diano. These two locations are traditional centers of Dolcetto production, and their wines are worth seeking out.
Barbera, like Dolcetto, exudes luscious fruitiness, but more in the red range of the fruit spectrum - think red cherries, raspberries, and currants. As is true with many Italian red wines, Barbera often sports a sour twist, akin to sour cherries. Many Barberas show a bit of spiciness and earthiness, too. Barbera always retains lively acidity, which is responsible for its appealing freshness, zing, and ability to match a wide variety of foods. The Barbera grape is low in tannin - another reason for its versatility with food - although aging in small oak barrels can impart wood tannins to the finished wine (more on that possibility in a moment).
In Piemonte, Barbera traditionally accompanies the primi and secondi piatti - the first and second courses, which, after the procession of antipasti, can seem like the seventh and eighth courses.... Theprimi piatti usually consist of pasta or risotto and the secondi piatti of meat or fowl. For special meals, the secondi piatti may offer the occasion to move from everyday Barbera to special-occasion Barolo or Barbaresco, but often the Piemontese save Nebbiolo for after the main meal - to be accompanied by nothing more than a generous slab of aged Parmigiano Reggiano.
Barbera goes well with most traditional Italian dishes, from tomato and pesto sauces to osso buco and sausages. But Barbera's versatility a tavola doesn't end at Italy's borders. It happily accompanies just about any Mediterranean cuisine, including those with a touch of spiciness. I've even found Barbera to work well with some Asian food.
Barbera grows all over Piemonte, and indeed, across much of northern Italy, but its home is the Monferrato hills around Asti (Barbera d'Asti or Barbera del Monferrato) and the Langhe hills around Alba (Barbera d'Alba). A few kinds of Barbera, such as Monleale from the Colli Tortonesi in eastern Piemonte, list only the region on the label, with no mention of the grape varietal.
Traditional Barbera was aged in large, old barrels that didn't impart any wood flavors or tannins to the wine. Nowadays, most producers age the wine in stainless steel tanks when they want to achieve "traditional" style Barbera - that is, fresh, fruity, and uncomplicated. In recent years, however, many producers have experimented with aging Barbera - especially the fruit from their best vineyards - in small, new oak barrels ("barriques"). New oak, in addition to imparting some of its own oaky flavor, gives the fruit sweeter, glossier, and more complex dimensions. As I mentioned above, new oak also infuses some wood tannins into the normally low-tannin Barbera.
This barriqued "modern" style of Barbera is the cause of much controversy both in Piemonte and among us Barbera lovers abroad. The modernist defenders say that they're making more complex and interesting wines, as well as wines that are more immediately appealing to international consumers (who've been suckled on glossy, concentrated, barrique-aged reds). Detractors say that Barbera is supposed to be fresh and direct, and that oak tends to obscure its charms. "It's like painting a bunch of Baroque cherubim on a simple medieval chapel, " they might say; "you could do it, but why would you want to?" In addition, new oak barrels cost a lot of money, which makes the resulting wines a less appealing value.
In practice, many producers make two or three styles of Barbera, so that we can choose for ourselves based on preference, mood, or event. The lineup generally starts with a traditional, inexpensive Barbera that sees little or no new oak. Next up the oak-and-expense ladder comes a mid-range Barbera from more select fruit, some of which has been aged in barriques that aren't brand-new (and thus don't impart much oak flavor). Even those of us who shun oaky wines can find these Barberas very appealing. They aren't obviously oaky, but the fruit takes on a lovely depth and texture that's missing in the simpler wines. The top rung in oak and price is occupied by Barberas from the most favored vineyard sites (that is, the best fruit) aged entirely in barrique - usually some combination of new and not new. These wines often taste overtly oaky when they're young, so if you like the flavor of oak, you'll love this style of Barbera. Over the course of several years, the evident oakiness - along with the wood tannins - mellow and integrate with the fruit. So if you don't like oak, it's still worth setting aside a few bottles of modernist Barbera for a few years to see what you think as the wine evolves.
