Barbera and Food Pairing

Ingredients and Styles

Barbera has all the hallmarks of food-friendliness, i.e. high acid, low to medium tannin, balanced alcohol, and usually not too much wood. It goes down easily and, because of its high acidity, makes a good start to a meal before you move on to bigger red wines with later courses. In Piedmont, you might have a few initial courses (antipasti, pasta, etc.) accompanied by a Barbera before switching to a Barolo or Barbaresco. And the frizzante styles, though difficult to find, are particularly good companions to rich food. 

Barbera is indeed a polyvalent variety, capable of producing differing styles of wine depending on what the producer wants. In Italy, lighter bodied (even slightly frothy, if so wished) styles are often reserved to enjoy with first courses of cold meats and pasta or rice dishes (a style referred to in Italy as “first course” Barbera). Firmer, deeper colored, heavier bodied Barberas, however, can be served throughout a meal, including meat courses and other richer, more robust dishes (a style referred to in Italy as a “roast” wine).

Even more than Sangiovese from Chianti, Barbera is considered the quintessential wine to accompany dishes with "red" sauces. Though both grapes have high acidity, which is critical when matching with tomatoes and tomato sauces, Barbera's bright fruit can help make flavors "pop." It can also pair happily with recipes ranging from veal chops to grilled halibut, and from simple roast lamb to mixed antipasti. Try it with grilled portobello mushrooms stuffed with sausage, or dishes with pronounced Asian flavors, such as char siu (roast pork), tandoori chicken, or Vietnamese shaking beef. And in my humble opinion, few wines compare with Barbera for enjoyment with pizza, or even burritos.

Mushrooms and Barbera have a special affinity, from Piedmont's famed truffles, if you can afford them, to cultivated mushrooms like portobellos and creminis. Slice and sauté them and serve them over pasta, together with a steak, or on top of toasted slices of bread. When pairing with more traditional or earthy Barberas, try adding a touch of garlic or herbs to tie the flavors together.

Some modern-style Barberas can be quite oaky -- a key consideration when pairing with food. If the oak is smoky and sweet, play to that by grilling with mesquite or other charcoal, and char the meat to meld with those characteristics. If the wine is fleshy and smooth from the oak, opt for richer preparations. 

The chart below is a recommended guide to some general pairing ideas for Barbera. There are no mandated rules. Feel free to be adventurous and creative while being thoughtful and aware of the grape’s inherent personality. 

Wine Style Ingredients Cuisines + Cooking Methods
“First Course” Barbera: high acid, low tannin, lighter bodied, little or no oak. Still or frizzante. Cold meats/charcuterie/salumi
Trout (mild yet oilier fish)
Antipasti, such as marinated mushrooms or tomatoes
Bright tomato sauces
Rustic patés
Fish with a tomato vinaigrette
“Roast wine” Barbera, traditional style: high acid, medium tannin, medium-bodied, earthy, and probably some oak. Still, not frizzante. Mushrooms -- especially truffles!
Mild, meaty fish (e.g. swordfish, sole, cod)
Richer tomato sauces
Sautéed mushrooms
Simply prepared meats such as veal chops with mushrooms or roast lamb
Thick stews emphasizing earthy flavors
Pan-seared fish with a puttanesca sauce, tapenade
Use garlic and herbs as a bridge to the wine
“Roast wine” Barbera, modern style: bolder fruit and quite oaky. Dashes of sweetness (for example, Hoisin sauce, molasses, sugar, ketchup)
Mild, meaty fish
Grilling, charred meat or fish
Burger or meatloaf with ketchup
Asian savory dishes with sauces that have a touch of sweet (Chinese BBQ roast pork with hoisin, Vietnamese shaking beef using a dash of sugar), tandoori chicken using yoghurt)
Full bodied, rich dishes

Methods of Cooking

Wine Profile

High acid, low tannin, lighter bodied, little or no oak. Still or frizzante.

Cooking Methods and Ingredients

Light and bright, this is a perfect wine with which to start a meal. The acidity pairs well with appetizers, such as antipasti. Think fresh tomatoes with mozzarella or mushrooms in a vinaigrette. That acidity will also counterbalance richer small plates, such as a rustic pork terrine or vegetable risotto. 

Wine Profile

High acid, medium tannin, medium-bodied, earthy, and probably some oak. Still. 

Cooking Methods and Ingredients

The earthy notes of this more “serious” Barbera are a match made in heaven with all kinds of mushrooms, especially when sautéed. Include garlic and herbs in sauces as a bridge to the wine in meat dishes such as lamb stew, and osso buco.

Wine Profile

Bolder fruit and oaky compared to the “roast wine” traditional-style profile

Cooking Methods and Ingredients

Smoky and sweet oak characteristics inherent in this wine call for grilling with mesquite or other charcoal, and charring the meat to meld with those characteristics. A grilled steak with mushrooms is an ideal pairing. These fruit-forward wines are also fleshy and smooth from the oak, so they pair well with richer preparations featuring a hint of sweetness. Expand your horizons and serve Asian savory dishes with sauces that have a hint of sweetness (Chinese BBQ roast pork with hoisin, Vietnamese shaking beef using a dash of sugar, tandoori chicken using yoghurt).

Pairing Pointers

Barbera Goes Well With: 

  • Comfort foods: I don't know what magnetic force it has, but the bottles of Barbera I’ve had with burgers, pizzas, meat loaves, and burritos over the years could fill a small wine cellar several times over.
  • Charcuterie, cold cuts, and salumi: this match is a tradition in northern Italy for a good reason. Barbera 's high acidity cuts through the richness of salami, soppressata, mortadella, bologna, prosciutto, and lardo. It's also a nice counterbalance for French paté and rustic terrines.
  • Mushrooms: put them on veal chops, burgers, and crostini, toss with pasta, or add to a risotto. Most kinds will work, from morels to portobellos, and porcini to truffles
  • Mild, as well as meaty fish: if you want to break out and serve red wine with fish, Barbera is a great choice. Its high acid, low tannins, and balanced flavors work well with grilled tuna, swordfish, even shark. Add a tomato vinaigrette, basic puttanesca (with tomato, olives, anchovies, and red pepper flakes) or tapenade, and smile.
  • Thick stews and rich meat dishes: when the big meat dishes roll out, Barbera is often shunted aside in favor of Barbaresco, Barolo, or even a Brunello. But a full-flavored Barbera can hold its own against a lamb stew, traditional osso buco milanese, or classic steak au poivre. If you want a serious wine, try a modern-style oak-aged Barbera rather than a Nebbiolo-based wine.

Barbera Isn't Good: 

  • When you select the wrong one: the range of Barbera is dizzying, from big and oaky to light and even frizzante. Consider the dish and wine style before you pop the cork.
  • With strong-flavored fish: in spite of its high acidity, Barbera's flavor profile and tannins clash with Chilean sea bass and sturgeon, among others. It works better with milder finned creatures, such as trout, sole, or rock cod.
  • With most shellfish: Fins are fine but avoid the mollusks! You need to be very deliberate in your recipe selection to pair Barbera (except rosato) with most shellfish, lobster, or crab.
  • With very spicy foods: Chili, curry, or fiery Buffalo wings generally overwhelm most Barberas, although much lighter or rosato Barberas might stand up to them, especially if chilled.
  • With sweet dishes: though Barbera may offer the impression of sweetness with its ripe fruit and (frequently) oak, most will taste too austere alongside pronounced and obvious sugar, such as a sweet-and-sour sauce, a fruit compote with a roast, or a tropical-fruit salsa.