Although the prices for the best bottles are not exactly bargain basement, barbera remains a somewhat underrated varietal, shadowed as it is by the brilliance and finesse of the regional all-star, nebbiolo. Mind you, producers have been working hard (sometimes a bit too hard) to show that barbera is a serious grape.
Take Aldo Conterno’s Conca Tre Pile 2004 Barbera d’Alba, for instance. What strikes you first, when you smell it and taste it, is a well-defined set of flavors, dominated by cherry and red currant, quite typical of the varietal and concentrated. Yet the tannins feel a little strong and the nose, overall, is a little hot from the relatively high alcohol (14%). A great wine, surely, one that should smooth out over the next few years, but you can tell that the vinification and the 12 months spent in new oak barriques is very present in the mix, perhaps a little too much.
I’m partial too more light-footed approaches to barbera (or nebbiolo, for that matter). Bruno Giacosa’s wines, in that respect, seem more subtle and, to me, more satisfying: larger barrels and a somewhat shorter stay in said barrels help the grape shine through.
Still, the Conca Tre Pile has a lot going for it, especially when you drink it with a meal. I had it with a venison meat pie, with which the barbera had a refreshing, enlightening effect, thanks to its acidity, astringency and fruit, while its concentration allowed it to hold up to the accompanying ketchup and marinades. The next day, I had some more with pork, marinated in a oil-soy-maple syrup-mustard mixture and then grilled in the oven. In the same manner, the wine cut through the fatty character of the dish, and balanced well with the caramelized, intense flavors of the meat.
Still, Piedmont wines have a tendency to smooth out and gain in subtlety and complexity as time goes by. I’d love to see what happens with this wine over two or three years, to see if it becomes better integrated. I’m not quite sure the heat of the alcohol will tone down as well over time. But I don’t mind waiting and seeing.