Wednesday, June 24, 2009


As a child of the 70's, I can't read "Barbera" without tagging "Hannah" in front of it. Anyone my age who doesn't at least crack a smile at the casual mention of Hannah-Barbera was raised by wolves or the Amish. (This is not to be confused with mentions of various Sid and Marty Krofft productions like H.R. Pufnstuf and Sigmund the Sea Monster. Those usually arise in totally different contexts.)

The Superfriends were de rigueur every Saturday morning. So were the Herculoids, Laff-A-Lympics, Speed Buggy and so many others. Thanks to my old Saturday ritual, I can't stroll past that section of the Italian wine aisle without my minds filling up with images of these cartoons, hanging around the recesses of my cerebrum like old friends. I know I can't be the only one.

So what's the deal with this wine? Why is it hanging out amidst the Chianti and the Montepulciano, re-triggering my horror stemming from Scrappy-Doo's first appearance in the Mystery Machine?

Barbera got its start in the Piedmont region of Italy. The Piedmont is still Barbera's best known home, although it's planted all over Italy and often shows up as a blending grape in various red table wines. It's the third-most widely planted grape in Italy. Barbera, like Dolcetto, is a wine that folks in the Piedmont drink while they're waiting for the Nebbiolo to finish aging for use in Barolo and Barbaresco.

General "Barbera" can be grown almost anywhere in Italy, but there are some viticultural areas that are well known for this wine. The towns of Alba and Asti are the most famous and are the sources of the higher quality versions. Thus, in general, if you see "Barbera d'Alba" or "Barbera d'Asti" on a bottle, it'll likely be a little more expensive, but much more interesting and complex.

Elsewhere in Europe, Barbera isn't grown very much except for in small pockets here and there. It's planted fairly widely in California where, because of its normally high yield per vine, it's a common component in a lot of jug wine. Thankfully, some California winemakers have started taking care of this grape properly -- producing it as either a largely single-varietal wine or as a feature grape in blends.

Barbera's flavor profile is all over the map. Since it's a fairly flexible vine that can grow in many types of soil, the terroir and the care taken to limit yields play huge roles in the eventual flavor of the wine. In general, however, Barbera tends to produce somewhat fruity, fairly tannic, and highly acidic wine. The color always tends to be dark -- Barbera was and is often blended in small quantities into Nebbiolo (which tends to produce light-colored wines) for aesthetic purposes. The high acidity level makes it an excellent complement to many kinds of food -- especially rich foods. Pepperoni pizza and Barbera make a remarkably good pairing.

Bazzini 2006 Barbera -- I grabbed a one-liter bottle of this when I knew I was going to be making an Italian meal and couldn't come up with a pairing off the top of my head. For the record, it was pan-cooked salmon filets in an onion-and-anchovy sauce over some risotto. Lots of rich flavors, so I wanted a wine that was acidic to cut through the oil and fruity enough to be a complement. Barbera's usually a pretty safe bet. What I didn't expect was that this eight-dollar liter of wine ended up being a pretty decent quaffer. Not watery at all, plenty of bright fruit and acidity, and pleasant enough to have on its own. It worked well with the fish, which ended up being absolutely delicious, by the way...

Hey Mambo 2007 Bistro Style Sultry Red -- As I mentioned, Barbera winds up in a lot of California wine, and not all of these are jug quality. The Hey Mambo is a blend of Barbera and four other grapes: syrah, malbec, petit sirah, and zinfandel. The result is what I'd term an inexpensive substitute to a Super Tuscan. This wine starts you out with a Syrah-like, plummy nose. The taste is full bodied, with a hint of that Italian "chalkiness," which is balanced by the full fruit of the other grapes. The finish is long and fruity. We had this with rotini in a spicy tomato sauce, and it went very well -- but I certainly would not waver in putting it up against a heartier, meatier dish. About $9-10.

La Spinetta 2005 Barbera d'Asti "Ca' Di Pian" -- Now, if you want to experience a wonderful expression of what Barbera can really be when it's truly taken care of -- and you're willing to go over the $15 limit for a special occasion (you'll probably shell out $22-25), have a look at this one. Big blackberries and flowers on the nose. Long, complex flavors -- dark berries and chocolate with a little bit of oak that transitions to a full, lasting, and slightly, pleasantly fruity finish. It's a perfect wine to break out for a meal to linger over in good company. Or, put more poetically by one of the folks in the wine store: "This is a 'get-you-laid' bottle." (I cannot make that kind of unequivocal guarantee. Your mileage may vary. And, no, I ain't tellin'.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Golden Kaan

Monica from Balzac, who was goodly enough to let me try the Espiritu de Chile selections back in January, asked me to give my impressions of Golden Kaan wines, a new series of wines from the Western Cape of South Africa near Cape Town.