If you haven't yet discovered the charms of Barbera, I suggest that you start by trying one or more of our under-$10 bottles in the front of the store. We normally stock three, all of which are delicious and any of which will show you what well-made, clean, un-oaked Barbera is all about. If you're already a Barberarian, then peruse our burgeoning selection in the back of the store, just below red Burgundy and in front of Zinfandel. Most of the bottles in our Barbera-land cost between $12 and $20, but we have a few high-end choices, too. And while you're back there, take a look at our Dolcetto selection. Thanks to the excellent 2001 Dolcetto vintage, we've been stocking up on Dolcetto recently. As always, we're here to tell you about the specific wines and help you choose the perfect match for your meal, mood, or event.
PMW Barbera and Dolcetto Favorites
2001 Cantina del Pino Dolcetto d'Alba ($11.99): Cantina del Pino is one of our favorite producers in the Barbaresco region east of Alba, and all of their wines - Dolcetto, Barbera, and Barbaresco - are as delicious as they are good value. Their 2001 is everything that Dolcetto should be: fruity, firm, and full of easy elegance.
2001 Anna Maria Abbona Dolcetto di Dogliani 'Sorí Dij But' ($13.99): The village of Dogliani is, for many devotees, the mother church of Dolcetto: The soil and climate of Dogliani seem perfectly matched to the Dolcetto grape, and as a result, growers in the region plant Dolcetto in their best vineyard sites. Add to great terroir the devotion of a passionate grower-producer like Anna Maria Abbona and the result is extraordinary wine. "Sorí Dij But" is one of Anna Maria's single-vineyard Dolcetti - the impressively steep vineyard looks pretty much like the "coat of grapes" emblem on the label. (Perhaps the Abbona ancestors beat their swords into grape pruning knives - "make wine, not war"?). This is wine that, thanks to first-class fruit and judicious use of oak aging, manages to be both generous and serious at the same time.
2001 Barone Riccati Dolcetto delle Langhe Monregalesi 'Il Colombo' ($15): South of Dogliani, the village of Mondovì defines the center of a region called the Langhe Monregalesi. In recent years, this area has begun to give Dogliani a run for its money as the place for exceptional Dolcetto terroir, thanks especially to the winegrowing dedication of retired medieval philosophy professor Carlo Riccati and his wife, Adriana Giusti. The density of fruit and combination of suppleness with structure in this wine make it benchmark Dolcetto.
2000 Filippo Gallino Barbera d'Alba ($8.99): I drink this wine a lot, and every time I shake my head in awe at how good and cheap it is. The Gallino family, like so many of our Italian producers, combines traditional winegrowing know-how with scrupulous attention to quality in the vineyard and the winery. It borders on criminal that so many Californians content themselves with drinking mass-produced, soul-less supermarket schlock when they could be drinking real wine made by real human beings for the same money - or less. This one costs less than ten bucks. It's delicious and it has personality. Take it to parties. Drink it at home. Serve it at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and poetry slams. Spread the Barbera cult.
2000 Agostino Pavia & Figlia Barbera d'Asti 'Moliss' ($11.99): This wine is a perennial favorite among staff and customers alike. It's traditional Asti Barbera aged in large, older oak ovals, which brighten and deepen the fruit without making the wine taste oaky. If you want a stellar example of how inexpensive Barbera can be completely satisfying, then try this one.
Acidity is Your Friend
Acidity refers to the natural organic acids that all wine contains, as well as to the fresh, tart taste that those acids produce in your mouth. In other contexts, people sometimes refer to the basic taste characteristic produced by acidity as "sour" (for example, in a lemon or a dill pickle), but "sour wine" sounds like wine that's gone bad, so we say "acidic wine" instead. Other common adjectives for the same taste characteristic in wine are "snappy", "racy", and "zippy".
