Wine with Food: California Barbera
By Paul Kalemkiarian Sr. | April 1984
The next time you are planning Italian fare for your meal, consider this wine. It has a place in that context for many reasons. It is a pleasant departure from the traditional Chianti that most everyone seems to reach for when Italian food is served.
It is a native grape of the famous wine growing region of Piedmont, in northern Italy. It has adapted well to California and some very interesting versions are made by a few of our vintners.
It is usually a big, full-bodied red wine, with intense color and dominant tartness (acidity), which goes well with highly seasoned Italian foods.
There is something about using the wine from the country of origin for an ethnic dish from the same country. It just seems to go better! If you stop to think about that a minute, you wonder which came first in the development of eating and drinking habits of a culture. Did the cuisine dictate the style of wines, or did the wines dictate the style of cuisine. I get a little giddy thinking about such conjectures, so I resort to accepting the axiom that “local foods go best with local wines” because in fact it seems so!
But with Barbera, I find California Barbera goes better with Italian food. I have had many examples of Barbera from Italy (which incidentally is the lesser revered of grape varieties from Piedmont) and have found them lacking. Our California versions have been superior and less expensive. I think a market exists here for exporting our California Barbera to Italy!
In California, the grape is grown prolifically in the San Joaquin Valley as a source for making blending wine for the generic type wines. Some of the vintners in that region will make and label a varietal Barbera, Examples are M. LaMont, E. & J. Gallo, Giumarra, Angelo Papagni, Setrakian.
The better California Barberas come from Coast Counties, mainly Napa and Sonoma.
Louis M. Martini and Sebastiani Vineyards Barberas are the most popular ones, and deservedly so. They are consistently good, year after year. Heitz cellars and Parducci are two others which make good examples of this wine. Some smaller wineries from the Central coast have come up with noteworthy examples. They include Gemmello, Conrad Viano, Pedrizzetti, Guglielmo, San Martin, Villa Armando, Louis Bonesio/Uvas. Italian names seem to dominate this list! The attachment to the wines and cuisine of the ancestral lands is commendable.
My favorite recently was from Amador county. The 1980 Special Selection Barbera by Montevina was a whopper. If you can find any, try it for sure.
So what do you serve the Barbera with?
Let’s start with the most popular American-Italian dish: pizza. If you are an “everything on it” pizza fan, then Barbera is the wine for that combination, or for lesser combinations that include onions, peppers, sausage, pepperoni, meatballs. Possible but not the best for the plain cheese and tomatoes variety. Serve it with all versions of hearty pasta dishes which have a tomato sauce base and particularly those that are spicy. I would even dare consider serving it with pesto sauce. (no tomatoes, but fresh basil, pine nuts and lots of garlic) I think the Barbera will hold up to the garlic! Most food writers will not be so bold. Beer is considered the usual accompaniment to pesto.
A classic companion to Barbera in the San Francisco bay area is crab cioppino, a seafood stew native to that city. In fact any cioppino would be fine. You would not think so, but this style of seafood brings out qualities in the Barbera that you do not detect with meat dishes.
Then, there is game, or the myriad of Italian sausage dishes and entrees that are great companions for this wine. Barbera is at its best with these bold flavors. It cuts through!