Oct 20: At the Italics Wine Club dinner organised for the Angels of Italian Wines at Cafe Diva, Embassy of Italy, with 5 wines including Prosecco Val d’Oca and a Chardonnay from Io Mazzucato in Veneto, it was an opportunity to showcase Barbera wines from its native Piemonte, writes Cavaliere Subhash Arora who had selected 3 Barberas for the short Masterclass to highlight the third highest grown grape of Italy, itching to get the same respect as its cousins Barbaresco and Barolo through DOCG Nizza. Established in 2014
Barbera is truly the signature red grape from Piemonte where it is the most planted red variety. It is the third most planted grape variety in Italy after Sangiovese and Montepulciano. It used to be the second highest after Sangiovese but the notorious scandal of 1985 when a few unscrupulous Barbera producers added Methanol, resulting in the death of 30 people and blinding many, thus scaring off users and growers started uprooting the vines. It started building up slowly and is currently at its zenith though it may not have seen its best yet.
The deep ruby coloured grape is full-bodied with low tannins and high acidity. The yields are high but it also offers a wide range of expressions and interpretations from easy-drinking to cellar-worthy wines. When young, the wines have intense aroma of fresh red cherries, blueberries and blackberries, changing into black cherries in more ripe grapes.
Many producers now employ the use of toasted oak barrels to improve complexity and aging potential with heavy notes of vanilla. Wines made with grapes from lower yields and better viticulture techniques, the latest trend with many younger winemakers interested in higher quality, have better balance between acid and fruit, with the oak aging and higher alcohol more amenable to cellaring. These wines are often the result of reduced-yield and better viticultural methods.
Predominant Italian grape
Besides the native Piemonte, it is grown in Emilia Romagna and Mezzogiorno- Southern Italy including Puglia, Campania, Sicily and Sardinia. Around 94% of the grapes are still grown in Italy with Australia (4%), Argentina (1%) and USA (1%) thanks to the Italian immigrants. South Africa and Israel also grow small quantities. Although suitable for warm weather cultivation because of its high acidity, it is not been grown in India yet. It takes to most soils well, except alkaline soils.
Barbera grapes are used both in blended wines and in the past were used in making bulk wines to add colour and acidity to the wine, Now it is being increasingly used as a varietal; this means 85% of the grapes must be Barbera. The iconic Barbaresco producer Angelo Gaja was so enamoured with this grape that he blended around 5% it with Nebbiolo in Barolo and Barbaresco top single vineyards and chose to be out of the DOCG appellation for these wines as he found better finesse and elegance in the blend. It was only in 2013 that his siblings decided to use 100% Nebbiolo as required by law and brought them back to the DOCG fold.
Wine may be classified as ‘Superiore’ if aged for 12 months prior to release. Out of this at least 4 months must be spent in oak barrels. Due to high acidity, it tastes best after several years of bottle age, to allow the fruit, oak, tannins and acidity to integrate. As we found out during dinner, it was best with pepperoni pizza as it cut through the fat in cheese very well and has affinity to match with tomato base. The food friendly wine would be a good companion with greasy Indian foods too.
Different Barbera appellations
There are basically 3 appellations of Barbera followed by Nizza docg which was given an independent designation in 2014:
1. Barbera d’Alba- This category belongs to the vines around Alba. Most producers of Barolo and Barbaresco grow Barbera in the vineyards not suitable for Nebbiolo which fetches higher prices. The colour is darker and wines more powerful.
2. Barbera d’Asti- is from the neighbouring Asti province, considered more lively and feminine. It was granted DOC status in 1970 and DOCG in 2008. Minimum of 85% grapes must be Barbera while the rest can be Freisa, Grignolino or Dolcetto.
3. Barbera del Monferrato- is probably the least known of the three Piemontese classified Barbera zones though it is the largest of the trio but least exported. Most wines are from villages around the province of Alessandria, but the vineyards also stretch into eastern Asti. Wines have slight amount of bubbles which locals prefer.
One cannot talk of Barbera without mentioning Nizza DOCG, a new appellation that was created with the vintage of 2014. Earlier, the Barbera d'Asti DOC laws were revised in 2001 to officially recognize sub-zones of Nizza, Tinella and Colli Astiani. These were considered to produce Barbera d'Asti of higher quality and in a style reflecting the terroir.
The Sub-appellation of Nizza was introduced as Barbera d'Asti Superiore Nizza. With further quality improvements, the producers applied for an independent designation in 2012-13. This was approved in 2014. There has been exponential growth in recent years in the number of vineyards registered for the production of Nizza Docg-currently around 200 out of an estimated potential of 720. The number of bottles produced, rose to almost half a million last year. There are currently 60 members in the Nizza Producers Association.
The Nizza DOCG calls for 100 percent Barbera, up from 90 percent for the Barbera d'Asti Superiore Nizza. Nizza (and the Nizza Vigna designation for single-vineyard Barberas) has a minimum aging requirement of 18 months, six of which must be in wood. Yield is capped at 2.83 tons per acre. Focus on a single grape, planted in the best sites to elevate quality is the highlight of this grape in Nizza. Over the years, Nizza may give run for money to Barbaresco and Barolo with prices still much less than the Big Bs and the versatility with food and ageablity of these wines making it the wine to watch.
The Masterclass had to be trimmed down due to the lack of facilities in the restaurant but it is fair to assume that a lot of interestwas aroused amongst the audience about Barbera grape. Incidentally, this was well compensated by the beautiful ambience under the trees in the alfresco setting and it was an excellent experiential evening.
Wines of the Evening
The evening started with Val d’Oca Prosecco DOC Treviso Extra Dry Millesimato 2017. Made from Glera grape it was quite fresh and zingy, with white fruits like peaches on the palate. Io Mazzucato Chardonnay DOC 2017 was medium bodied, fruity with crisp acidity and very clean and full mouthfeel with exotic fruit flavours and good balance. We had visited both these wineries with a few select members of the Italics Wine Club last year and that helped us enjoy the wines even more.
Three Barberas were served with two dishes- Abrigo Giovanni Barbera d’Alba Marminela DOC 2015 was served with pizzas and the other two- from Asti- Ca’de Lion Le Muccie Barbera d’Asti DOC 2015 and Abbazia Barbera d’Asti DOCG 2016 carried the rear very effectively. The first wine was slightly lighter on the palate but was a heavenly match with the pepperoni pizza (98/100). Marminela was strongly perfumed wine but served at a temperature of around 20° C the alcohol vapours were a part of the perfume.
The next two bottles were immediately kept for cooling and were served at a decent 16°C, the temperature to serve a Barbera in Delhi summer. The wines were quite ready to drink though Abbazia would age for a few years more. The high acidity and the soft tannic structure were predominant on the palate. Though Abbazia was not a great match with the Chicken dish served in the main course, it was still pleasant to drink on its own due to the harmony and good structure.
Diva food does not give a reason to complain and after the initial few minutes, the staff settled down well too and the service became quite efficient for the full house.
I must thank Il Dolce Vino and the Indo Italian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to give me a free-hand in the selection of wines so I could bring 3 Barbera wines to the dinner and talk about wines that are so much better suited than Barbaresco and Barolo for our palates, their magnetic pull and propensity to match with some efforts notwithstanding.