Little red wine that could

Take notes on Italy’s lesser-known red wine, Barbera.

Ask most Italian red wine geeks about their favorites, and chances are they’ll say at least one of the following: Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello. Or as a brother-in-law lovingly calls them, “the Killer B’s.”

Pity that most of these folks don’t mention Barbera. Here’s a wine with zesty acidity, softer tannins (what typically makes your mouth pucker in big reds) and gobs of mouth-watering fruit. In other words, everything I love in red wines.

Plus, Barbera is way easier on your wallet than those other big B’s.
Like Barolo and Barbaresco, Barbera also comes from Italy’s Piedmont region in the northwest. Unlike Barolo and Barbaresco, made with Nebbiolo grapes, Barbera is made from Barbera grapes, the third most planted grape in the country. Footloose Italian winemakers have brought Barbera to other countries, including Brazil, Argentina and America, particularly, to California. (Barbera is even included as an ingredient in Martini Gran Lusso vermouth, lovely on the rocks with a twist of lemon as a before-dinner cocktail.)

Yet for many years, Barbera has been overlooked. Or maybe under-promoted. “For many years [Barbera] was looked at as a simple, daily drink that you enjoy while waiting for your Barolos and Barbarescos to mature,” says Bern’s Fine Wines & Spirits General Manager Kevin Pelley, a fellow Barbera lover. “But in the last decade, producers have begun to see Barbera as something more noble.”

To this end, winemakers are tinkering with more modern methods, including aging Barberas in oak barrels to give them more depth and complexity.

You can score a fantastic bottle of Barbera for around $15, though posher versions can run several times as much.

Al Beck, director of education at Premier Beverage Company, recently invited me to join him in tasting a handful of Barberas his company distributes.

We started with a bottle of 2011 Barbera D’Alba by Bruno Giacosa, a rock star among Barolo and Barbaresco fans. Clearly the guy wasn’t phoning it in with his Barberas either. Bursting with dark cherry and zingy acidity, this one seems to straddle the traditional and modern styles. A lovely wine and worth every penny of a $30 splurge.

Next up was a 2009 Coppo Canelli Camp du Rouss Barbera D’Asti ($23). Like its neighbor from Alba, this one is a rush of dark cherry and buzzy acid, with a hint of smoke.

We head next to California’s Alexander Valley, where Eduardo Seghesio came from Piedmont in the late 1800s to start what would become a powerhouse wine brand. Known mostly for their Zinfandels, Seghesio also produces Barbera. The 2011 Barbera ($40), like their zins, is a fruit grenade, gushing cherry and currant, with a hint of vanilla. This one’s a little big for my taste — and wallet.

Beck steers us way south, to Argentina’s 2010 Bodega Herrero Altos de San Isidro Reserve Barbera ($20). Made from grapes grown on some of the highest vineyards on the planet, where day and nighttime temperatures would give less hardy grapes whiplash, here turn Barbera into “a whole different animal,” Beck says. Cherry and zingy acid takes a back seat to a lush and velvety pluminess, with (I swear) a hint of bacon.

I have to admit I prefer the way the Italians do Barberas. Some other Barberas from the Boot I’ve recently tried — and liked — include a 2010 Domenico Clerico Trevigne Barbera D’Alba ($26). This one’s a great example of the classic lively cherry taste I love. Intense and lush.

I also loved the 2010 Beni di Batasiolo Barbera D’Alba ($20). A faint chocolate vibe really complements its bright cherry.

A great example of everyday Barbera is 2012 Fontanafredda Briccotondo Barbera. Gulpably delicious. And criminally cheap at less than $15 a bottle. It’s our semi-official house wine.

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