Most of the things that you put in your mouth for sustenance or pleasure contain some acidity - fruits, vegetables, beer, soft drinks, milk, etc. In many cases, the higher-quality, more interesting versions of those foods and beverages are the ones with higher acidity (up to a point, of course). Take apples as an example. A Red Delicious apple has a pleasant sweetness and tender texture that appeals to children, but to apple aficionados, it's disappointing because it lacks adequate tartness, crispness, and "snap". A Fuji apple, on the other hand, has a delightfully tangy and refreshing taste along with its crisper texture. One big difference between the two is that Fuji apples are a lot higher in acidity than Red Delicious apples.
The same characteristics hold true for wine. Adequate acidity is an essential characteristic of good wine - "good" in the sense that it tastes good and goes well with food. Acidity plays the following roles in wine:
- Acidity lends all wine freshness, vibrancy, and snap. Wines with insufficient acidity sometimes seem appealing at first, but after a few sips, they take on a "flabby" or "blowsy" character.
- Acidity makes wines taste good with food (and vice versa). Most foods have some acidity, and some foods, such as tomatoes, have a lot of it. If you drink a low-acid wine with these foods, the wine will taste dull. The food will taste less good as well.
- Acidity balances the sweet and bitter components in many wines.
- Acidity preserves all wine - it maintains freshness in young wines and protects long-aging wines from oxidation. Acidity is particularly important in preserving long-aging white wines, such as Riesling and white Burgundy. (Most long-aging red wines also gain protection from tannin.)
The answers to these questions aren't always evident, especially in a culture where our palates have been bombarded with soft drinks whose excessive sweetness masks their acidity and with commercial wines that favor innocuous smoothness over personality and compatibility with food.
It's a stereotype, but a partly accurate one, that European wines go better with food than do "New World" wines (that is, wines from places like the Americas and Australia with relatively young winemaking traditions). European wines in general go better with food for several reasons. European winegrowing climates tend to be cooler, which helps retain acidity in the grapes. Equally important, wine's role in Europe is and has been for centuries that of accompanying food. The European winemaking tradition aims to produce wines that taste good with local foods, which usually means wines with lively acidity. In addition, the average person's palate in European winegrowing countries hasn't been as "dumbed down" by bland, over-processed, industrial foods and beverages.
Of course, all of these statements are generalizations. There are plenty of conscientious New World winemakers producing delicious, balanced wines that go well with food. There also are quite a few European producers pumping out dull, flabby, industrial wine. The important thing is to appreciate the roll of acidity so that you can select wines that enhance your enjoyment of the beverage itself and the foods that it accompanies. In short, your wine - like your life - should have some zip in it.
By the way, you could organize an interesting and informative wine party around the theme of acidity. Choose a flight of wines made from one or two grape varietals, with examples ranging from low to high acidity. (We're happy to help you select the wines, although we'll have to send you elsewhere to find any really low-acid examples.) Taste the wines by themselves first, as described in the next article. Then bring out some food and re-taste the wines with it: Eat a small amount of the food, taste the first wine, note your impressions, and then repeat the sequence for each additional wine. Note the difference the food makes - in your perception of the wine's acidity, your perception of the other flavor characteristics of the wine and the food, and your overall enjoyment of both!
Wine Parties for Smarties
Wine parties can take many forms, including:
- A stand-up, mill-around cocktail party with cheese, tapas, or other light fare. The host provides cards or sheets with some brief information about the wines, which serve to enlighten and to encourage conversation. Discussion generally occurs in small groups clustered around the various bottles.
- An informal, non-blind tasting - that is, one in which the participants know the identities of the wines as they taste them. The participants sit around a table, taste the wines in the same order, and discuss them together. There are many variations on this theme. For example, you can taste and discuss the wines one-by-one or taste all of the wines and then discuss them as a flight (i.e., a group of wines). You can converse in a free-for-all manner, go around the table so that each person says something about each wine, or have a more knowledgeable wine nerd lead the conversation.
