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My original introduction for this article was going to be something along the lines of: "Salami, no matter how you slice it, goes great with wines, particularly Italian barberas." But how you slice it does matter a lot, at least to me. I want my salami cut thin, thin, thin -- so thin it drives the deli workers at Dominick's a little crazy. Why? Well, I can't prove it, but I think salami tastes better that way.
I also believe wine can be one of the best friends salami has ever had. Better than beer, better than Diet Pepsi. While any good fruit-forward red like zinfandel, shiraz or Beaujolais will do, barbera was the No. 1 choice among the Chicago-area wine experts I asked for pairing suggestions.What is barbera? It's a grape that hails from Italy, notably the Piedmont region in the northwestern section of the country.
There you'll find barbera wines from five appellations or denominazione di origine controllata: barbera d'Alba, barbera D'Asti, barbera del Monferrato, Colli Toronesi and rubino di Cantavenna. Alba makes 100 percent barbera wines, but the other appellations may make blends, according to "The New Wine Lover's Companion." Barbera also is made elsewhere in Italy, such as Colli di Parma in the Emilia-Romagna region.
Some winemakers also make barbera in a frizzante style (or lightly effervescent), giving the grape a lambrusco-like tingle. Steven Alexander, beverage manager of Spiaggia restaurant, said these wines are often produced in barbera del Monferrato and the Oltrepo Pavese region of Lombardy.
Fizzy or not, barberas go great with salami, Alexander said, because the grape's trademark acidity works with the salami's fat to create a creamy sensation.
"Barbera is high in anthocyanins, flavor and color compounds that are also powerful antioxidants, but low in tannins, which also works well with salami because tannins can overwhelm the palate with a dry sensation," he added.
Tom Benezra of Sal's Beverage World stores said to look for barberas with "charming fruit character but whose tannins, oak treatment and alcohol are on the lighter side."
Tom Hyland, a writer and educator on Italian wine, also suggests sticking with barberas made in this traditional style. "Go with a simple light barbera like a barbera d'Asti," he said.
That makes sense because, as Benezra noted, salami often is served in informal settings. That "calls for wines that can quench the thirst that inevitably arises from the strong saltiness and spiciness of the meat."
Taming the rough edges
We tasted six Italian wines made with barbera grapes alongside a platter of sliced salami. The fattiness of the meat softened these young reds, while the wines brought out the peppery spice of the salami. The scores below reflect how well the wines worked with salami in an informal blind tasting.
2005 Giacomo Conterno Barbera d'Alba Cascina Francia
Dark plum-red, with a funky barnyard smell, this wine seemed daunting on its own. Tart, muscular, with fruit notes offset by touches of tomato. The salami soothed the wine's hard edges.
(3 corkscrews) $32
2005 Massimiliano Vivalda Barbera d'Asti Vivalda
Notes of cherry and violet on the nose, this wine had plenty of cooked cherry flavor. The wine emphasized the salami's meatiness and spice while cutting down on the fat.
(3 corkscrews) $12
2005 Vietti Barbera d'Asti Tre Vigne
Smooth, with flavors of raspberry, plum and mint. The wine played up the essence of the salami, making the meat seem more flavorful.
(3 corkscrews) $18
2003 Lamoretti Colli di Parma Rosso
The wine had an earthy aroma underscored with notes of ripe berries. A bit tart, the wine's pepperiness accented the pepper in the salami and cut the fat.
(2 corkscrews) $19
2005 Pavia & Figli Barbera d'Asti Blina
Lots of cooked berry flavor with touches of earth and oak underneath. Most tasters thought the wine neither helped nor hindered the salami.
(2 corkscrews) $13
2006 Massimiliano Vivalda Barbera del Monferrato Guaragna
Slightly effervescent, with lots of bright fruity sweetness, this wine stumbled on its own and paired with the salami. The bubbles cut the salami's fat but there was little flavor boost.
(2 corkscrews) $14
(4 corkscrews) Excellent
(3 corkscrews) Very good
(2 corkscrews) Good
(1 corkscrew) Fair
(No corkscrews) Poor
Sources: These wines may or may not be in stock at your local store; inquire first. At least one of these wines was found at these stores.