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November 5, 2015

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Resurgent Barbera fine friend of Chinese cuisine

You are visiting a friend’s home for dinner. You know Chinese food will be served and your host favors red wine. So what wine do you bring? My “go to” wine in this scenario unquestionably would be Barbera. Why? Because Barbera wines just might be the most Chinese food-friendly wines in the world.

Bad rap

Years ago an elderly winemaker in Piedmont told me that Barbera was only suitable as a mistress and never a wife. He deemed that matrimonial allegiance was only suitably given to the esteemed Barbaresco and Barolo wines made from the noble Nebbiolo variety. This lowly opinion of the Barbera grape has historical context.

Traditionally, because it ripens about two weeks before the Nebbiolo grape, growers in Piedmont would select inferior vineyards to grow Barbera and save the best vineyards for Nebbiolo. The Barbera variety is also very prolific and without careful pruning and yield management makes lean and insipid wines of little character.

Piedmont producers devotedly made serious Barolo and Barbaresco wines for aging and less fastidiously made Barbera for immediate consumption. In other words, Barbera was a wine of the people, suitable for daily drinking but not a caliber of wine suitable for exporting.

Also not helping the grape’s reputation was a scandal in 1985 when a devious father and son team added methyl alcohol to Barbera wines to increase their alcohol and, relatedly, their price. The result was 30 dead people and over 50 people blinded. Over the following decade this poorly regarded variety languished in the background while other Piedmont varieties, like Nebbiolo that makes the great Barolo and Barbaresco wines, and Moscato sweet wines won the wine world’s adoration.

New age

Something strange started happening in Piedmont about 20 years ago. Remarkably good Barbera wines started popping up. Instead of the thin, diluted and overly acidy lightweights of the past, a new breed of barrel-aged and sometimes barrel-fermented Barbera wines with ample fruit and structure were being made in increasing numbers.

Surprise turned to admiration and yet another formerly frowned upon or obscure Italian wine was wining plaudits in major wine markets. Italy had another star, a wine suitable for prestigious wine lists. While underwhelming Barberas still exist, you’re more likely than ever before to get a well-made, balanced wine.

Today Barbera wines can be found from the northernmost to southernmost reaches of the Italian peninsula as well as in Sicily and Sardinia. The most noteworthy still come from Piedmont where three major styles exist. Barbera d’Asti, named after the town that’s surrounded by Barbera vines, is perhaps the best known. These wines tend to exhibit good color, ample red fruit and berry aromas and flavors, and have good acidity.

Barbera d’Alba also has fans. You may know Alba as the home of Piedmont’s world famous white truffles, but some mighty fine red wines are also made. The most prized wines of Alba are still the Barolo and Barberesco reds but Barbera wines from here can also be excellent. Typically more full-bodied than Asti versions, these wines feature black and red fruit with soft tannins.

Many ampelographers believe that Barbera was first planted in Monferrato. Today, Barbera del Monferrato is the largest zone of production that overlaps with Asti. The wines tend to be less structured than the better examples of Barbera wines from Asti and Alba but can be quite aromatic and pleasant drinking.

It’s difficult to avoid hyperboles when describing Barbera’s affinity for food. This extends to the multi-faceted domain of Chinese cuisine. Whether you’re enjoying the diverse ingredients and delicate flavors of Cantonese cooking or the stimulating pungency of Hunan and Sichuan cooking, Barbera performs the vital function of making Chinese food taste better.

Lighter Barbera wines are lovely with Cantonese, Fujian or Shanghai meals that combine seafood and meat. These wines have the acidity to emphasize the freshness of the seafood and highlight their natural flavors. At the same time the gentle tannins in the wines will work perfectly well with white or red meat dishes. Three wonderful Barbera wines available in China of this style are the Antario Barbera d’Asti Superiore DOCG, the Pio Cesare Barbera d’Alba DOCG and Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti Superiore Le Orme DOCG.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Region & Style at a Glance


Piedmont is home to numerous DOC and DOCG wines made from various varieties like Nebbiolo, which makes Barolo and Barberesco red wines, and Cortese that contribute to Gavi white wines. The most planted variety is Barbera.

Key Terms:

Asti and Alba are towns in Piedmont surrounded by vineyards that make Barbera, Moscato and other wines.


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