I want to call attention to a grape, and its wine of course, that is worthwhile knowing. That grape is Barbera and a great opportunity to learn about it and taste it too is at the annual Barbera Festival, which just took place on Saturday, September 14.
In California today Barbera is a bit like Zinfandel used to be when Zin was called “the underdog grape”, but is no more. For the moment, Barbera lies a little in the shadows simply because California vintners have experimented with a large array of grape varietals and certain varieties have become successful and popular. Thankfully some savvy Amador County vintners recognized Barbera’s qualities and are having great success with it. Good for them, because Barbera makes a refreshing and not to be missed wine.
The annual Barbera Festival hosted by the Tera d’Oro Winery in Amador County, a stone’s throw from the town of Plymouth and historic California State Route 49, promotes wine made from the Barbera grape. This grape and its wine are increasing in production and availability in California. People are taking notice and liking what they find!
I think that when confronted with a wine and grape we have heard about, but have not tasted, we tend to relegate it to a position in our mind of below average, or secondary. That’s very logical. After all, if this grape and its wine were so good, wouldn’t we already have become informed about it? Not so. Most products, wines included, have a growth curve. We may be near an inflection point in the growth curve of Barbara’s popularity, vine acreage, and liters brought to market in California. That is frequently the smart time to buy and try. The Barbera Festival presents such an opportunity!
Barbera in the glass can be focused, refreshing, and lightly textured showing red and black fruit with mineral overtones. The grape yields a lighter to medium bodied wine depending upon the producer, vineyard, and terroir. The numerous Barbera wines at the Festival echoed these attributes, not to mention notable structure, complexity, and depth of flavor. The wines poured were definitely quality table wines. Barbera also has the admirable reputation of being the most proficient red wine of pairing with, and cutting through red tomato pasta sauce while still retaining its character.
Barbera was not the only wine poured on Saturday. Other reds and whites were opened to taste. I found some delicious Aglianico and Pinot Grigio.
There were several offerings of Aglianico, a wine from a black grape found primarily in the sunny climes of Campania and Basilicata Italy, Wines produced from Aglianico yield full-bodied wines with firm structuring tannins, high acidity, and rich flavors. An ancient vine, is Aglianico, originating in Greece and spread to Campania, Italy by Greek settlers over two millennia ago.
I was aiming at red wines during the Festival, but a friend pointed me to a Pinot Grigio, a white grape actually an offspring of red Pinot Noir from Burgundy, France. Pinot Grigio, really pink to buttery-gold in color, produces crisp, refreshing wines of light to medium body exhibiting notes of White Peach, Cantaloupe, Lemon Zest, and arugula.
Sangiovese was on the tables too. A grape that has produced numerous clonal variations, it is noteworthy in Italy’s Tuscany where Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are made from it. Due to location, clone, and stylistic variation many attributes are possible, a few of which are cherry, red plum, fig, tobacco, and dried roses.
The Tera d’Oro presented a welcoming rural site for the Barbera Festival in the gently rolling terrain of the Sierra Foothills. Held on the winery’s meadow, there is adequate shade from the overhanging oaks and the booth’s awnings, except occasionally when traversing. Winery booths and food purveyors are dispersed on the meadow, along with welcome water stations. The atmosphere is unquestionably friendly and accommodating. Situated on a shaded patio was a live band, tables, and a bean-bag toss game sporting extra-large bean-bags.
Amador County’s two major sub-appellations, Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown, near the town of Plymouth in the northern part of the county, lie in the larger Sierra Foothills AVA which stretches nearly from Mt. Shasta in the north to Mono Lake in the south. Wines from Shenandoah Valley tend towards the rich, full-bodied end of the spectrum, showing dark fruit. Fiddletown lies at a higher elevation and produces more acidic wines with fruit tending towards cherry character. Currently, Amador County Wineries number 42. Wine grapes are the largest crop in Amador County. As of 2008, 3,700 acres of wine grapes were planted in Amador, yielding 13,000 tons, and representing near 50% of overall agricultural value.
In Europe Barbera is found mainly in in Italy where it is among the most planted varietals. Some fine examples come from Alba and Asti in Piemonte. Its vines approach 55,000 acres in Italy, with bits also found in Greece, Romania, coastal Slovenia, Argentina, Israel, and Australia.
In the USA plantings are just south of 5,000 hectares (12,500 acres) with vines located mainly in California’s Central Valley targeting blending grapes. More recent efforts are underway for varietal-specific, high-quality table wine in northern California.
