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Barbera d’Asti Is a Sommelier Secret Weapon

November 09, 2021

Story: Punch Staff

photos: Shannon Sturgis

Versatile and food-friendly, see why sommeliers consider Barbera d’Asti the “essential everyday wine.”

When you think about pairing wine and food, the phrase “what grows together, goes together” is rarely more apt than when considering Italian cuisine. Think Genovese pesto with Pigato; porchetta with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo; prosciutto di Parma with Lambrusco; and, of course, white truffles from Piedmont with Nebbiolo. But when it comes to another Piedmont grape, Barbera, its beauty lies in not being linked to one dish or even several, but its built-in ability to play the field.

“As a culture, we have fetishized drinking the best, biggest, most envy-worthy wines,” says Sam Rethmeier, founder of Wednesday Night Wine Club and the former wine director at République in Los Angeles. “Barbera fits into everyday drinking. If you go to Italy, Barbera will be on every table of people drinking red wine.”

Barbera’s high-acid, low-tannin, tart cherry profile offers a youthful drinkability to match a variety of foods. It is, in short, a wine that makes you want to tuck into a long lunch in the same way it might feel right at home with a slice of pizza. “It has a big wingspan in terms of pairing,” says June Rodil, master sommelier and partner in Houston’s Goodnight Hospitality and Austin, Texas’ June’s All Day. “It’s medium-bodied, has a lightness, but not too light. Rich, but not too rich… You can have it with almost anything.”

Barbera d’Asti’s Got History

According to 13th-century records from the Cathedral of Casale Monferrato, Barbera’s official lineage points to it emerging in Piedmont, specifically in the Monferrato region around the town of Asti. That area, which secured DOCG status in 2008, became a prime growing region for the grape and is known for producing bright, juicy wines that lean into the tart red fruit character of Barbera.

“There’s something about being part of Asti,” says Rodil, “with the coolness, altitude, terroir, slope of the land, and soil. All of that makes the Barbera grape super special. It can be successful in other regions of the world, but when you think about it, you’re trying to emulate Barbera d’Asti. It’s the cornerstone.”

Low Risk, High Payout

Barbera’s versatility and accessibility have made it both an everyday wine in Piedmont and a reliable option in the sommelier’s toolkit abroad. Rethmeier adds that to him, Barbera embodies the very spirit of what makes wine enjoyable. “Barbera is like a hug and brings people together,” he says. “At a time in which everything feels like we have to take things so seriously, Barbera makes you feel good.”

Another selling point for Barbera d’Asti: its ability to drink young. Yes, some Barbera, generally designated as superiore, can age for a decade or more and pair with a variety of both lighter and slightly heavier dishes, but the vast majority of Barbera you’ll encounter on shelves and wine lists is built to be enjoyed within a few years of bottling, and at a price tag that is equally approachable. This makes Barbera d’Asti a popular go-to wine for many meals—or even merely enjoying time with friends without breaking the bank.

“With a consistent rise in prices year after year in other regions, [Barberas] generally seem to remain approachable and the overall quality is consistent,” says John B. Paterson IV, director of food and beverage for Frankies Spuntino Group in Brooklyn, New York. “A handful of [Asti’s] benchmark producers are within the general consumer’s reach, which is becoming harder to say about so many regions.”

Paterson adds that beyond Barbera’s practical appeal is something less tangible, and more transportive, that should not be discounted. “Barbera reminds me of travel, of Europe, of civilized lunches,” he says, “where I know everything, including the wine, is steeped in history and made with care.”