Barbera doesn’t get much respect. Even in its traditional home, the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy, it takes a back seat to the pricier wines made from nebbiolo. There are indeed some top-notch Piemontese barberas made with care from grapes grown in excellent vineyard sites. But most of the wines are for everyday drinking. They’re friendly and affordable but not particularly profound.
The grape gets even less respect in California, where most of it is grown in the Central Valley and used in inexpensive red blends. Its high acidity, ample fruit and smooth tannins make it an attractive component in those blends. But those same qualities also make barbera very enjoyable on its own. It’s a great companion to any Italian dish with a red sauce or with hearty meats.
Enter the Barbera Festival, held recently in Amador County. Founded in 2011, the festival aims to win new fans for the versatile barbera – “your new favorite wine,” the festival program proclaims.
Barbera reportedly was first brought to California, specifically to Sonoma County, in the 1880s. (Today, there are only about 50 acres of the grape in Sonoma County; I tasted a good one from Unti Vineyards at the festival.)
In the early 20th century, the University of California identified barbera as a variety well-suited for California’s interior valleys. Acreage peaked around 1980 at about 21,000 acres, mostly in those interior valleys. Today, according to the organizers of the Barbera Festival, there are about 7,000 acres planted in California, although the state grape acreage report lists about 5,100 in 2016. More than half of that is in Fresno County.
Winemaker Jim Moore, who makes Lodi barbera for his Uvaggio label, likes the variety for its “vibrant berry-cherry fruit expression, plus a palate-cleansing and renewing acidity, with hardly any tannin.” There’s also a “pleasant hint of earthiness,” he says.
Moore says that, while nebbiolo and sangiovese, two other Italian varieties, “seem to be quite site-specific in California … barbera is malleable.” That said, he thinks that the Sierra Foothills, particularly Amador County, “are in today’s barbera vanguard.” He adds that he’s been working with barbera from El Dorado County for several vintages but uses it in a proprietary blend.
The grape definitely has gained a following in the foothills, with more than 200 acres in Amador County and more than 100 in El Dorado County. Among the more than 80 California wineries represented at the Barbera Festival, there was a preponderance of producers from the foothills.
One of those producers is Jeff Runquist, whose winery is in Amador County. The 2015 Jeff Runquist Barbera ($25) is full-bodied and approachable, with juicy berry and some spiciness. (There’s also an excellent 2015 reserve barbera that has more weight and concentration.)
Vino Noceto, also in Amador County, is better known for sangiovese, but its 2013 Linsteadt Barbera ($28) is bright and lively, with berry fruit, a hint of licorice and fine tannins. Another Amador winery, Bella Grace, poured two very good barberas. The 2014 Bella Grace Barbera ($32) is smooth and flavorful, while its 2013 reserve ($49) is more concentrated. Other Amador barberas included the 2014 Scott Harvey Mountain Selection Barbera ($25), which offers ripe berry, some spiciness and fine tannins, and the 2012 Yorba Wines Shake Ridge Vineyard Barbera ($32), which is rich and lively with blueberry fruit.
From the broader Sierra Foothills appellation, there was the 2014 Rucksack Cellars Barbera ($24), which is easy to drink and a little smoky; the spicy 2015 is even better.
The aforementioned 2015 Unti Barbera ($38) from Dry Creek Valley is a juicy wine with bright berry and a hint of licorice.
I asked Uvaggio’s Moore why he thinks consumers have been slow to embrace barbera. He says it has “an often secondary status as a zin surrogate, in conjunction with a general lack of familiarity and appreciation.” He also thinks that some earlier, less-than-stellar California efforts with sangiovese may have resulted in a “Cal-Ital stigma” that was applied to any domestic wine made from Italian grape varieties.
One more obstacle I see to California barbera’s popularity is price. There are plenty of good Piemontese barberas to be had for less than $20. That could make $40 California barbera a hard sell.
In addition to the more modestly priced wines listed above, I tasted three affordable bottlings made from Lodi and Mendocino County grapes. Moore’s wine, the 2014 Uvaggio Barbera ($24) – made from 50-year-old vines in Lodi – is bright and flavorful, with some structure and a long finish. From Mendocino, the 2012 Peterson “La Stupenda” Barbera ($19) is bright, spicy and structured, while the 2012 Enotria Barbera ($19) is made in a fruitier style, with a smooth finish.