The Piedmont region of Italy is famous for its food – white truffles, Ferrero Rocher hazelnut chocolates, Nutella, Tic Tac mints and some of the most refined cuisine in all of Italy.
It’s also famous for red wine, particularly Barolo and Barbaresco.
In the mid-1980s, Piedmont was famous for another red wine, Barbera, although infamous is the more appropriate word. In 1985, some Piemonte wine producers illegally added methanol to Barbera, leading to the death of more than two dozen people and blindness in others. The resulting bad publicity made it very difficult to sell Barbera, which didn’t have a reputation as a good wine in the first place. At the time, Barbera was used to make inexpensive table wine and the quality tended to be low.
As a result of the scandal, two things happened to change the situation for Barbera: First, the Italian government tightened the laws around wine making in general, and secondly, the producers of Barbera decided the best way forward for the wine was to improve the quality.
Barbera is easily grown and the vineyard yields are quite high, which is why producers used it to create rustic bulk wines. Although growing Barbera in such a way maximized wine production, it led to insipid wines that were overly acidic.
Using malolactic fermentation – a secondary fermentation that reduces acidity – was one method of improving the quality of Barbera, but the most important improvement happened in the vineyard in a technique called “green harvesting.” In this process, grapes are removed from the bunch before they are ripe and still green. The fruit that remains on the vine then gets more concentrated flavors, allowing the resulting wine to show much more depth.
One by one, the Piedmont wine producers started using the green harvesting technique, which was in 1989 for the winery Michele Chiarlo, says winemaker Stefano Chiarlo. At the same time, the winery did green harvesting on Nebbiolo, the grape used to make Barolo and Barbaresco.
“That was what completely changed the character of Piemonte wines,” Chiarlo said. “Before that, Barbera was too rustic and Nebbiolo was too tannic.”
Although green harvesting improved the quality of Barbera significantly, it also reduced production by as much as 50 percent in some vintages, Chiarlo says. Since the costs of producing the wine didn’t drop by a corresponding percentage, the price of Barbera had to go up. Selling it, especially to export markets after the methanol scandal, was a difficult task.
Given a chance by consumers, Barbera wines – particularly those that are exported to this part of the world – can shine. Barbera’s flavors and natural acidity make it a food-friendly wine with tomato-based pasta dishes, pizza, charcuterie, cheeses, veal, barbecue ribs and even burgers.
“It’s a red wine in which we always see the fruit in its character,” says Chiarlo. “It’s never overripe or too sweet.”
Barbera is also low in tannins, making it easy to drink for newer wine drinkers. And because the fruit doesn’t over-ripen, Barbera tends to be lower in alcohol content than most red wines produced these days, making it a good choice for dinners in which several wines are being paired with different courses. Although Barbera is produced throughout Piedmont, the regions of Alba and Asti are best known. Barberas from Asti tend to be more concentrated and powerful, while Barbera from Alba tends to be more elegant.
The Barberas that have the word “Superiore” on the label have been aged longer and for specific times in oak barrels before release, making them better in quality, but also more expensive. That said, even the best Barberas aren’t expensive compared to the best red wines made from other grapes.
Here in the Cayman Islands, there are a number of good quality Barberas – like those from Michele Chiarlo, Batasiolo, Marchesi di Barolo, Pio Cesare and Vietti – that cost under $28, which for a red wine crafted as well as these, is good value.