- A sit-down, wine-focused meal. The host selects a series of wines to try with one or more food courses. The event generally proceeds as in the informal, non-blind tasting, but with additional attention paid to the foods and how well various wines work with them.
- A formal, blind tasting - in other words, one in which the wine bottles are concealed so that participants don't know what they're tasting. Besides the variations listed for an informal, non-blind tasting, you get to choose among lots of fun wine parlor games, such as guess-the-varietal, guess-the-country-or-region, rank-by-preference, and rank-by-objective-quality. (Yes, the latter two are different - more about that in a future newsletter!) This kind of wine party is a great way to educate your palate, although it can be intimidating to neophytes. When a group of people decides to meet regularly to taste in this way, they graduate to tasting group status - like a book club, but with wines as "texts".
- Decide on a number of guests. Eight is optimal for fostering a single conversation around a table, but smaller and larger groups can work, too. A 750 ml bottle contains about 25 ounces of wine, so eight people will get about 3 ounces of each wine. That's a little more than half of a regular 5-ounce glass of wine - plenty for tasting, especially when you're doing multiple wines. Twelve people would get about 2 ounces each - still sufficient for tasting repeatedly over the course of an evening. Much more than 12 people will require more than one bottle of each wine.
- Choose a theme. "Pinot noir from around the world." "Rhône varietals in California." "2001 German Riesling." "Domestic vs. imported Chardonnay and Cabernet." "Zinfandel upside the head." "Drink pink." The possibilities are endless. If you can't think of one that tickles your fancy, just ask us.
- Decide who's bringing the wine. The simplest way is the "bring a bottle" plan - you announce the theme and ask each of the participants to bring a bottle that fits in. (Alternatively, have some people bring bottles and others bring food.) The most organized way is to have one person select all of the wines. With this approach, you can design a sensible and informative flight of wines based on varietal, region, producer, vintage, and so on. Of course, we're here to help you with that process.
- Choose food that works with the wine. This is a big topic, and of course any specific counsel will depend on the wines. In general, go for less extreme and complex food flavors so that you can focus on the aromas and flavors in the wine. Charcuterie, baguettes, and some cheeses are good, basic wine tasting fare. Contrary to popular belief, though, not all wines go well with all cheeses. If you need guidance, ask us and the good folks at the Pasta Shop's cheese counter next door.
- Cover the costs. If the total wine and food costs are more than what you normally spend to host a party, there's absolutely nothing wrong with making it a subscription event (i.e., split the cost among everyone.) After all, you're organizing a wine education event! Tell people the approximate cost when you invite them and get firm commitments so that you don't end up holding the bottle(s).
- Choose and buy the wine. Assuming that you're responsible for procuring all of the wines, select a group of wines that fits your theme and budget. Six different bottles provide decent variety without being overwhelming. Tasting any more than eight different wines requires almost super-human powers of concentration, patience, and endurance.
- Arrange for sufficient wine glasses. Ideally, each person should have as many wine glasses as there are wines to taste. Part of the value of tasting parties comes from being able to compare wines side-by-side as they evolve over time. If you have to finish one wine before you taste another one, then you can't make these comparisons easily. The easiest way to ensure sufficient glasses is to ask each person to bring the requisite number for herself. If you prefer to take care of everything yourself, you can buy or rent palettes of glasses. Ask us for suggestions.
- Provide spit cups and water glasses. Remember that you'll be putting more wine in your mouth at a more rapid rate than you do at a normal party. It is not rude to spit out wine at an event that involves wine tasting. Quite the contrary - it helps you stay clear-headed and appreciate the wine better later in the party (not to mention helping you get home safely). You can use plastic picnic cups, ceramic mugs, or, if you're into scrounging around antique shops, real spittoons. In any case, opaque spit receptacles are best - although spitting isn't rude, most people don't enjoy looking at a cup full of saliva mixed with various colors of wine. Also provide water glasses and lots of water for everyone. And don't mix up your spit cup and water glass....
