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'.)