It's a category of wine that, oddly, doesn't get talked about anywhere near as much as you might expect. I call them "wines of affection."
Actually, "affection" is too weak a term. Closer to the mark is something akin to love mingled with loyalty. They are wines you feel strongly about, never mind the reason. (Indeed, reason probably has nothing to do with it.)
My own such "wine of affection" may surprise you: It's Barbera. (You thought I'd say Pinot Noir, didn’t you?) What is it about Barbera, of all wines, that so grabs me and won't let go? Damned if I know. I only know that I've got a cellarful of Barbera and that it's my go-to comfort wine.
If you're surprised by this, I can only tell you that when I was living in Piedmont in the early '90s, nobody was more surprised by my abiding affection for Barbera than the local winegrowers.
Back then Barbera was seen by most Piedmontese wine producers as common. Oh, they liked it well enough, in an offhand kind of way. Everybody had some in their vineyards, like a stray dog that made itself at home and you shrugged and fed it scraps. But it sure didn't fetch much money, and it completely lacked cachet or prestige.
You can imagine their surprise to find an American wine writer living among them declaring an improbable love for Barbera. (I was researching my cookbook A Passion for Piedmont at the time.)
My wife and I frequented the restaurant Da Felicin in Monforte d'Alba, in the heart of the Barolo zone. The food was (and still is) superb and the wine cellar was truffled with all the great Barolos and Barbarescos of the Langhe. These would be triumphantly served in the big Riedel Sommeliers Burgundy Grand Cru glasses. I, however, ordered Barbera and insisted upon it being served in those same glasses.
Now, in fairness, I was not alone in my love of Barbera. A handful of producers in the Langhe harbored their own such affection. Despite the fact that it made no financial sense whatsoever, they would devote to Barbera a small parcel of their vineyard that might otherwise nurture Nebbiolo.
That may not seem like such a big deal, but it was. You see, the thing about Barbera is that it will grow anywhere. After the phylloxera root louse arrived in Piedmont in the 1880s, wine producers everywhere in Piedmont, desperate for any sort of wine and any kind of income, turned to Barbera as their savior.
What happened next was not just an abundance of Barbera never before seen, but an abundance of really bad Barbera. Good soil, bad soil, good exposure, bad exposure—Barbera doesn't care. It grows. It produces generously. No matter how lousy your site, you can always grow Barbera. This is why, well into the late 20th century, it had the reputation of a junk grape.
Far from being embarrassed by Barbera, the peasant growers in Piedmont have always been grateful for its high yields and easy cultivation.
The great American authority on Italian wines, Burton Anderson, long ago pointed out that where all wines in Piedmont, and elsewhere, take the masculine article (il Nebbiolo, il Dolcetto, il Freisa), only Barbera is accorded the feminine: la Barbera. It's a linguistic sign of affection.
This is also why it was an act of true wine love that the likes of Giovanni Conterno (of Giacomo Conterno), his brother Aldo Conterno, Alfredo Currado of Vietti winery, Giuseppe Rinaldi and Angelo Gaja (who no longer offers a Barbera but once did) reserved choice sites in order to create great Barberas. There was no money in it. But they knew that, if given a chance—meaning a prime exposure—Barbera could deliver the goods.
Nobody, then or now, considered Barbera the equal of Nebbiolo. It isn't. But it can be genuinely fine if grown in a good site and, especially, if given a bit of bottle age. That's one of the things about Barbera that probably attracted the Piedmontese, who have long liked and admired venerable wines. Barbera, like Nebbiolo, can age beautifully for decades.
Does it need it? Not really. But its unusually high level of acidity (and surprisingly low level of tannins, unlike Nebbiolo) gives it the backbone necessary for aging. It just keeps getting mellower is what happens. I've yet to have a Barbera of any quality that was “past it.” And I've drunk Barberas with 30 to 40 years of age on them. (My own cellar has Barberas going back nearly two decades and they're all amazingly fresh and pristine.)
So, coming back to where this all began: What is it about wines of affection? For me, I suppose that I loved the underdog, "surprise" quality of Barbera.
Everyone knew that Nebbiolo was great, indisputably. But Barbera enjoyed no such acclaim. I could make my own discovery of its qualities, one producer at a time—and enjoy insisting that it be given the regal treatment of the big wineglass normally reserved for Nebbiolo royalty.
Not least, I do love the forthright flavor and brisk acidity of Barbera. It goes with anything I care to pair it with, high and low: hot dogs, filet mignon, moussaka, beef Bourguignon, lamb chops or a hamburger. I like how it can be drunk with equal gratification at any age, young or old.
Further, I respect Barbera's capacity to reveal differences in sites. It can and does show a transparency to terroir, if given the opportunity. (The same can be said of Zinfandel.) Is it the equal of Nebbiolo or Pinot Noir in that regard? Not at all. There's a reason why those two red grapes are considered supreme.
I know that I'm not the only wine lover who embraces this sort of "wine of affection." I see it with Zinfandel lovers. And I've spotted that look of indulgent, abiding fondness among Australians with their many Shiraz wines. Oddly, Burgundy lovers are as much in awe as they are in love. But somehow Beaujolais brings it out, don't you think?
I'll leave it to you to offer other such (personal) "wines of affection." My guess is that some of our choices—such as mine with Barbera—might surprise our fellow wine lovers.