Grab a table at any informal trattoria or family-run osteria at the heart of the Langhe, the gracefully hilly area that includes the towns of Barolo and Barbaresco in northern Italy, and chances are you won’t be served the noble reds that have made this Italy’s most celebrated wine territory. Chances are, you’ll be served Barbera or Dolcetto.
If Barolo and Barbaresco, two expensive, compelling and elegant wines made from the Nebbiolo grape and carefully cellar-aged for long periods, are the wine equivalent of Piedmont’s Sunday best (dress slacks, cufflinks and formal jacket), Barbera and Dolcetto are its favorite used jeans and comfy sweater. There are many reasons why these bright, fruit-forward red wines enjoy a special, intuitive connection to the people who drink them. Here are three: they offer an affordable alternative to the pricier bottles of Northern Italy; they come from a long and storied tradition that makes them two of the most distinctive indigenous expressions produced; and they exhibit natural characteristics that make them quintessential food pairing wines—cultivated in a part of the world that dedicates particular affections to its foods.
“Barbera is our everyday food wine thanks to the high acidity that cleans the palate,” says Michele Chiarlo, whose Barbera Le Orme is a market leader in the United States “Dolcetto has sweet fruit and more tannins that refresh the mouth.”
“These are the wines we grew up with,” says Raffaella Bologna. “They accompany all our family moments, anniversaries and celebrations as ever-present bottles standing on the kitchen table.” Bologna is seated at a corner table by a large window streaming sunlight at her uncle’s Trattoria i Bologna in Rocchetta Tanaro in the province of Asti. Her late father, Giacomo Bologna of the Braida estate, is credited with inventing modern Barbera when he became one of the first to age the wine in oak barrique in 1982.
In front of her are a bottle of Barbera Bricco dell’Uccellone, the wine that made her father famous, and a plate of agnolotti (square-shaped pasta filled with rabbit, veal and pork) that keeps uncle Beppe famous.
But let’s resist the seductive charms of an Italian trattoria for now. What role can these wines play on American tables?
Barbera and Dolcetto (whose name means “little sweet one”) exhibit enormous versatility in winemaking styles and trends stemming from the type of oak used: barrique for stronger, spicier flavors; botte, or larger oak casks, for less wood influence; stainless steel or even cement for fruitiness. This inherent flexibility is what makes these wines so well suited to American cuisine, which borrows flavors, spices and cooking techniques from so many points on the globe.
These powerful reds and champion food companions are generally less known outside Italy. Here are profiles within the context of their food pairing potential, specific to the types of foods enjoyed most by American wine devotees.
Of the two grapes, Barbera is arguably the most flexible. It is marked by high, sometimes sharp, acidity, lower tannins and abundant fresh berry and black fruit aromas. There is heated debate among producers about how far to go to soften its naturally high acidity; it is the acidity that makes Barbera one of the world’s most food-friendly wines because the freshness cuts straight through the fatty component found in the dishes many of us most enjoy.
The people of Piedmont certainly love the acidity; their delicious pasta dishes and impressive range of local cheese almost seem purposely crafted to match their favorite drinking wine. Foreign markets appreciate acidity less and therefore some producers have started to experiment with various pruning methods, oak aging regimes, late harvests or even appassimento (air-drying the grapes) in order to tame that aggressive freshness and offer softer, more velvety wines. What is experimentation to some is seen as excessive interventionism to others: “Acidity is a problem for Barbera,” admits enologist Vincenzo Gerbi, who heads the Hastae project in which six producers (Braida, Michele Chiarlo, Coppo, Prunotto, Vietti and the grappa maker Berta) banded together in 1996 to create an experimental wine, Quorum. “It’s also an incredibly flexible variety and that acidity can be reduced.”
Like it or not, most successful food and wine pairings require acidity. Take any dish that starts with butter: the palate needs crispness to counter the fattiness, unctuousness and heaviness of these foods. The same is true of olive oil-based Mediterranean cuisine and recipes that rely on mayonnaise or one on the so-called “mother sauces” such as béchamel, hollandaise or velouté. Think of breaded veal scallops with clarified butter, langoustine bisque with crème fraîche, medallions of lamb with garlic cream sauce, sirloin steak with green peppercorns and heavy cream, leek pie with Gruyère cheese or grated parmigiano; soufflés, or savory crêpes with smoked salmon. The palate needs something refreshing and crisp between each fatty bite.
Cooking styles such as roasting, poaching and deep frying also result in dishes that can be paired with a high-acid wine like Barbera. Roasting cooks with dry heat, thus searing the skin and forming a crispy outside. The fatty juices flow into the center of the roast. Breaded dishes like veal scallopini or zucchini gratin also have extra fat absorbed within their crusts.
Barbera is a wine with good aging potential. The principal growing areas are Barbera d’Asti, Barbera d’Asti from the Nizza subzone, Barbera del Monferrato where the grape is believed to have originated, and Barbera d’Alba. These wines are also available in a superiore version released later. Abroad, it is found in Australia, California and Argentina, where it traveled with Italian immigrants.
