Back when I first started writing about wine, mumble years ago, I – like almost every newly-minted writer, wrote with the absolute conviction that the generalizations I had learned were true.
Like anyone who’s stepped off home plate in their own personal wine quest, it didn’t take long to realize how wrong I was. It’s one of the many, many reasons I can’t really bear to read my oldest work. It’s not just that it’s wrong, it’s that it’s so breathlessly naïve. Oh, well. Nothing to do about it now except to continue learning how much I didn’t, and don’t, know.
One of those iron-clad truisms of yore was about barbera: red-fruited, high-acid, great with tomato sauce. It had to be true, didn’t it? It certainly was the conventional wisdom, mindlessly repeated in just about every wine text of the time. It probably still is. And I suppose that I’d had barbera that tasted like that on which I could base this enthusiastically-expressed opinion. But even then, in the dark mists of mumble years ago, it was only barely true. Because the fetish for concentrated, lavishly wooded, and (it must be said) internationalized barbera was in already full swing.
Hey…why the sudden interest in barbera? It’s not – objects the imaginary interlocutor that I find so valuable when constructing an argument – like I often write essays on specific grapes or wines. OK, OK, my imaginary friend’s caught me. I’m going on a junket. To Asti. To taste a bunch of barbera. To learn where I have and haven’t been wrong all these years. And to increase my depleted store of barbera-related puns. (Is it bad of me that this latter reason fills me with as much joy as those that precede it?) Anyway, fear not: the barbera-infused coverage that follows – and there will be some – will be properly disclaimed, as promised. And I will, both on oenoLog and in longer form here, eventually report on every single wine I taste…good, bad, or indifferent.)
Anyway, back to the aforementioned fetish. It was probably a trend that made a lot more sense on the ground in Italy, where there was almost certainly a veritable ocean of overcropped, underripe barbera against which to rebel. It is, after all, one of the most widely-planted red grapes in Italy. (Did you know that, imaginary guy? I didn’t.) As with anything that everyone plants…merlot, cabernet, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, I’m looking at all of you with an eye full of jaundice…a lot of it is going to be bad, or at best indifferent. So the inclination to head in the opposite direction with the grape was certainly understandable. Still is.
The thing was, the wines made a little less sense on the American side of the pond. Fruitier wines? We’ve already got ‘em. Bigger wines? Oakier wines? Check, check. Wines that taste like they come from the New World? Hey, that’s us! More expensive wines in fancier packages? It’s like a birthright.
Also, there was this. We haven’t had much success with Italian grapes in this country, which is an oddity considering how much the historical California wine culture owes to Italian immigrants and their descendants. But the one grape that did seem to work here was…you guessed it, imaginary respondent…barbera. I recall, with great fondness, a Renwood Barbera from the Linsteadt Vineyard that was full-bodied, incredibly appealing, and (this is the important part) easily outdid the Italian taste-alikes at their own game. That producer has gone to industrial hell, and I’ve lost track of the vineyard (it continues to exist, though not in any wines I see on my local shelves), but I still remember the wine. There are current alternatives, some from the same region in the Sierra Foothills, that are almost as good, and I drink them with marginal regularity.
As for the mostly-Piedmontese variations on the same theme? For one thing, they didn’t wear their oak well. Part of it was the acidity, which couldn’t really be tamed; one of the keys to the international style is low acidity, and without de-acidifying this just wasn’t going to be possible in barbera’s historic soils. High acid and overt new wood rarely meld well, to my palate. And for another, the effort to concentrate the fruit was tangible; one could taste the purposeful striving, and not always in a good way.
And so, I mostly gave up on the grape. Oh, there’s be an occasional bottle or taste along the way. But if it wasn’t my Platonic ideal of a marinara wine, and the modernized alternatives weren’t the kind of wine I like to drink (which they rarely were), what was the point? I moved on to other enthusiasms, and even occasional forays back into the Piedmont for something other than nebbiolo yielded more freisa than they did barbera. Dolcetto I never abandoned, but barbera was off my radar.
Even after a 2007 visit to the region, I didn’t really change my view. Looking back, I’m not sure why. I tasted some spectacular barbera, at Brovia and elsewhere, that demonstrated a sophistication and confidence with the grape that hadn’t been there before. The oak (when present) was integrated, the fruit rounder but not overworked, the fundamental acidity unquestionably present but not dominant. I can only blame the ever-expanding world of options for my failure to start traipsing through those cherried fields again.
And now, there’s an opportunity to make up for that lack, and to fill the gaps in my education. To taste not just those barbera deemed fit for the U.S. market, nor just those pre-selected for my traditionalist enthusiasms, but to really dig into the modern state of the grape. It should be fun.