Food-friendly barbera

An excerpt from Daring pairings by Evan Goldstein

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daring pairings by Evan Goldstein

daring pairings by Evan Goldstein


Barbera has all the hallmarks of food-friendliness – high acid, low to medium tannin, balanced alcohol, and usually not too much wood. It goes down easily, and because of its high acidity, it makes a good start to a meal before you move on to bigger red wines with later courses.

In Piedmont you might have a few initial courses (antipasti, pasta, etc.) with barbera before switching to a barolo or barbaresco. And the frizzante styles, although difficult to find, are particularly good accompaniments to rich food.

Even more than sangiovese from Chianti, barbera is considered the quintessential wine to accompany dishes with 'red' sauces. Though both grapes have high acidity, which is critical when matching with tomatoes and tomato sauces, barbera's bright fruit can help make the flavors of a dish 'pop.' But it can also pair happily with recipes ranging from veal chops to grilled halibut, and from simple roast lamb to mixed antipasti.

Try it with grilled portobello mushrooms stuffed with sausage or dishes with pronounced Asian flavors – char siu (roast pork), tandoori chicken, or Vietnamese shaking beef. And in my humble opinion, there are few wines that are better with pizza, or even burritos.

Mushrooms and barbera have a special affinity – from Piedmont's truffles, if you can afford them, to cultivated mushrooms like portobellos and cremini. Slice and sauté them and serve them over pasta, alongside a steak, or on top of toasted slices of bread as crostini. When pairing with more traditional or earthy wines, try adding a bit of garlic or herbs to tie the flavors together.

Some of the modern-style bottlings tend to be quite oaky, which is a key consideration when pairing with food. If the oak is smoky and sweet, play to that by grilling with mesquite or other charcoal, and char the meat to meld with those characteristics. If the wine is fleshy and smooth from the oak, opt for richer preparations. Above all, remember that not all barberas are the same.


Pairing Pointers

Barbera goes well with:

  • Comfort foods. I don't know what magnetic force it has, but the bottles of barbera I've had with burgers, pizzas, meat loaves, and burritos over the years could fill a small wine cellar several times over.
  • Charcuterie, cold cuts, and salumi. This match is a tradition in northern Italy for a good reason. Barbera’s high acidity cuts through the richness of salami, soppressata, mortadella, bologna, prosciutto, and lardo. It’s also a nice counterbalance for French pâté and rustic terrines.
  • Mushrooms. Put them on veal chops, burgers, and crostini, toss them with pasta, or add them to a risotto. Most kinds will work, from morels to portobellos, porcini to truffles.
  • Mild and meaty fish. If you want to break out and serve red wine with fish, barbera is a great choice. Its high acid, low tannins, and balanced flavors work well with grilled tuna, swordfish, or even shark. Add a tomato vinaigrette, basic puttanesca (with tomato, olives, anchovies, and red pepper flakes) or tapenade, and smile.
  • Thick stews and rich meat dishes. When the big meat dishes come out, barbera is often shunted aside in favor of barbaresco, barolo, or even a Tuscan brunello. But a full-flavored barbera can hold its own against a lamb stew, traditional osso buco milanese, or classic steak au poivre. If you want a serious wine, try a modern-style, oak-aged barbera rather than a Nebbiolo-based wine.

Barbera isn’t good:

  • When you select the wrong one. The range of barbera is dizzying, from big and oaky to light and frizzante. Consider the dish and the wine style before you pop the cork.
  • With strong-flavored fish. In spite of its high acidity, barbera's flavor profile and tannins clash with Chilean sea bass and sturgeon, among others. It will work with milder finned creatures, such as trout, sole, or rock cod.
  • With most shellfish. Fins are fine, but avoid the mollusks. You need to be very deliberate in your recipe selection to pair Barbera (except rosato) with most shellfish, lobster, or crab.
  • With very spicy foods. Chili, curry, or fiery buffalo wings generally overwhelm most barberas, although much lighter or rosato barberas might stand up to them, especially if they are chilled.
  • With sweet dishes. Though barbera may offer the impression of sweetness with its ripe fruit and (frequently) oak, most will taste too austere alongside pronounced and obvious sugar, such as a sweet-and-sour sauce, a fruit compote with a roast, or a tropical-fruit salsa.


The Cheese Plate

FRESH – Burrata, mascarpone (Italy)
SOFT-RIPENED – Camembert (France, U.S.A.), robiola (Italy)
SEMI-HARD – Comté (France), pecorino (Italy)
HARD – Mimolette (France), aged Piave (Italy)


Reproduced with permission of University of California Press © Evan Goldstein 2010 


Read our full review of Daring Pairings here »

Daring Pairings by Evan Goldstein is published by University of California Press (Berkeley and LA; 2010; hb 353 pp) and retails for RRP US$34.95  or RRP A$55.95 in Australia.

It is available from online from Australian distributor Inbooks: for A$45. Inbooks offer free postage within Australia to subscribers and Members here »

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January 03rd, 2011
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