Dolcetto is the easier, more fruit-forward wine with less aging potential; it is usually consumed within a year or two of release. As opposed to Barbera, it is marked by low acidity. Its food friendliness comes from its natural fruitiness and drying tannins. In fact, these two qualities tend to balance sweeter foods, fragrant foods (with tomato sauces or perfumed herbs, for example) and foods with a fatty component, which is broken down by the tannins. If you are looking for a pairing partner to a steaming pizza pie with mozzarella and basil, or a home cooked plate of pasta, look no further than Dolcetto.
A pulpy, purplish appearance and bright aromas of wild berry, blueberry and fresh plum characterize the wine. It is thick and generous in the mouth and that natural heft is pushed along the palate by the polished tannins. It comes from many locations, and the most popular include Dolcetto di Dogliani, Dolcetto d’Acqui, Dolcetto d’Alba, Dolcetto d’Asti and Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba in Piedmont.
Pair it with cold cuts such as smoked sweet ham and salami dotted with black peppercorn, garlic and fatty particles. The aromatic qualities of these foods are accented by the fruitiness of the grape. Bruschetta with cream of green olive, or basil, chopped tomato and garlic also make a good companion. Dolcetto works very well with exotic appetizers such as herb and vegetable-stuffed spring rolls, Indian samosas with potato and sweet peas, curry or Tandoori dishes, or Caribbean curried pork with banana and coconut.
Top-Rated Barberas and Dolcettos
92 Braida di Giacomo Bologna 2007 Bricco dell’Uccellone (Barbera d’Asti); $NA. Imported by Vinifera Imports
92 Cantina Iuli 2006 Barabba (Barbera del Minferrato Superiore); $59. Imported by Indie Wineries Division
91 Fontanafredda 2007 Papagena (Barbera d’Alba Superiore); $NA. Imported by Domaine Select
91 Prunotto 2007 Costamiòle (Barbera D’Asti Superiore Nizza; $50. Imported by Winebow
91 Rivetto 2007 Lirano Soprano (Barbera D’Alba); $50. Imported by Vintage Imports Inc.
91 Tenute Cisa Asinari Dei Marchesi di Gresi 2006 Monte Colombo (Barbera D’Asti); $43. Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct
91 Vietti 2007 La Crena (Barbera D’Asti Superiore Nizza); $45. Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct
91 Vinchio-Vaglio Serra 2004 Sei Vigne Insynthesis (Barbera D’Asti Superiore); $70. Imported by Ionia Atlantic
90 Bricco Maiolica 2008 Sori Bricco Maiolica Superiore (Dolcetto di Diano Alba; $25. Imported by Zig Zagando
90 Poderi Luigi Einaudi 2008 I Filari (Dolcetto di Dogliani); $38. Imported by Empson USA Ltd.
89 Pecchenino 2007 Siri D’Jermu (Dolcetto di Dogliani); $28. Imported by Vias Imports
88 Cascina Corte di Barosi Allesandro 2007 Vigna Pirocchetta (Dolcetto di Dogliani); $20. Imported by Casa Bruno
88 Gianni Voerzio 2009 Rochettevino (Dolcetto d’Alba); $25. Imported by BelVino. Editor’s Choice.
88 Marziano Abbona 2008 Papà Celso (Dolcetto di Dogliani); $20. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons
88 Tre Donna 2007 Donna Rossa (Barbera D’Alba); $16. Imported by Small Vineyards LLC
87 Renato Ratti 2009 Colombè (Dolcetto d’Alba); $15. Imported by Dreyfus Ashby.
by Valerio Borgianelli Spina
What do the Piemontesi suggest you pair with Barbera and Dolcetto? We asked six wine producers, each with his or her link to the food world either through a restaurant or agriturismo, to pair their wine with their favorite local dish.
Producer: Accornero (accornerovini.it)
Wine: Accornero 2008 Giulin Barbera del Monferrato (50% aged in oak tonneaux and the rest in stainless steel for six-eight months)
Dish: Tajarin (thin tagliolini-like pasta) with ragù made with sausage from Bra.
“Barbera is made to express all of its fruit aromas and it is an easy-drinking wine that works with the fatty component in foods, such as the eggs used in the pasta, or the butter and the sausage in the ragù.” —Giulio Accornero
Producer: Cavallotto (cavallotto.com)
Wine: Cavallotto 2008 Vigna Scot Dolcetto d’Alba (aged in stainless steel and cement)
Dish: Cold cuts, especially aged salami with strong flavors of garlic and black pepper.
