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Drinking Out Loud

Wines of Affection

Price and scores simply don't matter—you just love them

Matt Kramer
Posted: August 19, 2014

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.

Ricardo A Maduro
Panama —  August 19, 2014 12:04pm ET
We don't get that much variety in Italian wines in our country but, a few years back, I tried a Barbera D'Alba (just because by grandmother's last name was De Alba) and I was very pleasantly surprised. Since then I've had tried other Barberas on spare occasions and they always bring me a very nice affection to them.
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  August 19, 2014 3:30pm ET
Great article on a very interesting topic, Matt.
My "wine of affection" is without a doubt Chianti. Very similar to your "affection" for Barbera. Most folks (including many wine afficionados who should know better) have a decidedly low opinion of this wine - probably because of a bad experience many years (or even decades) ago. When they hear the word "Chianti", they practically cringe, as it brings to mind those awful wines that were poured from the fiaschi in restaurants years ago. I never cease to be amazed by the variety of styles and the incredible quality being offered today. It isn't hard at all to find Chiantis nowadays that are more good enough to enjoy on their own - without being paired with food. And furthermore, these wines can be incredible bargains! One of my absolute favorites of the past few years has been the 2006 Castello di Monastero Chianti Classico. A wonderful bottle of wine that I was able to get several cases of for under $14!
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  August 19, 2014 5:08pm ET
Mr. Matarese: I think that your example of Chianti is absolutely perfect. You're quite correct in pointing out that many wine drinkers have discounted Chianti because of trashy examples made decades ago or simply because of a crummy modern Chianti which, regrettably, still exist.

But Chianti today is brimming with great wines, many of them bargain-priced, too. And it's not just Chianti Classico that delivers the goods, but all the other districts in the larger Chianti zone, such as Chianti Colli Senesi and Rùfina, do too.

Even the Chiantis that aren't bargains--and those still abound--are, with only a handful of exceptions, still very reasonably priced for their sterling quality.

You're right when you say that you "Never cease to be amazed by the variety of styles and the incredible quality being offered today." I couldn't agree more.

Brett R Turner
Hawthorn Woods, IL —  August 19, 2014 5:37pm ET
My "wine of affection" is Petite Sirah. The first trip I took to California wine tasting included some Petite Sirahs and they were very memorable - standing out in the crowd for being big, unruly and teeth staining! Unfortunately, I see fewer and fewer of them around these days but I still look. The good ones I find bring me back to that first Cali wine trip and the varietal that really got my attention.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  August 19, 2014 6:12pm ET
Mr. Turner: I know what you mean about that--dare I say it?--Proustian quality of a wine triggering a pleasurable memory.

It's amazing how powerful smell can be that way, as we all know (and scientists have confirmed). And how interesting it is that it's Petite Sirah. It's a perfect example of a "wine of affection".

Although Petite Sirah has never made the proverbial big time, it has a loyal band of devoted producers in California, a number of whom offer some really memorable examples.

Of course, a good number of Petite Sirahs are reviewed by Wine Spectator, so that's the place to start looking. I myself was interested to see how many Petite Sirahs have been awarded scores in the 90- to 95-point range, which is impressive, I think.

Also, you might want to take a look at the Petite Sirah advocacy group called PS I Love You (www.psiloveyou.org).
Anne-marie Deslongchamps
Montreal, Quebec, Canada —  August 19, 2014 9:12pm ET
Mine is Mencia, from Bierzo in Spain. It can be a bit rustic, but I just love its original caracter and it's different "faces".
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  August 19, 2014 9:38pm ET
Ms Deslongchamps: In the process of trying to decide what my "wine of affection" actually is, Mencia was one of the two "finalists" that I considered. So overlooked. The 2006 Pittacum Bierzo was the one that opened my eyes to this fabulous wine. The 2009 Palacios Petalos Bierzo confirmed for me that Mencia is very, very special.
Ken Heinemann
Singapore —  August 19, 2014 11:51pm ET
I'll vote for Petite Sirah also. Living overseas makes the selection even narrower, but still a pleasure to find. It has also been interesting to find a few Australian Durifs, which are a nice variation on the PS theme, but many of the same vibrant characteristics as a Cali PS.
Tomas Marimon
Miami, Fl —  August 20, 2014 1:38am ET
Good article. Love pinotage from South Africa with a big juicy ribeye steak, pulled pork, smoke duck. I have to admit it's a little difficult to get a good one
Franco Ziliani
Italy —  August 20, 2014 9:00am ET
Mr. Kramer, congratulations for you article I totally agree.
I know that you are a Piedmont wine lover: what do you think of Freisa and Dolcetto like wines of affection?
They are wine I like so much and no matter of scores
kindest regards
franco ziliani
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  August 20, 2014 10:40am ET
Mr. Ziliani: You ask what I think of Freisa and Dolcetto as "wines of affection". Personally, I'm very fond of Freisa and, especially, Dolcetto. Obviously, every person's wine of affection will be different precisely because it's an emotional reaction.

