About Barbera

Barbera originated in the Piemonte region of northern Italy. There, barbera is currently experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Many producers have begun to plant barbera alongside the noble nebbiolo in some of Piedmont’s most famous vineyards. For too long barbera was planted at lesser sites and also farmed for higher yields, making for some sad and generic wines.

John Doyle (Cupertino Wine Company, and later Las Palmas Winery) first imported barbera into California and produced his first barbera vintage in 1884. In the 1890s, the Italian Swiss Colony Winery used it successfully for several of its table wines. Post-prohibition, Louis Martini was the first to produce a varietal barbera (a wine labeled as Barbera) in 1954.

In the coastal and foothill regions there is now renewed interest in barbera as a quality varietal wine grape. Today, about 7,000 acres are planted in California and nearly 200 California wineries produce barbera wines. Barbera can also be found from Washington State, Australia, Argentina, and South Africa.

Barbera is known as a great food wine and for its generous acid structure and smooth tannins. So what do Barbera wines taste like? Barbera is a grape that can give good dark pigment and has lots of berry flavor, especially when young. The range of styles in winemaking also makes for a dramatic difference in the wines, from brighter versions with flavors of tart cherry, raspberry, and spice, to riper styles with flavors of black cherry, blueberry, blackberry, and vanilla. The best barberas can be sublime with great depth and texture, and age nicely, though it is hard to find cellared barbera, as it drinks so nicely young.

Barbera and Amador County

By Darrell Corti

The history of barbera in Amador County begins at Monteviña in 1971. This variety was one of the first “new” varieties to the County commercially planted by Cary Gott at his new winery called Monteviña. The first vintage in modern times, if not the first ever, was the 1974. There was another wine, a blend of barbera and zinfandel called Montanaro which existed for a while, this beginning with the 1975 vintage. Its name, Montanaro, “mountain man,” was to evoke the mountain character of these varieties coming from what was in those days an “unusual” viticultural area, a mountain one, with a zinfandel base.

Barbera is a variety to be reckoned with. Its earliest reports in the state had it producing well and having very good acidity, something which was always recommended as a major plus for a variety in California. Even then, the abundance of sunshine and the consequent loss of acidity in ripe grapes was a problem. The first remedy offered by Professor Hilgard was that all California wines could stand the beneficial effect of the addition of fresh, pure water to temper what Nature removed.

In Italy, the high natural acidity of barbera, its natural lack of tannin, and its tendency to produce over abundantly, was a great problem until the mid-1980s. At that time, there was an ocean of unsold barbera in Italy that was pale colored, tart and light in flavor; in short, uninteresting. But we really should not criticize the variety for this. Criticism should be leveled at the growers who produced the variety with these defects, creating a serious problem to its innate quality. As in most things, cupidity was, and is, the problem.

Barbera is a polyvalent variety. It produces differing styles of wine depending on what the producer wants. It is found in Italy as a lighter bodied–slightly frothy if so wanted–style for drinking as a wine throughout a meal, or with first courses of cold meats and pasta or rice dishes. Suffice it to say that this style is called “first course” Barbera. The other is what is called a “roast” wine. A firmer, deeper colored, heavier bodied wine that would accompany meat courses or richer dishes for a second course. This style is well adapted to wood and bottle aging. There is no reason to think that this fuller style, something we in California would take for granted, is the only possible style. It would seem, in this respect, that California has a “one track mind.” But things are changing with a more adventuresome generation of winemakers looking for differences, both in varieties and wines.

Barbera, a nice variety, does well in Amador County. It does well in a lot of places. It needs to have greater emphasis put on it as a “fashionable” variety. In Amador County it has proven itself for almost forty years. There is no reason why Amador County growers, several generations from now, could not look with pleasure on their “old vine” barbera vineyards much as they now do with their old vine Zinfandel vineyards.

Read: Barbera — History and Viticulture by Richard Minnis

Barbera — History and Viticulture

By Richard Minnis

The varietal we know as Barbera is believed to have originated in the hills of Monferrato in central Piedmont which geographically is at the top of the Italian boot. It is mentioned in Piedmont as early as the thirteenth century but there is some evidence for an even earlier cultivation. Historians believe it grew spontaneously from the seed of an older local grape variety and was later planted to replace old and poorer quality local grapes. Recent DNA evidence suggests that Barbera may be related to the French-Spanish varietal Mourvedre. Interestingly, in the Piedmontese-Italian language the vine is considered male (IL Barbera) while the wine is female (LA Barbera); possibly because the ancient farmers got more enjoyment from drinking a pleasurable wine than performing hot dusty field work in the vineyards. Today, Barbera is the third most widely planted grape in Italy and the most widely planted in Piedmont.

