Barbera Supreme: The non-bank-breaking way to taste Piedmont wine

March 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

From Portland Press Herald, March 30, 2011

Piedmont, in Italy’s northwestern corner, is best known enologically as the home of Barbaresco and Barolo, the so-called queen and king, respectively, of Italian wine, made with the legendarily site-specific Nebbiolo grape. Typically, Barbaresco and Barolo cost quite a bit of money and aren’t ready to drink for years if not decades after bottling.

Although a great aged Barbaresco or Barolo is one of the finest things on the planet (I hear), there’s a much wallet- and palate-friendlier option that calls Piedmont home: Barbera. There’s no single way to describe Barbera, because it takes so many forms, from unoaked versions that are light, fresh and brightly acidic to dark, oak-aged, grilled and complicated affairs.

The former are perfect for thin-crust pizza or Tuesday-night pasta and marinara (Barbera’s naturally high acidity goes toe to toe with surprisingly difficult to pair tomatoes), while the deeper expressions are spectacular with herb-rubbed roasts and spicy sausages. Young Barbera is also a close second to Gamay as the best red wine for Chinese food; it’s a delicious combination but only if you’re cooking Chinese at home since Portland has no good Chinese restaurants.

Accessible options for the lighter style of Barbera include spring-perfect Castelvero Barbera 2008 ($9 to $10, Pine State) and the more dark cherry and grill smoke accentedSan Silvestro Barbera Otone 2009 ($9 to $10, National). These are terrific after a nice 30-minute refrigerator ride, by the way: cooling them highlights their soft tannins and bright red fruits.

On the deep, dark and chewy side, I’m begging you: Drink the brilliant Perrone Barbera d’Asti Tasmorcan 2009 ($17, SoPo), packed with spice and tobacco. Also, I’ve previously praised the Vietti Barbera D’Asti Tre Vigne 2008 ($15, Wicked), a gamey gem that stays playful and bright.

And now, near the end of this column, comes the main reason I wanted to write it: Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti Le Orme 2008 ($13 to $14, Nappi). It’s fermented in stainless steel, which retains the Barbera’s natural brightness and vibrant red fruits, but there’s a loamy, mushroomy quality that’s akin to a gentle Pinot Noir. Indeed, it’s this gentleness that is the most thrilling thing about it.

This is because the challenge to makers of lively, acidic reds like Barbera is to calm down their wines and bring harmony to their expression while retaining what makes them so exciting. With its slightly schizoid personality – jumpy and childlike, but also soft and introverted – Barbera risks imbalance.

The innovation of winemaker Michele Chiarlo – he started the winery in 1956 and hails from a family that has been growing grapes in Piedmont for seven generations – was to introduce the stabilizing/softening/creaming influence of malolactic fermentation to Barbera. He was among the first to do this, in 1970, and it effected a revolution in quality.

Michele’s son Stefano (trained as an enologist, he’s the vineyard manager and along with his brother Alberto is in line to take the reins from Michele) told me Le Orme is “a feminine wine: soft, delicate, elegant.” There’s an almost extravagant level of integration and harmony, but with no lack of pop, and it can go anywhere coming warmer months will suggest: pizza on the grill, fish with tomatoes and olives, lazy-afternoon charcuterie.

The Chiarlos are that rare thing in the world: an integration of classicism and innovation. Stefano told me, “The identity of the soil is important. Consumers now understand this; they’re looking for something particular. So winemakers must preserve a personal style based on where they are, and then when you make a choice you are sure; you don’t experiment.”

That doubt-free state is most ably attained with the Chiarlos’ single-vineyard Barbera, La Court 2004 ($42), a magnificent, large-oak-barrel-fermented jewel from Nizza Monferrato, the pre-eminent cru of Barbera d’Asti. Stefano calls this “a serious sacrifice,” because the Chiarlos prune so assiduously, there’s an entire vine’s worth of grapes in a single bottle. This is what I call Old Soul wine, and although the price is relatively high, it’s a bargain. The profile is earthy and powerful from the bottom up, with damp cigar leaf, cinnamon, toffee and mocha.

There’s also their unique, symphonic 2006 Barbaresco, the Reyna ($35), floral and herbal and anise-flecked, that you could spend a whole night just smelling; and a Gavi (Piedmont’s undeservedly little-known indigenous white wine, thrilling with asparagus of all things, as well as white fish) crackling with white pepper and minerals. With insufficient space to describe them, I’ll just urge you to start your Chiarlo friendship with the Barberas and move on from there.

For dessert or apertif, though, you need to know this right away – as I’ve written about before (available at my blog), Piedmont is also the birthplace of Moscato d’Asti, and Chiarlo produces an exceptional one: the Nivole 2008 ($13 to $14).

Apricots, pears and peaches burst out of the glass, mousse-y in texture and raked by fine bubbles. Five percent alcohol, sunny and sweet and shimmering and alive, it comes with a free patio or bowl of ice cream – your choice.

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