Odd Pair: Cheeseburger and Barbaresco

My friend and blogging colleague Franco Ziliani -- Italy's top wine blogger and veteran enojournalist -- is always astonished at how Americans "apply" the great wines of Italy. In Europe, the food and wine canon guides the "user" in ensuring that the wine will be enjoyed to the fullest by pairing it with aromas and flavors that will draw out their counterparts in the wine.

In the case of Barbaresco -- one of the great red wines of Piedmont -- stewed and braised meat (namely veal and beef) are considered an ideal marriage. Just like the umami (think mushroom and earth) and fruit (think wild berry) flavors of Nebbiolo grapes grown in the Langhe Hills of northwestern Italy (the foothills of the Alps), the pronounced savory and gently sweet flavors (from tomato paste and reduced red wine) in the braise or stew play against one another in what I like to call the "peanut butter and jelly" theorem. When its saltiness and sweetness are well-balanced, a wine transcends its nature as fermented grape juice and transports the user to an enlightened state of sensorial pleasure. Therein lies the magic and mystery of the great wines of the world.

I know my pairing of the 2006 Barbaresco by Produttori del Barbaresco with that good ol' classic of American haute cuisine -- the cheeseburger -- will be met with friendly disapproval by Franco, who is not only one of the world's greatest experts on Barbaresco but also a self-described "Nebbiolo addict" (I, too, fall in the latter category).

Named after the tiny village that lies in the heart of the appellation, Barbaresco is one of the world's most collected and coveted wines. And wines produced by the Produttori del Barbaresco (PROH-doot-TOH-ree dehl BAHR-bah-REHS-koh) or Barbaresco producers cooperative represent one of the world's greatest values in fine wine. (In the Houston market, you should be able to find the winery's classic Barbaresco for around $40 to 45; its higher end vineyard designated Barbaresco for $65 to 75; and its entry-level Langhe Nebbiolo, made from younger vines, for under $25.)

Believed by many to be one of the oldest (if not the oldest) continuously operating cooperatives in Europe, the Produttori del Barbaresco were formed by a 19th-century village priest who envisioned a paradigm whereby the grape growers (the farmers) would profit directly from their labors instead of selling their fruit to the establishment who, in turn, would bottle and ship it, retaining the lion's share of the earning potential.

But it's not the wine's origins as a proletarian champion and its extreme value that make me love it unconditionally. Although I consider myself an enlightened Marxist, I, too, am susceptible to the weakness of the flesh and in my view, the Produttori del Barbaresco 2006 classic Barbaresco represents the apotheosis of great wine: Freshness on the nose and in the mouth, bright zinging acidity, and a nearly perfect balance of savory and fruit flavors in the mouth tempered by muscular, however nuanced, tannin. (N.B.: Although the 2006 harvest was considered good-to-great for the appellation, the Produttori del Barbaresco did not release their vineyard-designated wines for 2006 and instead blended their top fruit in the classic Barbaresco, prompting some to call it an exceptional vintage for the winery.)

Last weekend, I had brought a bottle of the wine in my wine bag to the Texas Sommelier Conference and I paired it with a room-service cheeseburger at the Las Colinas Four Seasons resort in Irving, where conference speakers were provided shelter (and a hotel where we could never afford to stay; in fact, I don't think they allow enlightened Marxists to lodge there but somehow I managed to escape detection).

The acidity and tannin in the wine cut through the fattiness of the delicious burger like a knife through soft butter. And instead of topping the patty with cloying ketchup, I just let the pure flavors of the plump beef and rich cheddar cheese work against the fruit in the wine in a counterpoint of savory and sweet. The results were truly glorious.

And it was all thanks to a social experiment led by a courageous 19th-century priest who paired noble grapes with proletarian ideals, just like my pairing of one of Italy's most aristocratic wines with one of our country's most workaday dishes.

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