In 1880, the University of California’s Department of Viticulture established an experimental station system tasked with determining grape varieties suitable for different regions. One of the original four stations was located in Amador County but an 1884 report of varietals known to be grown at that time did not include Barbera.

While few would dispute the likelihood that undocumented vines probably arrived along with Italian immigrants in the post gold-rush era, the first documented case of importation belongs to John T. Doyle, a lawyer, scholar, and wine industry leader. He purchased land near Cupertino for a winery in 1883 but also donated a parcel to U.C. Berkeley for incorporation into the experimental station system. Barbera was among the first varietals evaluated at the Cupertino station and by 1893 had made its way to the Sierra Foothill Station in Amador County. Prior to enactment of the Volstead Act in 1919, there were approximately 5000 acres of Barbera planted in California. However, during the Prohibition era, numerous vineyards were replanted with thicker skin grapes varietals. Grapes that were capable of being shipped back east by rail and used for making the 200 gallons of home wine allowed by the Volstead Act. The varietal was slow to regain its popularity after repeal, and as late as 1968 the California Grape Acreage report listed a mere 1214 acres of producing vines. Barbera returned to the Sierra Foothills in 1971, when winemaker Cary Gott, following a suggestion from Darrell Corti, planted the varietal at Monteviña with the 1974 vintage being the first Amador County bottling.

Barbera is adaptable to numerous soils and climates around the world but tends to thrive best in less fertile soils. A vigorous vine capable of producing high yields, it needs to be kept in check by pruning and other techniques.

Excessive yields can diminish the quality of the fruit and accentuate Barbera’s natural acidity and sharpness.

It is ideally suited to grow in Amador’s Mediterranean climate where the vines like the warm sunny days and cooler nights. The warmer temperatures allow the grapes to ripen completely; producing high sugar levels and full-bodied, spicy wines, while the cool overnight temperatures retain the fruit’s balancing acidity. Barbera has some natural resistance to pests, disease, and mildew. The pyramid shaped bunches are very compact with deep blue oval, medium sized berries that ripen in late September or early October. Barbera often requires extended hang time to lower the varietal’s natural acidity and ripen the fruit’s phenolics. The leaf, which is of medium size, has five-lobes, a very tormentose (hairy) underside, and can be easily recognized in the fall by its characteristic bright red color.

Barbera wines can be made in several different styles. The Foothill varieties can certainly be “La Barbera”, with rich deeply flavored seductive aromas. Reduced yields can achieve better balance between acid and fruit. Young wines have a fruity, floral nose and a distinctive taste of red fruits and black cherries. Lush plum and cherry flavors with hints of spice and black pepper are also common. The juice has a dark ruby color. As it ages, the color turns to garnet then lightens with brownish edges. Barbera is high in anthocyanins, but has only low to moderate tannin content. This makes the wine a perfect candidate for barrel aging where the barrel’s oak tannins help to stabilize the color and add complexity. Most Barbera is made to be enjoyed young: a wine to be appreciated for its distinctive fruit forward flavors and refreshing acidity. However, a good Barbera can age well; adding complexity and acquiring some of the flavor characteristic of Cabernet but with higher acid levels. The wines tend to peak in six to eight years after bottling.

The problem with a lot of fruit-forward wines is their lack of acidity which can make it difficult to match them with the right food pairing. However, Barbera has the perfect acidity to make it a natural and flexible “Grande Amico”. It pairs well with almost any food on the table and is considered the everyday drinking wine of Piedmont. This makes the foods of northern Italy a classic match.  Meat dishes, pasta in cream or tomato sauces and especially dishes featuring mushrooms or truffles are wonderful.  The later is especially true with an aged Barbera.  Pizza, grilled meats, and barbecued poultry also make excellent pairings.  About the only food that might give pause is seafood and even that depends on the sauce and type of seafood. However, a word of caution: the bright acidity of Barbera will clash with any salad served with a vinegar-based salad dressing. Also, opening and allowing the bottle to breathe for a short timespan before the meal will accentuate the wine’s aromas and flavors, and is well worth the effort.


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