Barbera: Food-Friendly Wine from the Sierra Foothills

Dick Cooper, "The Godfather of Barbera", who hosted
the Festival at his vineyard in Amador, shares a glass
of wine with Barbara Keck
 I’m fond of Barbera, and it’s not simply because it’s one wine varietal that I can pronounce easily. Weekly editor Katherine Hill and I went to the first-ever Barbera Festival in June in Plymouth, CA, on the grounds of Cooper Vineyards. Along with the fun music and food tents, the event was truly festive: more than 80 California wineries and a few Italian ones poured for an enthusiastic crowd of 1500.

Barbera originated in the Piemonte region of northern Italy. It was first imported into California in 1884 and the Italian Swiss Colony Winery used Barbera for several of its table wines. After prohibition, a wine labeled as Barbera was produced by Louis Martini in 1954. Today about 7000 acres are planted in California and Barbera is produced by nearly 200 California wineries.

The wineries of the Sierra Foothills are producing great Barbera, and it is a food-friendly wine that you will enjoy. It is characterized by structured acidity, smooth tannins, dark pigments, bright fruit flavor (spice and chocolate too), and it ages nicely – if only you don’t drink all of this scrumptious wine right away!

To my palate, here are some of the best and most interesting Barberas and Barbera-blends sampled at the festival:

Andis Wines
Andis Wines (Plymouth, Amador County, CA) poured its 2009 Andis Barbera. I found it rich and deep, aroma of plum predominating and taste of raspberry, black cherry, and cranberry with a lingering finishing of black cherry and a bit of spiciness. Grapes were sourced from the upper reaches of a hillside vineyard in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley region. 15.5 percent alcohol. $24 the bottle.

Pilot Peak at Barbera Festival
The 2008 Barbera from Pilot Peak Winery (Penn Valley, Nevada County, CA) is a medium-bodied wine with a smoothness in the mouth. It has the classic Barbera crisp fruit flavor of cherry and raspberry. Nice and balanced, it has a lingering finish. Fruit for this wine came from Placer County’s Duarte Vineyards. 13.7 percent alcohol. $25 the bottle.

Avio Vineyards (Sutter Creek, Amador County, CA) offered its yummy 2008 Barbera for tasting. Aroma of black fruit such as blueberry and blackberry, maybe a hint of mint. On the palate, a delightful juiciness. Stefano and Lisa Watson, owners, say that this wine is “our favorite anytime, any meal, going to the neighbors after a long workday wine It’s rich without being aggressive, our Barbera is simply delicious with your favorite comfort (or take out) foods. “ 14.7 percent alcohol. $28 the bottle.

The 2008 Estate Barbera from Lava Cap (Placerville, El Dorado County) is a classic, and, I confess, the Barbera that I tasted last summer that made me a Barbera convert. Winemaker Tom Jones offers these notes: “Lava Cap Barbera Reserve has a complex aroma of dark red cherry fruit, spicy with foresty herbs and a dash of licorice. The velvety taste of strawberry and plum are complimented by the white pepper finish.”. Grapes are sourced from their steep, west facing vineyard and to augment the depth and complexity of flavors, Tom added 8% Petite Sirah, 10% Sangiovese and 6% Zinfandel Reserve. 14.7 percent alcohol. $20 the bottle. They also offered samples of the 2009 Barbera, a very-berry yummy wine that is being bottled soon.

Other tasty Barberas we tried:

Boitano Family Wines (Mokelumne Hill, Calaveras County) - a wonderful 2006 Barbera that won a “Best of Show” at the 2008 Amador County Fair.

Borjon Winery (Plymouth, Amador County) - a 2007 Barbera with 5% Zin blended in

Easton Wines (Plymouth, Amador County) – a delightful Barbera with grapes sourced from the Cooper Ranch

Latcham Vineyards & Granite Spring Winery (Somerset, El Dorado County) the 2008 Special Reserve Barbera

I look forward to the next festival!  Many thanks to Cooper Vineyards for hosting!
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© 2011 Barbara Keck

For more information on dining and the wide range of activities around Lake Tahoe, see the online version of The Tahoe Weekly. This article appeared in my column "Wine Adventures" in July 2011.

Book in Process: "Mountain High Wine: The Sierra and Its Foothills".

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