- Prepare and serve the wines. If you're including any old bottles, move them into an upright position a day or two in advance so that any sediment settles to the bottom. When the big day comes, put the white and rosé wines in the refrigerator a few hours in advance. After your guests are assembled, uncork and serve the wines according to your plan (one by one or all together). You may want to decant old wines to minimize sediment - more on that in a future newsletter. Determine the appropriate serving size (25 ounces divided by the number of guests) and show everyone how much that is. If you're not sure, use a small glass measuring cup or chemistry beaker.
- Look, swirl, sniff, taste, and spit or swallow. You're probably familiar with the basic tasting sequence, but in case not, here it is: Note the wine's color and clarity. Swirl the wine in the glass to expose it to more air and thus release more of the aromatics. Put your nose in the glass, inhale deeply through the nose, and note the type and sequence of aromas. Take a small sip of the wine and note the type and sequence of flavors. Spit the wine into your spit cup or swallow it, and then notice the lingering tastes and aromas (the "finish").
- Initiate the conversation. At this point, there are no wrong answers. The initial goal should be to get everyone talking comfortably. Many people are intimated when they're asked to talk about wine, so you may have to work to help your guests feel at ease. Focus on trying to articulate your own sensory impressions and don't worry about any tasting jargon that you might have read. Half-formed impressions, personal vocabulary, and crazy associations are fine. We'll talk more about talking about wine in future wine party articles.
- Taste the wines over time. Wines change as they gain exposure to air and as they warm up. Some wines change dramatically. Taste each wine when you first open it, but leave some in your glass to taste over the next half hour, hour, or even longer. (This is a useful technique with all wine in all situations - not just at wine parties.)
- Remember that you don't have to drink all the wine. The goals are to learn a little about wine and to have fun - not to drain every bottle. Send partially consumed bottles back with your guests (in a locked trunk, of course).
At Paul Marcus Wines, we focus on good-value Bordeaux in the 10 to 25 dollar price range. We leave the hundreds-of-dollars-per-bottle first-growth châteaus to shops that specialize in Bordeaux. For us - and for most of you - the great thing about 2000 Bordeaux is that you can buy some truly delicious Cabernet Sauvignon - Merlot blends for not a lot of money. We've just received a crop of excellent and reasonably-priced 2000 Bordeaux, some of which drink well now and all of which will improve with age. We taste the wines so that we can tell you what they're like, rather than expect you to buy on reputation or a supposed expert's point rating.
These are the consummate steak and lamb wines. Pick up a nice piece of grass-fed beef from Enzo's next door to our shop, put it on the grill briefly (rare or medium-rare, of course), pop a few potatoes in the oven, toss a salad, and open one of these wines. It's pretty hard to find a meal as simple and satisfying. If you have some extra space in a closet or basement, consider putting together a mixed case so that you'll have some bottles ready for special occasions in the coming years. Whether you choose to drink them now or later, come in and ask us for some specific recommendations.
- La Grange Clinet Premier Côtes de Bordeaux ($8.99)
- Château de Malleret Haut-Médoc ($12.99)
- Chateau D'Aurilhac Haut-Médoc ($13.99)
- Château Lousteauneuf Médoc ($13.99)
- Château Robin Côtes de Castillon ($15)
- Château Bel-Air Côtes de Castillon ($16)
- Château Teynac Saint-Julien ($17)
- Château Picque Caillou Pessac-Leognan ($19)
- Château du Seuil Graves ($20)
- Château Garreau Côtes de Blaye ($20)
- Château de Pont du Guitre Lalande de Pomerol ($25)
- Château Corbin-Despagne Saint-Émilion ($25)
- Château Bonalgue Pomerol ($44)