Explore two varieties of the food-friendly, rich barbera grape

By Molly Steinbach
Posted 3/5/20

It's no surprise that two wines made from the same grape can taste vastly different from each other.

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Explore two varieties of the food-friendly, rich barbera grape

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It's no surprise that two wines made from the same grape can taste vastly different from each other.

Taste a sauvignon blanc from France next to one from New Zealand, say, or a pinot noir from California next to one from Germany. You're likely to find differences in flavor and aroma, texture, structure not to mention alcohol content.

But what about two wines made only 15 miles from each other? Sure, the influence of two different winemakers' choices can have an effect, but what about all the other factors, like soil, weather and climate? Can there really be that much of a difference in so small a distance?

I pose this question with a particular grape, and two particular regions, in mind. Perhaps the question is a bit esoteric, but these are the sorts of things that wine professionals talk about when they get together (good luck if you get stuck between two of us at a party). Much is often made about the difference between barbera d'Asti and barbera d'Alba, but I've always been a little unclear what that difference is.

In general, the barbera grape can produce a spectrum of wines, depending on where and how it's grown. Most vines produce better wine if pruned--the fewer grape bunches on a vine, the more resources the vine has to give to those grapes -- but barbera in particular requires restraint.

If left to run rampant, it can produce thin, acidic, pretty unpalatable wines. But with judicious pruning, even inexpensive barberas can be lively, refreshing weekday wines. Add on higher quality terroir and perhaps some aging in oak barrel, and barbera can make a truly world-class wine.

In northwest Italy, the towns of Asti and Alba are just over 16 miles from each other, as the crow flies. Both produce the latter category of barbera -- worthy of putting in your cellar and reserving for a special occasion. And both claim to have the better barbera.

Traditionally, Alba is regarded as making richer wines that tend to fetch higher prices. But Asti producers claim that they reserve their best vineyards for barbera, whereas the best sites in Alba are often given over to the more highly prized nebbiolo. Barbera from Asti is also subject to stricter quality controls by law than those from Alba.

If I were going about my comparison of barbera d'Asti and barbera d'Alba more scientifically, I would choose wines from the same producer. I didn't do that, for no other reason than I found these two in the same shop and jumped on them; however, both producers are of equal quality, and the wines are of similar price and from the same vintage. I say that's close enough for our purposes.

The 2017 Vietti Barbera d'Asti Tre Vigne ($22/750 ml bottle) is a classic, bright garnet color in the glass, with aromas of tart strawberry, leather and chalk. Barbera tends to get most of its structure from acidity rather than tannins, and the Vietti certainly bears this out. Its vivid acidity comes across on the palate as strawberry and cranberry, with slate and chalk minerality.

Heading to Alba, we meet G.D. Vajra Barbera d'Alba ($28). The same vibrant garnet in the glass, the nose immediately differentiates itself from the Vietti. The fruits are deeper, with red cherry liqueur and notes of cocoa bean. The same acidity is there, matched by surprisingly high alcohol content--2017 was a warm, dry year, allowing grapes to ripen fully.

On their own, these wines may be almost too powerful, but they both make wonderful companions to food. The acidity can go head-to-head with tomatoes, or provide a foil to some creamy cheese or savory prosciutto.

When someone invites me over for dinner, and I don't know what they're cooking, I almost always bring barbera. It is eminently food-friendly, and these two are perfect examples.

But are they that different? Based on this ridiculously limited sample size, I say yes. Both are true to the characteristics of the varietal -- they're both clearly barbera -- but the Vajra is richer and more brooding, the Vietti brighter and more refreshing.

Is one better than the other? That's like asking if one flavor of ice cream is better than another. They're different, but equal in quality - it just depends on your taste. If you like your wines with a little more meat on their bones, try a barbera d'Alba; or if you're in the mood for a more lithe and sprightly wine, reach for a barbera d'Asti. Just don't forget the cheese.

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