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Barbera del Monferrato
The Monferrato hills are located in the southeast corner of Piedmont, bordering Liguria. This is a large, rugged area with huge swathes of vineyards dominated by small scale producers. Barbera is the star red grape and Monferrato versions tend to be a bit lighter than those from Asti or Alba to the north. Older styles may be encountered with a slight spritz and the wines vary widely depending on the producer. A small subset of 150 acres of the regions vineyards were elevated to DOCG status in 2008 and these wines are labeled as Barbera del Monferrato Superiore. Some 12,000 cases of the DOCG are produced per year and the wines rank with the serious efforts from Alba and Asti.

It wasn't all that long ago that the Barbera grape was the poor cousin in Piedmont. Barolo and Barbaresco, made from the Nebbiolo grape, were accorded noble status, revered locally and fashionable abroad. Nebbiolo required the best vineyards in order to ripen fully, but sluttish Barbera would grow just about anywhere.

For the grower it is a dream grape variety, not especially site-sensitive, routinely giving generous crops, good color, and zesty acidity. It is the workhorse grape of Piedmont, accounting for 80 percent of plantings 50 years ago, and even today half its vineyards are planted with Barbera.

Yet suddenly barbera is in fashion. It took the acumen of one man, Giacomo Bologna of the Braida estate, to take the varietal seriously. I went to see him in 1985 and enjoyed his barrique-aged, single-vineyard Barbera "Bricco dell'Uccellone," not quite realizing that it was becoming a cult wine, a role model for all other serious Barberas to admire. Bologna, visibly fond of his food, died young, alas, but his work, as far as Barbera was concerned, was done.

The recognition of Barbera as worthy of something more than carafe-wine status is comparable to the transformation of Zinfandel in California in the 1970s, when Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards and Joseph Swan in Sonoma County rescued it from its lowly status. Zinfandel is now securely reinstated, and so is Barbera.

Recently, the producers of Barbera summoned wine writers from around the world to a "Barbera Meeting" in order to taste the recent vintages, acclaimed as some of the finest of the decade. In a triumph of good sense over regional rivalry, the growers of two different regions, Asti and Alba, joined forces to show their wines.

Almost 100 wines were tasted blind each day, and it soon became apparent that there is no such thing as a typical Barbera. It is as multi-faceted as, well, Zinfandel. Although nobody has yet invented a "White Barbera," there is fizzy Barbera, which can be better than it sounds. As for the dry wines, they range from fresh, fruity, and perky to dense, chocolatey, and powerful.

Debate raged over the appropriate style for Barbera, but the fact that it strolls down the catwalk of the palate in a variety of costumes is surely no bad thing. On a summer's day, a lively young Barbera is a perfect accompaniment to a plate of antipasti before lunch; at dinner, a richer, fruitier, oak-tinged Barbera is just the ticket with grilled beef or lamb chops in a red-wine sauce.

Barbera is marked by its naturally high acidity, which makes it an excellent match with rich foods and potentially aggressive without them. (Wine/Appellations)