Most Italian wines are still named for their provenance (where they come from), which makes sense because the wines of Italy are so closely tied to the regional cuisines: they have emerged over time together, and pair well. We Americans are so used to labels that feature the grape varietal (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio) that the Italian designations associated with place — even more complex and confusing than the French ones, not to mention featuring many more varietals — can seem overwhelming and possibly not worth the bother!
Barbera may be the exception that proves the rule. While most Barbera comes from the Piedmont (in Italian, Piemonte) region of Italy (thus, “Barbera D’Asti,” “Barbera d’Alba”– Asti and Alba being towns in the region), it is mostly labeled as “Barbera,” and that particular grape varietal — whether from Piedmont, the United States, Argentina, or anywhere else, means, in simple English, “Food-friendly wine.”
Much American wine these days — if drunk with food at all, which seems not to be the norm — is meant to be paired with heavy, big proteins: lamb, steak, venison, etc. But do most of us eat these BIG proteins a lot? Joe and I seldom eat red meat, and while we love a good thick steak on the grill once in awhile, a much more common dinner is based on chicken or pork, not beef or lamb. For these lighter — and more typical — meals, Barbera is one of the best varietals. It is rich and substantive, but not overpowering. Many of its incarnations from various producers seem to display that uncanny characteristic of Italian wines, of being more about the food than about themselves. It is just the right intensity for many of the foods we eat on a daily basis, and as such it is one of the foundations of the wine we keep on hand.
While there are expensive Barberas — some worth every penny, others not so much — many are quite reasonable. This one is under $15, and very approachable, drinkable, and GREAT with so many simple, light meals!
Barbera is now grown in more places than just Piedmont. One of our favorite wineries closer to home, Palmina in the Santa Barbara appellation, has a lovely Barbera. While it is, like most American wines, higher in alcohol than most Italian Barberas, it is a great choice as well, and pairs well with a vast range of light-to-medium dishes of the kind we most often have at home for dinner.
If you’re having steak, venison, lamb, etc., there are plenty of choices, Italian (Barolo, Brunello, anything from Sicily), French (Bordeaux), and American (Cabernet Sauvignon). If you’re planning to serve pork or chicken, Barbera is an easy, reliable choice. It won’t overpower lighter meats like pork or chicken (and can even pair well with many seafood dishes, as far as I’m concerned), even inexpensive versions are often quite delicious, and it pairs well with a wide range of medium-strength dishes.
Food-friendly, known by its varietal name rather than its region (which most often is Piedmont), Barbera is an easy Italian wine to pair with most of the meals we actually eat — not so much steak, hamburger or lamb, but the day-to-day staples we all love: pork, chicken, and seafood. There is a lot of variety within the varietal, but you just about can’t go wrong.