The last winery we visited on our 2012 Northern Italian Wine Tour with Nadia Galati, was Agostino Pavia & Figli from Asti in the Piedmont. Though I’d heard of all things Asti for many years, only when you are driving through the countryside do you understand how hilly these foothills of the Italian Alps truly are. Hills make for many microclimates and plenty of south-facing vineyards to maximize exposure in a cool region. A variety of microclimates allow for many different varietals, but Pavia is best known for their Barberas. Pavia certainly changed my mind about the grape, which I tended to think of as a lighter knock off of Nebbiolo or Sangiovese, which it isn’t. When we sampled their reserve Barbera “La Marescialla” I found the best expression of the grape I had ever sampled, and in the upcoming 2009 vintage an incredible 15.9% alcohol without tasting like it. The three main Barberas that they make, that are available locally through ABC Fine Wines and Spirits, each reveal a different aspect and potential of this widely planted, workhorse grape.
Agostino Pavia, the patriarch, bought property in Agliano Terme in the 1950’s. I was fortunate to be able to follow Agostino into his vineyards and pick grapes with him. He doesn’t use a refractometer to check the brix, he grabs a bunch, tastes a grape and makes the call: “Buono” it goes in the basket, “No Buono” it hits the ground. That is what I call “old school.” His oldest son, Giuseppe joined him the 1980’s bringing many innovations and an expansion in styles and production. In the 1990’s his second son, Mauro, joined the family business and sought out export markets like the United States.
Our first tasting of their Barberas accompanied a “light lunch” of local cheese and peppery salami. Dessert included some cured local peaches and mustardo, which has nothing to do with mustard. Mustardo is “must jelly” which is very popular in this part of Italy. Since we were sampling wine with the same food, we could get a sense of the differences in their Barberas. The Blina Barbera d’Asti has no wood, being fermented in stainless steel tanks, letting the fresh fruit shine through. The Moliss Barbera d’Asti Superiore is barrel-aged, partly in Austrian oak and partly in Allier-oak tonneaux (500 liters) showing more of that oaky complexity. La Marescialla spends over a year in Allier-oak barriques (225 liters) and has the greatest aging potential and the deepest flavors.
All three of their Barberas would pair with different meals and at dinner we explored this potential. We ate at a local restaurant, Osteria La Milonga, in the town of Agliano Terme. Their lightest Barbera, Casareggio, was served with an array of appetizers including steak tartar, roasted peppers with anchovies, roast beef with homemade mayonnaise and a Russian Salad. The Blina, which is sourced from better vineyards, was paired with Agnolotti Ravioli, classically stuffed with rabbit, pork, veal and beef in a light broth without the usual American sauciness, or as Nadia put it, “In Italy, pasta don’t take a bath.” The ripe fruit and soft acidity of the Blina paired perfectly with the ravioli without overwhelming it. The Moliss was paired with roasted Faraona (an Italian fowl sometimes called “royal turkey”) served with steamed carrots and zucchini and roasted potatoes. The richer depth of this wine, thanks to the oak aging, matched the stronger flavors of this roasted bird.
I was surprised that the La Marescialla was actually served alone (I was relieved not to have yet another course of meat, since we were incredibly well-fed) and also overlapped with dessert, or actually three desserts: classic gelato, a frozen nut and amaretti loaf, and a chocolate loaf torte. La Marescialla paired best with the chocolate loaf torte, or “bonnet”, bringing out subtle mocha notes in the wine, though it’s rich softness made it very enjoyable on its own. In contrast the Moliss seemed to have more obvious Barbera acidity, so it paired better with food to find a more harmonious balance on the palate. Each Barbera, from the same region and same winemaker, expressed a different potential of the grape and the terroir. If you think you know Barbera, think again!