This offering is going to be a bit unusual: it features two wines, each made from the same Italian varietal: Barbera. A brief explanation may be in order. Two adjacent red wines at our weekly blind tasting were received with critical acclaim by the nine tasters present. The wines were different enough to be admired for diverse reasons. Frankly not one of us thought that they were made from the same grape. There was a mixture of surprise and pleasure when we realized the truth. And the fact that one of them is made in Southern California and the other in Northwestern Italy goes a long way to explain the differences of bouquet, flavor and texture between them. What they had in common is at least as important as what distinguished them—real quality at what turned out to be prices well below what we thought they were worth. The first of the two featured a magnificently rich, deep dark garnet hue, an equally compelling bouquet of leather, preserved dark fruits and a gamey, exotic note which lead more than one of us to think that this might be a Syrah from the Northern Rhone. On the palate the wine was powerful, serious, dense and saturated with ripe tannins. The expansive finish and excellent harmony of flavor and texture completed a wine which was fine in every respect. Perhaps a touch of warmth in the mouth and the ripeness of the tannins might have suggested New World. When the bag was opened we were all stunned and delighted to see that this was a Barbera made from grapes grown in Santa Barbara—quite a long distance from the Rhone and from Northern Italy! The label under which this marvelous wine is sold is Palmina. This is a brand that was created by one of Santa Barbara’s finest wine makers, Steve Clifton whose Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and Chardonnays are among the most individualistic, powerful and complex wines made in America. But Clifton is not so secret about his passion for the food and wine of Italy. Under the Palmina label he produces Italian varietal wines which are both an homage to the country he loves best and his savvy understanding of the market: Not everyone want to purchase $50-75 wines made from French varietals which require aging and special attention. The Palmina wines are made with the same skill and devotion as the monumental Brewer-Clifton wines but which retail in the $20-25 range. Truth be told we all thought the wine we tasted merited a $30-35 price tag. At $22 it is as much a delight to the wallet as it is to the palate. This is a food friendly wine which will marry well with tomato based sauces, barbecue and any roasted meat.
The second Barbera did indeed come from Italy and was perhaps easier to identify. The lovely bright, clear garnet indicated from the outset a wine with good acidity. In contrast to the ripe, dark fruits character of the Palmina, the nose of this Old World wine was redolent of tart red fruits, pepper and minerals. This carried through to the palate with its vibrant cherry-like flavors, tangy tannins and refreshing acidity. Less dramatic and rich than the first wine, it offered a classic linearity and minerality which said Old World. Indeed this turned out to be a Barbera from the grapes’ birthplace, Piemonte. The winery responsible for this engaging wine is De Forville which operates in a truly traditional manner. No new oak, no cold soaks before fermentation, no international consultants. The winery was established in Piemonte in 1860 and has been family run ever since. Famous for its elegant, nuanced, long lived Barbarescos, De Forville makes a charming Dolcetto, a crisp Chardonnay and this delightful Barbera. Food is always in the mind of traditional Piemontese growers. The wonderful, bracing acidity of their Barbara makes it an ideal wine for osso buco, lemon roasted Chicken, veal scallopini preparations, risotto and even salmon. We suggest that you buy a mixed case of both wines. When you are in the mood for a rich, deep, intense red reach for the Palmina. When a lighter, more elegant and refreshing red seems to suit your mood and food go for the De Forville.
Both are excellent wines priced well below their intrinsic worth.
Bob Millman, New York Vintners