Golden Kaan 2007 Chenin Blanc -- South African chenin blanc is an entirely different animal than the light, crisp chenin that quality winemakers are doing in California, or the fruit-laden minerality of the Loire whites from France. South African chenins tend to be a little heavier, and the Kaan certainly is an excellent representation of this varietal. The nose is quite full of caramel and vanilla. The body is as full as I've tasted in a chenin, and contains a pleasantly complex mix of citrus, vanilla, and toasty oak. The finish is a nice, lasting balance of oak and melon.

The recommended pairing was a warm green bean salad (which ended up helping me discover a great way to put fresh, uncooked onions in a dish without having stank-breath after!) and I added a grilled grouper recipe from the Giuliano Hazan cookbook I mentioned once before. The pairing was spot-on. The bean salad had a lemon-based dressing which pointed up some citrus notes in the wine. The smokiness of the wine's flavors went very well with the grilled fish.

Golden Kaan 2006 Pinotage & Golden Kaan 2007 Shiraz -- The SPinC and I tried these two wines side by side, since the recommended food pairing for both was this tasty looking "lamb soasities" recipe. (In case you're wondering what in tarnation that is, it's lamb shoulder cut into chunks and marinated in a mixture of onion, lemon juice, garlic, and various curry-themed spices; skewered with green pepper, shallots, and dried apricots; and cooked over hot coals. Recipe here. Yum!)

We tasted the wines by themselves initially. We discovered that using the aerator that we brought back from California was a huge help for these wines. Both of them definitely needed some time to breathe, since they were both a) relatively young and b) varietals that can always stand a little bit of air to wake up the flavors.

Pinotage, for many people, is a "love it or hate it" varietal. Pinotage is a crossbreed of Cinsault and Pinot Noir, and is the wine South Africa is best known for. This hybrid produces a wine that's slightly heavier than many Pinot Noirs, with some very strong flavors. These wines are often very smoky and rich, and they can have any number of flavors that don't appear in many wines. Done well, these wines stand up nicely to grilled and smoked game and pungent spices.

This version, while possessing some of the characteristics you'd expect in Pinotage, is a reasonably approachable wine. The nose is full of tart cherries and chocolate with a strong smoky flavor on the palate. There's a slightly bitter flavor on the finish, almost like coffee, and it's dry. The shiraz is a light styled wine. The nose is of fresh cut wood and cherries -- more sweet cherry than the tartness of the Pinotage. There's a tobacco flavor as well, but the cherries dominate the palate from front to end.

With the food, I thought that the Pinotage was much more interesting. I thought it stood up to the spices in the marinade and the sauce, and the flavors in the wine itself stood out. The SPinC was of a different mind. She enjoyed the shiraz more, since there were already so many varied flavors in the food -- she felt that the shiraz allowed the food to take center stage and be a solid complementary taste. She said, "If it were January, I'd probably like the Pinotage more."

I think the Pinotage is an excellent "starter" if you're not too familiar with the varietal and you want to get a sense of it. The shiraz was OK -- but I think there are some better ones out there in the same price point.

All three wines retail for around $10 and are broadly available.

P.S. Vine reader Steve G pointed out my patently obvious missed opportunity for a Star Trek reference with the name of this wine. But after about a dozen "KAAAAAAAAAN!" exclamations with the SPinC looking at me sideways, I decided to let it slide. But please, feel free to unleash your inner Shatner after killing a bottle of one of these.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Vote for Me! -- updated!

Your intrepid wine blogger has thrown his name in the hat for Murphy-Goode winery's "A Really Goode Job" promotion. One lucky winner gets to move to Healdsburg, California for six months, tasting wine -- blogging and tweeting along the way.

I had to put a short video together. I went for "Brevity is the soul of wit."

You can see my video (and hopefully vote for it!) here. (UPDATE: This takes you directly to the video without having to sift through all the entries...)

All support is appreciated! I'll keep you updated as things move along.

(Many thanks to Michelle Lentz, the Wine Girl, for helping me figure out how to get the link working...)