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The Great Underdog of Piedmont

by Brian Freedman

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The Great Underdog of Piedmont Barbera, the vastly underappreciated grape of Italy’s Piedmont region, is finally catching on outside of wine circles. It’s about time: Barbera’s range of styles, its easy pairability with food, and, yes, its ability to age gracefully, make it one of the truly great grapes of a country with no shortage of them.

But for far too long, Barbera has labored in relative obscurity, at least as far as the wider wine-drinking public has been concerned. Some of this, I think, is the result of the American tendency to focus so attentively on the most classically prestigious grapes of a region, the ones that not only get the lion’s share of press, but also command the highest prices and benefit from the most visible locations on top restaurants’ wine lists.

And while the most famous wines of Piedmont, the all-Nebbiolo beauties from Barolo and Barbaresco, are among the finest reds the world, they are not the only wines from the region deserving of attention and accolades.

In fact, Angelo Gaja, the trailblazing, Barbaresco-based producer and one of the greatest winemakers on the planet, uses a splash of Barbera in some of his most famous wines. Gaja’s Sori San Lorenzo, Sori Tildin, and Costa Russi, all single-vineyard bottlings from Barbaresco, are, I believe, the greatest expression of terroir in that storied appellation. But they are labeled Langhe DOC and not Barbaresco DOCG, which is arguably more prestigious. Why? Because of the 5% Barbera Gaja adds. Such, then, is the supreme utility of Barbera that one of the greatest producers in the world adds a bit of it to his otherwise Nebbiolo-based, Barbaresco-bred, single-vineyard wines in order to make them even better, regardless of what the law says he can then put on the label. And the proof, as always, is in the wine itself: These are wines of a completeness and beauty that defy questioning.

Barbera is also stepping into the spotlight on its own, and, by a handful of visionary producers, being planted and vinified in such a way that its full potential is finally being recognized by the wine-drinking world at large.

One of the most important developments in Barbera’s path to individual stardom has been its acceptance as a variety of great enough potential that it is now considered worthy of some of the best vineyard sites in the region. With wine, after all, location is often destiny, and planting a grape on a great vineyard site as opposed to a merely good one is often the difference between a pleasant bottling and a profound one. This was made deliciously clear this past autumn at a Vietti Barbera lunch I attended at New York’s Grayz restaurant.

Vietti, one of the great family estates in Piedmont, produces a broad array of wines, including Roero Arneis, Moscato d’Asti, Dolcetto, Barolo, Barbaresco, and, yes, Barbera. The focus of this lunch was on Vietti’s Barberas, and to help guide us was Luca Currado, the charming, passionate winemaker of his family’s estate.

The Barbera d’Asti “Tre Vigne” 2006 showed leather, spice, and ripe blackberry notes on the nose, and a palate of supremely well-integrated tannins and the classic bright acidity of the varietal. It was a wine of real breed and finesse, and paired wonderfully with butternut squash soup.

As is typical of the difference between the terroir or Asti and Alba, the Barbera d’Alba “Tre Vigne” 2006 was darker and more mushroom-y on the nose, with hints of raspberry and wild strawberry. The palate was anchored by more pronounced tannins than the Asti bottling, and had the rich character of chocolate and blackberries that found a gorgeous counterpart in bacon-wrapped swordfish with lentils and fig jam.

Vietti is perhaps most revered for its single-vineyard Barberas, which are some of the most profound expressions of both the grape and the terroir you’ll find in the region. The Barbera d’Asti “La Crena” 2005, while still young, showed great potential to develop into a rich, aromatic wine as it evolves over the next 5 – 10 years. The Barbera d’Alba 2006 “Scarrone” was more floral on the nose than the underbrush- and blackberry-leaning La Crena. The Scarrone also featured a fabulous spine of minerality, and possessed the structure to keep developing and getting even better for many years to come.

We ended with the Barbera d’Alba “Scarrone Vigna Vecchia” 2006, a wine produced from grapes more than 85 years old. This, it seemed to me, embodied everything that Barbera can be: Rich, weighty, redolent of an almost Barolo-like combination of flowers and tar, fabulously expressive of both the grape variety itself and the land in which it is planted. Barbera’s time has come. All that’s left now is for its popularity to gain an even wider foothold. I have no doubt it will continue to do so.

Wine of the Month
Vietti Barbera d’Alba “Scarrone Vigna Vecchia” 2006
Leather, mushrooms, flowers, and tar on the nose lead the way to a deliciously concentrated mid-palate of tongue-coating dark berry fruit. The finish leans in the direction of mocha, yet despite all this richness, there’s enough acidity to keep it fresh, food-friendly, and appropriate for enjoying in the short-term or years from now.

Brian Freedman is a food and wine writer, wine educator, and wine consultant. He is Director of Wine Education at The Wine School of Philadelphia, contributing writer for John Mariani's Virtual Gourmet, contributing editor and food and drinks writer for Philadelphia Style Magazine, contributing writer for Where Magazine and the annual GuestBook, and writer of the weekly wine blog at WineChateau.com. He is also available for speaking engagements, and can be found at www.BrianFreedmanPhiladelphia.com.





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