Much as I like Dolcetto, somehow it never has grabbed me emotionally in quite the same way as Barbera. I don't know why, really. Dolcetto is somehow almost too "easy". I know, as you do too I'm sure, that among the Piemontese, especially in the Cuneo province, Dolcetto is collectively more their "wine of affection" than Barbera. And why not? It's really lovely.

As for Freisa, it's a bit of a dark horse, if only because not much is made and it arrives in a variety of styles, from relatively light and even frizzante (lightly sparkling) to something very serious and formidable. I can't say as I know many drinkers for whom Freisa, attractive as it can be, is their wine of affection. But again, why not?

That's the thing about wines of affection: like love, there's no accounting for the attraction--and no need to do so, either.
Alan Gavalya
Hampton VA USA —  August 20, 2014 11:28am ET
I love German Riesling Matt and I feel quite alone in my circle of wine drinkers. Kabinett through Trockenbeerenauslese I love them all. Talk about a sense of place, I've yet to have a varietal exhibiting more Terroir. Just can't understand why residual sugar makes for a bad wine in the mind of some folks. Thanks for the article.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  August 20, 2014 12:06pm ET
Mr. Gavalya: You write: "Just can't understand why residual sugar makes for a bad wine in the mind of some folks."

As you know, great minds of all kinds have puzzled over why Riesling in general--and German Riesling in particular--has failed to capture the modern imagination the way that, say, Chardonnay has.

Theories range from consumer inability to know what sort of sweetness the Riesling might have (which surely is part of the problem) to language to just plain ignorance of Riesling's wonderfulness.

Not least is the role of fashion itself. After all, Riesling once was seen as the pinnacle of fine-wine fashion. Perhaps that day will return. After all, what you say is indisputably true: Riesling is superb at revealing terroir. That ought to count for something, sweetness or no.

Yet Riesling remains a bit of a (wine) cultural outlier. Just why is very likely an amalgam of issues of which sweetness is just one (not insignificant) element.
Bill Stell
Greenville, SC —  August 20, 2014 1:27pm ET
Although I will drink any red at any time with any food (although food is HIGHLY overrated) if I had to pick a "wine of affection" I would have to go for an Italian Aglianico. Southern Italy has some of the best values and best wines made.
Eric Campos
Canada —  August 20, 2014 3:11pm ET
My vote goes for a wine I have not had nearly often enough, Lacrima di Morro d'Alba. These wines seem like warm bumbleberry pie in a bottle. I cannot fathom why it has not exploded in markets that like Zinfandel and other fully-fruited wines.

A close runner up is Ruche, which to me, seems to meld some of the more compelling aspects of Nebbiolo and the Rhone family. So unique. I ask myself why this variety doesn't get more love from Piedmont-philes. Is it the whole grapefruit-infused finish?

Oh, I, too, owe my love of Mencia to Pittacum's 2006.
Peter J Gatti
Austin, Texas, USA —  August 21, 2014 12:44am ET
Mr. Kramer, mine is good Lambrusco di Sorbara or Grasparosso, drunk with salumeria. My maternal Grandfather hailed from near Bologna, and I cannot drink good lambrusco or eat good Mortadella without recalling numerous memories of him.

But in a pinch, I can make do happily with a Barbera Vivace!
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  August 21, 2014 11:40am ET
Mr. Gatti: Lambrusco! Of course. What a perfect wine of affection.

Like you, I'm a very big fan of Lambrusco and have been delighted at the steady rise in high-quality "artisanal" Lambruscos that have been appearing in recent years such as Villa di Corlo, Lini, Medici Ermete, Moretto, Saetti and Chiarli, among others.