“The fresh fruit aromas of Dolcetto aged in stainless steel work with the natural fragrances of the salami. Our tradition pairs this wine with spicy features such as garlic or pepper, but outside Piedmont the wine is perfect with a classic pizza.” —Alfio Cavallotto
Producer: Braida di Giacomo Bologna (braida.it)
Wine: Braida 2007 Bricco dell’Uccellone Barbera d’Asti (aged 15 months in oak casks)
Dish: Stinco di vitello di razza piemontese brasato al barbera (Barbera braised veal shank)
“The playful exchange between the wine in the dish and in the glass makes this pairing very interesting. The veal shank spends an entire night marinating in the Barbera and is cooked slowly in a clay pot with herbs and vegetables.” —Raffaella Bologna
Producer: Villa Sparina, Ristorante La Gallina (monterotondoresort.com/villasparina)
Wine: Villa Sparina 2006 Barbera del Monferrato (20% is aged in stainless steel and 80% in barrique for 12 months)
Dish: Tortelli di gallina in consommé (chicken tortelli in broth)
“The tortelli are served in deep dishes and steaming broth is added as served in front of the guest. We also add rolled balls of raw veal that cook instantly in the hot broth. This pairing is based on the contrast of the delicate flavors in the dish and the fruity tones of the Barbera.” —Marco Franchi, sommelier
Producer: Cascina Corte (cascinacorte.it)
Wine: 2008 Cascina Corte Dolcetto di Dogliani (aged in stainless steel)
Dish: Acciughe al verde (anchovies in green sauce)
“This dish used ingredients from Piedmont and also from neighboring Liguria, home to Pesto alla Genovese. Anchovies are marinated in water and vinegar and the green sauce is made with parsley, capers and bread. The upfront nature of Dolcetto and its vinous aromas make it the perfect companion.” —Sandro Barosi, organic farmer and winemaker
Producer: Bondi (bondivini.it), La Locanda dell’Olmo
Wine: 2008 Bondi D’Uien Dolcetto D’Ovada Superiore (40-year-old vines and the wine is aged in stainless steel for 10 months)
Dish: Corzetti (pasta shaped with wood forms) with mushroom and sausage ragù
“This is a traditional dish found in the lower parts of Piedmont that uses decorated wooden forms to shape the pasta. It’s a classic fall dish with porcini mushrooms and pork sausage. That touch of tannin in the Dolcetto works with the fattiness of the sauce.” —Andrea Bondi
Barbera and Dolcetto-Friendly Recipes
Pappardelle with Chicken and Mushroom Ragu
From Robin Vaughn, A Bird in the Kitchen (abirdinthekitchen.com)
Makes 4 servings
1 1/4 pounds skinless boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, chopped fine
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 small onion, chopped
1 teaspoon chopped rosemary
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes in juice
1/2 pound dried pappardelle
5 ounces baby arugula (about 8 cups)
Parmigiana Reggiano cheese, optional
Photo: Robin Vaughn
Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Season chicken kosher salt and black pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until just golden, about 3 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a bowl.
Reduce heat to medium and cook onion, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes.
Add mushroom, garlic, rosemary, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring constantly, until beginning to brown, about 4 minutes.
Add vinegar and cook until evaporated. Add chicken and tomatoes (with juice), then simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is just thickened, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook pappardelle in a pasta pot of boiling salted water.
Add arugula to sauce and stir until wilted. Stir in drained pasta. Serve with shaved parmigiana reggiano cheese, if desired.
Osso Bucco with Creamy Risotto
By Philip J. Speciale, Great Chicago Italian Recipes (great-chicago-italian-recipes.com)
Makes 4 servings
4 veal shanks around 3 inches thick
1 cup of flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 yellow onion chopped
1 carrots peeled and chopped
1 stalks of celery chopped
4 clove of crushed garlic
1 sprig of fresh thyme chopped
1/2 cup of red wine
1 cup of beef or veal stock
4 oz. of tomato paste
1/4 cup of olive oil
Dredge veal shanks in flour with salt and pepper.
In a large pot fry the veal until brown on all sides.
Remove shanks from pot and set aside.
Saute carrots, onions and celery for about 5 minutes.
Add garlic ad thyme for about another 2 minutes.
Stir in tomato paste for about 1 minute.
Add red wine and broth.
Turn burner on high and reduce sauce for 5 minutes uncovered.
Turn burner down and add veal shanks back into the pot and cover.
Simmer for about 2 hours.
Be careful when taking the shanks out of the pot so they don’t fall apart and you don’t lose the bone marrow.
Place on a plate and spoon sauce over veal.
Serve with risotto recipe below.
Optional Gremolata to sprinkle over dish:
2 Tbls of minced garlic
2 Tbls of chopped parsley
1 Tbls of grated lemon zest
For the Risotto:
1 bunch of long green onions chopped
2 shallots chopped
1/4 cup of olive oil
2 cups of Aborio rice
1/2 cup of dry white wine
5 cups of chicken broth heated
2 Tbls butter
1/2 cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
Saute shallots and onions in oil until brown.
Add rice and stir.
Add white wine.
Add 1 cup of broth and stir until liquid is absorbed.
Add the remaining broth 1 cup at a time stirring every time until broth is absorbed and rice is creamy in texture.
Remove from heat and stir in butter and cheese.