Art, architecture, food, and wine. What’s not to love about Italy? From time immemorial, Italy has been spreading its culture across the world, dating back to the days of the Roman Empire.
From aqueducts for irrigation, sewers for sanitation, all the roads in the known world that led back to Rome, the Italian peninsula jutting deep into the Mediterranean Sea has brought many wonders to the world, despite what those malcontents from the Judean Peoples Front and Peoples Front of Judea may have told you.
We might not be able to gaze upon the beauty of the Sistine Chapel from here in Alberta, but the food and wine of Italy has been exported the world over, and is always available for a night out at a local restaurant, or corked and bottled for you to enjoy at home.
From the light and bubbly Prosecco that is basically joy in a glass, to the full-bodied and robust reds that can be aged for decades, there are Italian wines for every palate and every occasion.
Italian wines are labeled based on their geographic origin (Tuscany, Piedmont, Sicily, etc) rather than the grape in the bottle, so it can be a considerable challenge for the average consumer to know exactly what grape makes up their favourite wine.
The 3 most widely planted grapes in Italy are Sangiovese, Montepulciano, and Barbera, of which Barbera is my favourite.
With more than 50 000 acres under vine, Barbera is the 3rd most widely planted grape in Italy, and is mostly grown in the Piedmont region near the border with France and Switzerland.
The earliest historical records of Barbera grapes date back to the 13th century, when it was praised for its reliable and robust growth on the steep hills of the Piedmont region.
Italian immigrants have planted the grape in many parts of the world, but the Piedmont region is still the king of the hill, although parts of Argentina, Australia, and California are slowly beginning to show promising examples of Barbera wines.
Unlike pricey wines made from the Nebbiolo grapes that are planted in the same region, Barbera is the grape of the people, making cheerful and affordable wines for everyday drinking.
Wines made from the Barbera grape were not commonly exported outside of Italy until a few decades ago, so it is still a fairly new wine for North American consumers. Fortunately, its generous yields in the vineyard allow it to be made into a cheap table wine for the domestic market, as well as a pricier and more complex wine by aggressively pruning the vines to reduce yield and increase the flavour intensity.
We see very little of the mass market vino da tavola (table wine) versions of Barbera in North America, with the more expensive DOC wines that come from only from the finest vineyards making up the bulk of the export market.
Barbera wines are famous for their distinctive licorice flavouring, bone-dry finish, and deep purple hue, which I must confess has stained my teeth almost black on many a night.
The licorice notes are typically complemented with blackberry flavours, as well as hints of dried herbs and spicy black pepper on the finish, making this a wine that pairs delightfully with Italian dishes with tomato sauces, especially pizza and pasta.
The high acidity in Barbera also complements fatty foods like a marbled steak or creamy soft cheese. My favourite pairing is with a grilled steak with blue cheese sauce, or an eggplant casserole with cream sauce.
While the majority of Barbera is aged in oak barrels for less than two years, Barbera that spends a few more years in oak will develop smoky notes of vanilla and clove on the tongue, with a spicy finish of clove and sumac as the wine continues to evolve.
Barbera can be a bit astringent when bottled as a single varietal, so it is typically blended with small amounts of the more expensive Nebbiolo or Sangiovese grapes. Unlike its pricier cousins, Barbera is ready to drink quite young, which saves precious cellar space in the vineyard, which translates to a lower price at your local bottle shop.
You will find plenty of Barbera wines at your friendly neighbourhood booze merchant, and at Italian restaurants and pizza joints near you. Give one a try today!