For what it’s worth, note the latitudes of these places for a comparison of northern placement. Piemonte, Italy is 45.0522° N while Amador County, California is 38.3489° N. This translates into Piemonte being about 483 mi (778 km) further north than Amador County. Obviously, that is not the whole picture. There are Winkler (UC Davis) heat summation days to consider, proximity to large bodies of water (marine influence), temperature spikes and charts, and the actual climatic conditions which vary seasonally. Amador County’s average high temperature over June, July, and August is about 10 degrees warmer than in Piemonte. It’s further south, no big surprise.
My Tasting Notes
All wines from the Sierra Foothills AVA
89, Barbera, Terra d’Oro/Montevina Amador County 2017
Saturated purple in color. This light-medium weight displays dried cherry aromas. Lively and energizing thanks to its elevated acid level. The pH at 3.66 is at the top end of the scale for reds, pretty much as expected for Barbera. Fermented in stainless with pump-overs, totaling 40 days on the skins for extraction benefits, and aged 12 months in American and French oak, 20 percent new. About $18
90, Barbera, Terra d’Oro/Montevina Amador County 2017
Deep ruby-purple in color. Hints of lavender in the nose with notes of black plum, pomegranate, mineral overtones, and nice traces of salt on the palate. With stainless fermentation and pump-overs, this wine sat a full 90-days on the skins for maximum extraction. Elevage lasted 12 months in 20 percent new American and French oak small casks. The elevated acid level makes for a crisp and refreshing wine. The feel is textured and lithely structured, although Barbera is not noted for high tannin content. About $22.
91, Pinot Grigio, Terra d’Oro/Montevina Santa Barbara County 2017
Grapes for this Pinot Grigio are sourced from Terra d’Oro ‘s Los Alamos vineyard, situated east of Highway 101 in Santa Barbara County. Varietal character is enhanced by the vineyard’s steep hillside plantings on sandy soils also benefitting from the marine influence. The low temperature fermentation in stainless exceeds one month. Pale gold in color, notes of Angostura bitters, grapefruit, and clover are on display in this crisp, spirited Pinot Grigio. This quenching and drinkable dry wine delivers electric impact. Exhibits a well-cut portrayal of this grape, which is believed to be a mutant clone of Burgundy’s Pinot Noir. About $20
92, Aglianico, Terra d’Oro/Montevina 2016
Ruby purple in color. This mid-light-weight delivers red fruit, dried red cherries, wild spices, and tobacco leaf. Shows excellent balance with vibrant acidity. Subtle and complex. Fermentation was in carried out in half-ton macro bins for maximum color and flavor extraction. To ensure capture of Aglianico’s rich flavor, hand punched downs were employed several times daily which also minimized harsh tannins. Élevage was took place in 45% second-fill French oak over 18 months. Alcohol is 14.5% and pH 3.78. About $18
89, Barbera, C. G. DiArie Winery 2017 This mid-weight deep ruby colored Barbera is a blend with adders of 17% Syrah and 3% Petite Sirah. This 200-case effort displays notes of black plum and pomegranate. Shows good intensity with bright, lifting acidity. Scales at 13.9% alcohol. Fermented in a submerged cap tank and aged 20 months in French oak. About $25
89, Barbera, E16 Winery, 2017
This medium-weight, deep-ruby Barbera displays dried strawberry, black cherry, and spice notes. Nicely balanced, lifting acidity, and a pleasing unique personality.
86, Barbera, Dobra Zemlja Winery 2017
This Barbera by Dobra Zemlja clocks in at 17.2% stated alcohol, meaning it might actually measure at close to 19%. Big and powerful! They say that is their style!
90, Barbera, Due Vigne Winery 2017
Dark impenetrable ruby-purple. The grapes for this 100% Barbera came from Shaker Ridge Vineyard in El Dorado County. Medium in weight, bright acidity, with 10-months in non-obtrusive oak, 298 cases were produced. About $36
89, Barbera, Vino Noceto Linsteadt Shenandoah Valley 2015
Deep purple with ruby hues. This mid-weight is highly focused and shows nice firmness on the palate with a pleasing texture. Yielding Pomegranate and blue-black Lydecker plum (Prunus salicina). Demonstrates purity of fruit with lifting acidity. About $26
87, Sangiovese Vino Noceto Marmellata Shenandoah Valley 2016
Medium light ruby in color, shows hints of red cherries and cranberries Light-weight, and a bit angular in touch and feel. Originally, the grapes for this offering were obtained from Biondi Santi in Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy. Alcohol level is 13.7%.