Barbera — History and Viticulture


By Richard Minnis

What is Barbera? First of all, Barbera is a grape variety, one believed to have originated in the hills of Monferrato in central Piemonte (top of the boot), where it has been known from the thirteenth century although there is evidence for even earlier cultivation.

It is most likely the grape written about by Paul the Deacon in his description of the Battle of Refrancore in 663 when the Longobard troops of Grimaldo defeated the Franks after getting them drunk on wine.  He confirmed that the Longobards filled amphorae with wine and scattered them around the surrounding fields.  The Franks found these jugs and drank voraciously from them making them unfit for battle.

It is the third most widely planted grape in Italy and the most widely planted in Piedmont. 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 grape varieties. Recent DNA evidence suggests that Barbera may be related to the FrenchSpanish vine Mourvedre. Interestingly, in Piedmontese-Italian language the vine is male (IL Barbera) but the wine is female (LA Barbera), perhaps as ancient farmers got much more satisfactions by drinking wine instead of hard working in the vineyards

In the 19th and 20th century, waves of Italian immigrants brought Barbera to the Americas where the vine took root in California.

In 1982 (earliest statistics) California had 1897 acres planted in Barbera and only one was in Amador County, with the rest being in the central and lower San Joaquin Valley. Today, the most recent Statistical data shows a Statewide total of 7503 acres with a Sierra Foothill increase of 250 acres with over half of that in Amador County. If you look at the change in geographic location of those plantings, then it is readily apparent that Barbera has transitioned from a major blending constituent of Jug wine to a stand alone varietal that has found the perfect home in the Sierra Foothills.

VITICULTURE

Barbera is considered adaptable to numerous soils and climates but does tends to thrive best in less fertile soils which just happens to be a characteristic of the Sierra Foothills.

The vine is very vigorous and capable of producing high yields if not kept in check by pruning and other techniques. Excessive yields can diminish the fruit quality in the grape and accentuate Barbera’s natural acidity and sharpness. It likes warm, sunny days with cooler nights and is naturally resistant to pests, disease, and mildew.

The leaf is medium size, five-lobed, with a very tormentose underside, while the bunches are medium size, pyramid shaped and very compact with deep blue medium size oval berries.

It ripens in late September or early October and often requires extended hang time to lower the natural acidity and ripen the phenolics. It can be easily recognized in autumn by the characteristic violet red color assumed by the leaves,

MEDITERRANEAN CLIMATE:

A Mediterranean climate is characterized by hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters….a climate which resembles that of the Mediterranean Basin. It is no accident that many of the world’s best grape growing regions are blessed with these conditions.

 

BARBERA’S REQUIREMENTS:

– 1600 Hours of Sunshine per year…(200 sunny 8 hour days).

– A minimum temperature of at least 50o F for at least 2500 hours per year…(104 days).

– an annual mean rainfall of at least 23 inches.

These conditions are easily satisfied in a Mediterranean Climate.

PHYSIOLOGY OF THE GRAPE:

To understand the impact of climate on wine a little physiology and chemistry is in order but only “a little”. The ripening process of grapes involves three considerations.

(1) Photosynthesis. This familiar process involves sunlight falling upon vine leaves and stimulating chloroplasts to produce color and sugar. Photosynthesis ceases at sunset, regardless of the ambient temperature.

(2) Phenolic Ripening. Without becoming too technical, polyphenols are those chemicals within grapes that result in specific flavors and tannins. Phenolic ripening is temperature dependent. So even after photosynthesis turns off for the night, phenolic ripening continues on as long as the ambient temperature remains above 50°. However, grape development is arrested in times of high heat – particularly when temperatures exceed 100o F and the vines do not have the chance to cool off at night.

(3) Acidity. Tartaric and malic acids are produced by the grape as it develops. In warm climates, these acids are lost through the biochemical process of respiration. Therefore, grapes grown in warmer climates have lower acidity than grapes grown in cooler climates unless it starts with a naturally high acidity like Barbera.

Some grapes in warm climates can be fully sugar ripe before they achieve phenolic and flavor maturity. Picking at the right acidity complicates the equation, but having a varietal like Barbera that is adapted to a Mediterranean Climate can solve the problem.

Shenandoah Valley Wine Country

The Sierra Foothills run for 170 miles along the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Wine making in California’s Gold Country dates from the 1850’s and originated with the Italian immigrant portion of the Forty-niner population. This AVA can be claimed by wines that are derived from grapes from more than one of the following California Counties: Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Mariposa, Nevada, Placer, Tuolumne, and Yuba.

