By Celia Strong
Off we go to Italy again this week. But this time for a red wine. This wine has been around for a while. We’ve had it on the shelves for at least five years. Of course what’s on the shelf now is the newest vintage, but, except for this vintage, it’s been there for a while. The problem is, if you want to see it as a problem, that with all the new wines that are coming in all the time, it gets very easy to forget about the old standards. Our job this week is to revisit one of those standards.
It comes from northwestern Italy, the region of Piedmont. Or, if you’re speaking Italian, Piedmonte. There are a wide range of wines that come from Piedmont. A couple of weeks ago we talked about one town there, Asti, and the Moscato wines from there. Other white grapes include Cortese that makes Gavi wines and Arneis. For red varieties, Nebbiolo (of Barolo and Bararesco fame) and Dolcetto are the two best known. A third red variety, Barbera, is what we’re going to look at and drink this week.
Like most of Italy, the Romans cultivated the vineyards of Piedmont. Because of this region’s closeness to France, its wines have been influenced by that country, in particular the French region of Burgundy. Even today that influence is evident in the non-blending style of most Piedmont wines. The first literary mention of Piedmont wines comes from the 14th century from an Italian agricultural writer. He noted among other details how the vines in Piedmont were trellised closer to the ground rather than being allowed to grow up into the trees. In the 17th century, the Duke of Savoy earned broad renown for his pale red wine, Chiaretto, made entirely from Nebbiolo.
During the unification of the Italian papal provinces, Piedmontese winemakers and land owners played pivotal roles. The first Prime Minister of the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, Camillo Benso, introduced many French viticultural techniques to the region. One of the sparks that ignited the Italian revolt against Austria was the Austrian government’s double tariff on Piedmont wines sent into Austrian controlled parts of Italy – Lombardy, Emilia and the Veneto. This had a crippling effect on the Piedmontese wine industry because it basically cut their wines off from their main markets. In 1846, King Charles Albert of Sardinia spoke to the Piedmontese winegrowers’ association. He assailed the Austrian oppression and, by 1848, Piedmont was at war with Austria. This war helped to further move the Italian peninsula toward unification and Charles Albert’s son, Victor Emmanuel was the unified country’s first ruler. In the 1850’s, a famous Italian patriot, Giuseppe Garibaldi, introduced the Bordeaux grape mixture into Piedmont to help fight oidium, a vineyard mold that was infecting Piedmont vines.
Geographically, Piedmont is in the foothills of the Alps. Because of hills in most of the region, only about thirty percent of the land is suitable for vineyards. Although the vineyards in Piedmont are at about the same latitude as those of Bordeaux, there are several climate differences. The valleys in Piedmont tend to have a lot of fog. (The Piedmont word for fog is “nebbia” which gave their red grape variety its name.) The vineyards are generally planted between 450 feet and 1150 feet elevation. The weather is colder than Bordeaux with less rainfall as well. The warmer, south-facing slopes are used mainly for Nebbiolo and Barbera grapes while the cooler slopes are used for Dolcetto and Moscato.
The Piedmont region makes more DOCG (the very top level of Italian wines) by volume than any other of the twenty Italian wine regions. Eighty-four percent of the production of Piedmontese wines are categorized as DOCG. Interestingly, there are no IGT wines in the region. (This is a lower level.) Barbera is the most widely planted red variety in the region, but Nebbiolo and Dolcetto are not far behind. Moscato is the most widely planted white grape.
So, let’s look at this Barbera. Not only is it the most widely planted red in Piedmont, it is the third most planted red variety in the whole country. It has a good yield level, meaning it has a good number of grapes coming off each vine, and its wines are known for their deep color, low tannins and high levels of acidity. The amount of acidity in Barbera is rare for a warm weather red grape. There are some hundred year old Barbera vines in Piedmont vineyards that make robust wines with intense fruit flavors and enhanced tannin levels so that the wines can be aged well for a decade or more. Three cities have their names attached to the DOCs for Barbera wines — Barbera d’Asti, Barbera del Monferrato and Barbera d’Alba. Monferrato, located in central Piedmont, is where Barbera is though to have originated. (Please note, that Barbera d’Asti is a DOCG wine.). The wines from Asti are the best known of the Barbera wines. They tend to be the lightest in style with intense aromas and flavors of red cherries and raspberries. These wines also show the grape’s natural acidity and can be drunk slightly chilled to keep it refreshing. With more ripe grapes, the flavors move to black fruits — blackberries and black cherries. Many producers use toasted oak barrels for some aging of the wines. This helps to increase the complexities and aging potential of the wines and adds vanilla notes as well. In addition, wine makers have found that better wines come from slightly decreasing the vines’ yields. (The Burgundy region of France has for a long time controlled their yields to augment flavors.) The Barberas from Alba are fuller in body, richer flavored, and can have a distinct earthy quality that makes them very food friendly. And, those from Monferrato, while often considered some of the best, are less available here.
A nice tidbit of Barbera history occurred in 1985. The Piedmont region was scandalized when Barbera producers were accused of illegally, duh?, of adding methanol to their wines. Over thirty people died and many more lost their sight from drinking these wines. All the bad press and publicity caused the Barbera to drop to third place in Italian red grapes grown, behind Sangiovese as number one and Montepulciano as number two. I hope our current vintages of Barbera wines are newer than the effected vintage!
Our wine this week is Ca’ del Sarto Barbera d’Alba. Personally, I have always liked Alba Barberas best. “Ca’” in Italian is the abbreviation for “castello” or “castle” so it’s like saying “chateau” whatever with French wines. And, lucky us, this wine is made exclusively for restaurants and wine shops. Only 1,200 cases come into the United States each year. This wine, made from 100% Barbera, is full of very rich berry flavors with soft tannins. It is aged in oak barrels for ten months which helps to refine its flavors and textures. It’s a perfect match for grilled dinners – seafood, poultry and meats. But it goes well with pasta and pizza too. Once you try it, for just $10.99, you’ll be a new Barbera fan! Even though it’s not really a new wine. Just new for us now. Enjoy!
By Celia Strong