Really good Lambrusco is one of the great wine pleasures of our time, in my opinion. I'm very glad you mentioned it.

Carlo Dinatale
Coon Rapids, MN USA —  August 22, 2014 9:38am ET
Nice article. I share your affection for Barbera. It can offer the comfort of an old pair of slippers after a long day with whatever is on the dinner table. Although when I mention this in certain wine circles, the Napa Cab snobs might cock their heads quizzically.
My latest "go to" has been Vietti's 2012 Barbara D'Alba Tre Vigne
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  August 22, 2014 12:38pm ET
My wine of affection is Madiran - or really anything made with Tannat.

There is something about the austerity of the that just makes my tastebuds happy.

It also doesn't hurt that I discovered Tannat during the time that I was first discovering the pleasures of wine.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  August 22, 2014 5:07pm ET
Australian Grenache. Yangarra, Clarendon Hills, (the late, great) Chateau Chateau, Tir Na Nog, Two Hands... I don't see a lot of press on it these days, but it always brings a smile to my face.
Benoit Souligny
quebec canada —  August 23, 2014 12:06am ET
my wine of affection is moscatel roxo ever since i tasted it in sétubal i'm it's greatest fan,just really tough to get in Canada.Tinta de toro is close behind.
Doug House
McLean, Virginia —  August 23, 2014 1:21pm ET
Schiava - the light red (almost pink) from Alto Adige that crackles with sour cherry and a whiff of fresh flowers - and Gignolino - similar but with a little of Piemonte's earthy character - are the two that always tickle my fancy and make me smile. I can't tell you how often I really should have opened something more prestigious or important to go with a meal, only to find myself giving in and popping another one of these
Nathaniel Smith
Incline Village, Nevada, United States —  August 24, 2014 2:57am ET
Chilean Cabernet. I know it's growing in popularity and it's an odd pick for an obscure affection, but most of my customers are from Napa or near Napa, and more than a few regard wines from as near as Oregon as 'almost foreign'. Loving an actual foreign wine is seen as odd; loving a foreign Cabernet Sauvignon as nearly treasonous.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  August 24, 2014 11:56am ET
Mr. Smith: You write: "More than a few regard wines from as near as Oregon as 'almost foreign'."

That's actually quite open-minded, really. In Oregon many folks view wine from California--well, Pinot Noir anyway--as absolutely foreign!
Franco Ziliani
Italy —  August 26, 2014 3:55am ET
Mr. Kramer, this is the link to my commentary to your excellent article in my blog Vino al vino:
http://www.vinoalvino.org/blog/2014/08/per-matt-kramer-e-gregory-dal-piaz-la-barbera-e-il-vino-del-cuore.html
kindest regards and congratulation again!
f.z.
Leif Stenson
Sweden —  August 31, 2014 12:28pm ET
I find also this article very interesting. But I am afraid that the conclusions of Mr. Burton Anderson, even if very tempting, not are very valid. Nearly all Italian words ending on "o" are masculine. Most words ending on "a" are feminine, the main exception being words of Greek origin like "il problema" = "the problem".
Seen from grammatical point of view, thus "il Freisa" is the big exception here.
If you look into the world of animals you will find that the Italian language is rather unequal. Animals that are considered dangerous (poisonous), often are associated with the feminine sex like "vipera" = "adder", whereas animals associated with power or wisdom like lion or owl ("leone" resp. "gufo") are masculine.
But I think we can agree on that Barbera has the attraction of the same kind as an attractive woman can have on men.
I fully agree with Mr. Gavalya, that Riesling can have the same attractivity on the white side (both blonds and brunettes can be attractive, can't they ?).
Kind regards,
Leif Stenson

Wilson Mctavish Zildjian
Castine, Maine —  September 3, 2014 10:18am ET
Great article, Matt,
...and what an excellent set of comments! I caught myself nodding in agreement with every single commenter's recommendation, without exception. This is the template for an awesome under-the-radar classic wine cellar, especially now that prices of the traditional varieties have gone through the roof.

One grape that I would personally add to this list of affection would be Cabernet franc, especially from California, where the herbal/tobacco complexity remains, but a new warm-climate home adds in a layer of richer fruit.

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