The terrain of Shenandoah Valley Wine Country is made of sandy-loam and granitic soils. The hillside terrains of the Shenandoah Valley retain water poorly and contain very little organic material. This lack of fertility keeps yields down and stresses the vines contributing to extremely flavorful fruit. The warm temperatures then allow the grape to completely; producing high sugar levels and full-bodied, spicy wines while at the same time, cool, overnight temperatures retain balancing acidity.

THE PROOF:

A comparison of the relative acreage of Barbera planted in the State versus the Sierra Foothills and a comparison of the State Fair medal count achieved by those same two areas shows an undeniable superiority of the Sierra Foothill Terroir when it comes to growing Barbera.

THE WINE

Barbera can be made in many different styles. The California style Barberas can be rich, deeply flavored, seductive and powerful with good viscosity and rich aromas. The most complex Barberas have a hint of spice with accentuating flavors of blackberries and plums. The wine has some of the flavor characteristics you would find in a Cabernet Sauvignon but with higher acid levels.

The juice of the Barbera grape has a dark ruby color, with high levels of acid. 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. Reduced yields can achieve better balance between acid and fruit and when properly barrel aged result in wines of increased complexity and greater potential for aging.

The grapes are also high in anthocyanins (color compounds) but only low to moderate in tannin content. As it ages, the color will turn to garnet with brownish edges but tannins from oak aging will help to stabilize color. In addition to the subtle oxygenation and spice notes, the oak tannins give structure to the wine without adding as much astringent bite as the tannins derived from the phenolic compounds of the grape. Therefore age-worthy Barbera is always given ample barrel treatment which will also round out the grape’s naturally tart cherry flavors.

Most Barbera is made to be enjoyed young and is appreciated for its distinctive fruit forward flavors and refreshing acidity. The flavors of Barbera become more full and complex as it ages and well made examples can easily go a decade.  Some would say the best Barbera’s do not begin to reach their peak until six or eight years from the vintage.

FOODS

A key concern was to authenticate this wine’s legendary affinity for food.

 Serve Barbera at between 60 and 65 degrees to experience all of its flavors.

 Let it breathe. Recommended breathing times for Barbera varies, but the minimum recommendation is 15 to 20 minutes.

 Don’t serve this wine with salads. It is highly acidic and will clash with any vinegar-based salad dressings

The problem with a lot of fruit-bomb wines is the lack of acidity, which makes it an inspirational and creative task to match with food. Barbera is easy. The wines have good acidity to make it a natural and flexible grande amico with food.

The foods of northern Italy are 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 a Barbera with a few years of age on it.  No need to stop there though.  This is a great pizza wine.  About the only food I would not match it with would be seafood.  Even then, depending on the sauce and type of seafood, this might work.

The Barbera grape is relatively low in tannin, high in acidity, and likes warm, sunny days with cooler nights. Because it is naturally resistant to pests, disease, and mildew, Barbera is quite reliable in the vineyard and very popular with growers.

Most Barbera is made to be enjoyed young and appreciated for its distinctive cherry flavors and refreshing acidity. Try these wines on warm days with lighter fare. Barbera lacks deep tannin, and with too much age, wines can be prone to oxidation and will develop a brownish hue. This is not to say that wines made from Barbera are overly simple. Rather, they possess an honesty that is a welcome change from the complexity of many other red varietals.

There are examples that will improve over time, but they are pretty rare, and most are from Piedmont. Age-worthy Barbera is given ample barrel treatment which imparts tannin into the wine and rounds out the grape’s naturally tart cherry flavors. The most complex Barberas have a hint of spice accentuating flavors of blackberries and plums.

Italian immigrants planted California’s first Barbera during the 19th century. Before Prohibition, the grape was much more common than it is today, though is seems to be making a bit of a resurgence.

Located in the Sierra Foothills, Montevina Winery makes particularly good Barbera. The region’s intense sunlight and unfertile soils develop lush fruit flavors in the grape. At the same time, cool, overnight temperatures retain balancing acidity. This winery is owned by Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home.

In Italy, Barbera is a very important grape for everyday wines. Because it is naturally high in acidity and does not have any domineering flavor or aroma characteristics, it is also widely used in blends. In fact, Sangiovese is the only red grape that is planted more in Italy.

While the best Barbera is made in Piedmont, the grape takes a decisive backseat to Nebbiolo in this region. Although the best vineyard sites are reserved for Nebbiolo, there are some excellent, single varietal Barberas to be found. Lighter Piedmont examples are known as Barbera d’ Asti, and darker versions are called Barbera d’ Alba. Sardinia, Lombardy, and Emilia-Romagna also have substantial plantings of the varietal.

While it plays second fiddle, it is also the most widely planted grape in Italy after Sangiovese.

It is similar in flavour and structure to Cabernet Sauvignon but the tannins are not quite as fine as those exhibited by well-ripened Cabernet. The level of acidity is also higher.