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 late 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 acred 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 make for 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
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 in 1974. There was another wine, a blend of barbera and zinfandel called Montanoro which existed for awhile, this beginning with the 1974 vintage. Its name, Montanoro, “mountain man”, was to evoke the mountain character of these varieties coming from what was in those days an “unusual” viticulture 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 riper 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