What is the point of barbera? Where does it sit against sangiovese and nebbiolo as 'the' red grapes of Italy? And why bother with barbera in Australia?
I have a lot of time for barbera as a grape. When done well, it can be both 'serious' (for whatever that's worth) and functional. There are few wines I reckon do as well with dishes using slow cooked tomato sauces, in part due to barbera's ability to retain natural acids as it ripens. Ripe barbera can sit in the purple (rather than red or black) fruits spectrum, riding high on acid, with a generous set of dusty, grippy, sometimes sandy tannins.
Whereas some sangiovese will offer grilled nuts, nut skins and dried herbs, barbera can substitute a slightly bitter, fresh herb, astringency. Against tomato-based pasta sauces, for example, or an osso bucco made with tomato, that bitter herb character, combined with bright and bouncing acid, yet still a decent weight of primary fruit, can see barbera a better match than sangiovese or nebbiolo.
But it can go wrong. Overcrop it, shade it out, don't thin the fruit back and you can end up with a thin, barely-fruited, overly-tannic, searingly acidic underdone soup of a wine.
This 2009 Barbera from David Hook in the Hunter Valley avoids many of the problems that can befall this grape. There is a bit of a hidden story about the Hunter Valley, cloud-cover and sunshine hours that make it a region nominally too hot for some types of 'quality' grape if considered on heat summations alone. This is ripe, with red and purple fruits, a touch savoury and attractive to smell. The nose says real wine and brambly spice to me, before a palate that builds tannins and acids as you move through a glass, then a bottle.
It livens up even more with food. The fruit folds back into the wine (this was tasted with bistecca) and lets the tannins and acid cut and refresh. My minor quibble about what is otherwise an enjoyable barbera is that with more airtime the acids and astringent finish become more pronounced, including a tinny note of pressed citrus rind (almost as you can find in young-vine tempranillo). A glass carried over to a second day continues this trend.
Fully-priced at $27.99 from Dan Murphy's, this is $25 a bottle from cellar door and is sealed with a Stelvin Lux closure. This could settle a flesh out a little more with time in bottle, but I would drink it in the next two years, not trying to hold a bottle over more than a night open. Worth a look to indicate what barbera is doing in Australia (and can do in the Hunter), but the current release Chrismont 2009 Barbera (King Valley, $26 rrp) is a more convincing and better value argument for the grape in Australia.