Producer, Cantine Volpi s.r.l., Tortona, Italy.
Light bodied, briny piquancy -- tart, underripe raspberries
-- a little tarry or smoky -- needs food
2nd day: mellowed and silkier
And... good news! Barbera d'Asti is both a grape and a place. I had thought to begin hacking away anew at the wonderful confusions of Italian wine by creating a mnemonic: as we learned to associate V with Veneto, Venice, and Valpolicella, so let us learn to associate barbera, and the Barbaresco and Barolo right next to it in my wine-stained notebook, with Piedmont. "Minding our b's and p's," I was going to say. So clever.
But then a glance into the New Wine Lover's Companion taught me not to be sanguine about my ability to clear up Italianate confusions. That smaller case b-barbera is the grape, while capital B-Barbera d'Asti is the place (DOC, denominazione di origine controllata, vineyards producing barbera around the town of Asti), in Piedmont certainly. Carry on -- the very next entry in the Companion's B section, Bardolino, an Italian name you do see on wine labels, is alas, a place. In the Veneto. Near Venice. Where they make Valpolicella. The grapes used for Bardolino are much the same as for Valpolicella -- corvina, molinara, and so on -- so that simplifies that. Except now the b/v mnemonic doesn't quite work.
So we go back to simply sipping barbera of Asti, "in" Barbera d'Asti.
With this we are in the lovely Piedmont region of northwest Italy, spelled in Italian Piemonte. If Italy generally conjures up images of sunshine, rolling hills, Rome, Renaissance art, and pasta, for Piedmont we ought to think instead of mountains (the Alps), rushing rivers (the Po), drifting fogs, of industrial Turin, and oddly enough of rice and corn cultivation. Both are major crops here (think risotto and polenta). For its part, our glass of Barbera d'Asti represents a sort of little brother in a hierarchy of Piedmont's red wines, ranking below the great Barbaresco and the still greater Barolo. Both of these are wines named for their places of origin. Barolo and Barbaresco are towns, like Asti, surrounded by vineyards, but their wines are vinified not from barbera but from the nebbiolo grape -- which in turn is named, it seems, for the drifting fogs of the area (nebbia). Little brother barbera can be either barbera d'Asti, as we have here, or Barbera d'Alba; the latter is considered just slightly more of a heavyweight than the former, which seems to be why Barbera d'Asti is an everyday what's-for-dinner wine in this part of Italy. Barbera d'Alba is also another place, another DOC.
Like so many Italian red wines, except its powerhouse big B big brothers, a barbera has that familiar tart, light, berry-like flavor, and a texture that seems a little grainy and rough, as if a few seeds of a fresh raspberry had found their way into the bottle and added their own little interesting zip there. Wine books always emphasize that Italian wines like this, tending to be thin, fresh, and acidic, are meant to be drunk with a meal and not treated as a free-standing cocktail, which is often how we drink syrupy, barbecued-fruit California cabernets or merlots. Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible writes rapturously of the Piedmontese food that would go with a barbera, or even better, with Barbaresco and Barolo: heavy meat dishes, thick risottos, eggy fresh-made pastas dressed only with butter and sage leaves or, if you are lucky and are visiting in the fall, with shavings of white truffle from Alba. The truffle's spectacular taste, MacNeil explains in a sidebar, has been studied in science labs, and has been found to derive from some sort of chemical that is also present in the testes of men and bulls. (The thing is actually the flowering part of an underground fungus that webs the roots of oak trees, and reveals itself to the trained eye by rendering bare the ground around the tree.) Experienced people hunt for them at night in secret, with specially trained white dogs. Wasn't there a commercial jingle that used to assure us Italians have more fun?
Indeed they seem to, and another of Italy's most fun wines, moscato d'Asti, is also a product of this same Piedmont that gives us nebbia and mountains and rice fields, along with our very serious Barolos and our zippy barberas. Of moscato, I can provide just one quick tasting note while I cudgel my brain for a new mnemonic to go with b's, p's, and now m's: it's flying off the shelves in grocery stores these days, outperforming even queen chardonnay and princess pinot grigio.
Vobis Tua, we are told, is Latin for "as you like it." We like it. Retail: about $10-$12.