Sacramento wine merchant Donal Smith of Corti Brothers could have picked any one of several popular red wines for the class he taught last night at Cafe Milazzo.
Instead, he chose a wine that always seems to be left on the sidelines, never invited to play with the big guys like cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and syrah. That would be barbera.
Smith believes in barbera, and some 50 people were interested enough in the wine to sign up for the session. On a hot midweek night when the topic is as obscure as barbera, that's a good turnout.
He poured side-by-side tastes of barberas from both California and Italy, where the grape has a much longer and more popular history. The comparisons were instructive, generally showing that Italian wines made with barbera tend to be leaner and tighter than their California counterparts, with brighter acidity and a dryer overall impression. The California samples tended to taste riper, fuller, rounder and softer, with much more obvious oak influence. The most impressive thing about the California barberas was that depite their heft they generally were light on their feet.
Where do they belong on the dinner table? Smith was assisted in the session by four California winemakers who probably have more experience with barbera than any other winemakers in the state. Scott Harvey of Scott Harvey Wines suggested that barbera's telltale crisp acidity makes it a strong candidate to pair with fatty beef dishes. Jeff Meyers of Montevina Winery prefers his barbera with all sorts of Italian foods, especially pastas. Justin Boeger of Boeger Winery likes his barbera as an aperitif or with a wide range of unspecified foods, noting that the wine's customarily refreshing acidity makes it a fitting red for the summer table as well as the winter. And Jim Moore of l'Uvaggio di Giacomo recommends that barbera be paired with pastas, especially pasta dishes that include mushrooms or a cream sauce. He's also said he's found barbera an ideal companion with "the Warner Bros. diet - Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny."