Dan Berger

Which came first, the tomato or the Barbera?

The familiar cliché about chickens and eggs could well be replaced: Which came first, the tomato or the Barbera?

I’ve long believed French and Italian cuisines are polar opposites: The French love their cream, butter, emulsion sauces, and richness in all forms; the Italians embrace their counterpoint appreciation for acid.

Perhaps it doesn’t boil down to only those issues. But separating the cultures, at least for this discussion of their endemic wines, is at least one way to begin understanding the differences in these nations’ tastes.

The major wine differences between the two cultures starts with the different grape varieties that identify each and how they relate to basic foods.

Bordeaux and Burgundy are two of the greatest wine districts in the world and set the tone for all the world’s fine districts that pay homage to France as the progenitor for wine greatness, with one exception — Italy.

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France’s Cabernet and Pinot Noir have been the two most widely “borrowed” red wine grapes, with Syrah entering the game recently.

All three of these varieties today grow in Italy, but they came along recently, and only after Sangiovese and Nebbiolo (not to mention Barbera and about 100 other red wine grapes) were already long established in Italy, and marked the style of wine the public adored.

France remains the resolute king of red wine since its primary grape varieties have been emulated around the world. But the Italian adoration for wine that went with its more seafood-, olive-, and olive oil-based cuisines, pastas, and especially Italy’s love of the tomato has recently gained more fame.

The key to this is that the tomato is an acid-based fruit (yes, a fruit!), and takes welcomingly to tart wine.

For example, Barbera, third most widely planted grape in Italy, dates from the 13th century in Italy. The tomato came some 300 years later. But the affinity each has for the other is now widely recognized.

The same goes for how the tomato works with Sangiovese and other red wine grapes of the many hundreds growing there.

The tart tomato eventually became synonymous with Italian cuisine partly because local wines seem to be so compatible with it, and the main reason was the terrific acidity of both grapes and “love apples.”

Italian red wines are fairly tart. Thus the best either must be aged for years, to tame the acid, or be consumed with food. Dried and cured meats, one of Italy’s most prized contributions to culinaria, also work brilliantly with such reds, as do tomato-sauced pasta dishes topped with cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano or gorgonzola.

So it is natural to view these wines as an integral part of the Italian culinary scene. I, for one, cannot imagine Pasta Bolognese without a glass of Chianti or Barolo. The reason is simply that the food cries out for the balancing acidity the wine provides.

To determine the best of these wines, especially when they are grown in areas of the world such as the cool Pacific Northwest, isn’t easy because typical blind tastings are almost always done without food.

In such settings, the combination of high acidity and tannin makes for more pain than succulence.

So judges must infer from what they taste which of the wines would ultimately work best with proper foods. So what might taste good in a sans-food blind tasting may also be the wrong wine for polenta or risotto with wild mushrooms.

Also, an Italian grape varietal wine that tastes good now might well be a poor candidate to put in the cellar for a few years. A wine that tastes good when young usually is relatively low in acidity, and such wines usually age poorly.

As you can see, there are significant differences between the best red wines of Italy and France, and there is one more major difference that few people talk about. It is that we generally have a good understanding of what constitutes a great Burgundy or, alternativly, a Bordeaux, but what marks a great Sagrantino, Aglianico, or Brunello?

That is, unquestionably, a much more arcane proposition, one that is almost impossible to learn unless you spend years looking carefully at all the different versions of each grape and how they are defined regionally, from district to district, throughout the Italian scene.

For instance, how many people know that Taurasi is a premium designation of Aglianico as it grows in a district of Campania? And how does Taurasi differ from Aglianico del Vulture of Basilicata?

What I find fascinating is that Italian red wine grapes now are finding a positive response among American wine lovers, many of whom realize that just a few additional years in a cellar can measurably improve a red wine from Italian grapes.

The most important fact about such wines is to know the acid and pH of the product before you buy. Any Sangiovese or Barbera with low acidity or a high pH, or both, is a warning sign that indicates the wine might not be better for aging.

Without knowing either statistic, watch carefully for wines with high alcohol – an indication of a shorter-lived red. You never see a Chianti with 15 percent alcohol; 12.5 percent to 13 percent is normal.

An American Sangiovese with 15 percent alcohol is likely to be tasty when young, but it’s an indication it won’t age.

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