Dunne on Wine: Say 'Boeger,' think barbera

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

Sierra foothill historian Eric J. Costa has made my life much easier.

Whenever I need to brush up on the history of the wine trade in El Dorado County, I leaf through his newly published book, "Gold and Wine: A History of Winemaking in El Dorado County." (El Dorado Winery Association, $20, 138 pages).

The book is detailed, colorful and affectionate, with just about every page sprinkled with a surprising nugget or two about the people and passions that laid the foundation for the county's expansive and diverse wine trade.

Or, as Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti puts it in the book's foreword: "There is a lot of history in those hills, and 'Wine and Gold' tells it in an interesting and compelling way."

But when I recently turned to the book, I was surprised by an inexplicable oversight. I needed to remind myself about how Boeger Winery just outside of Placerville got to be one of the more highly regarded producers of barbera in California.

In a section of the book devoted solely to Boeger Winery, however, not a single word of barbera was to be found. Granted, not all grape varieties and wines shepherded by the Boegers – 30 of the former, 15 of the latter – needed to be mentioned.

And granted, Costa gave ample attention to the varietals largely responsible for the winery's early success – cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, merlot – but the absence of any mention of the family's long association with barbera is odd.

After all, the Boegers have been attending barbera for more than 30 years, and today it accounts for nearly a fifth of the winery's production.

Greg Boeger, the winery patriarch, takes responsibility for the missing reference to barbera. The book had a gestation of several years, he explains, and during the final editing of copy that had been prepared a decade or so earlier, he let slide the pivotal role that barbera has played in the winery's evolution.

At any rate, how did Boeger become so esteemed for barbera?

The answer has to do with trial and error, happenstance and tenacity.

In short, the family early on was given a load of barbera grapes for which the grower had no other market. Boeger experimented with it and found that he had plenty of company who also liked the resulting wine. For subsequent vintages he bought the barbera, developed a growing audience for the wine and began to cultivate his own stands of the variety.

Over time the family has found sites conducive to capturing the grape's friendly red-fruit flavor and telltale refreshing acidity, then handled the bunches more and more judiciously so those traits would be showcased with each release. For one, winemaker Justin Boeger has dialed back on the wine's exposure to oak, recognizing that the variety has a tendency to readily absorb wood tannins.

He also has grown increasingly fond of barbera's characteristically high acidity and takes pains to retain it, recognizing that the grape's tang enhances both the wine's flexibility at the table and its prospects for long life in the cellar.

Of the 90 acres of wine grapes the Boegers own or lease, 36 are planted to barbera, scattered across three parcels – their estate vineyard, the Ritchie Vineyard near the town of El Dorado, and the Stonebarn Vineyard just outside of Placerville.

Their faith in the variety, backed by brisk sales, has prompted them to expand plantings and try new barbera clones in recent years.

Their most recent release of the varietal, the Boeger Winery 2009 El Dorado Barbera, is the first to include significant fruit from the new plantings and the new clones. The gratifying quality of those grapes also is prompting the Boegers to bottle a reserve barbera, to be released after the first of the year, and to introduce two vineyard-designated barberas, both from the 2010 vintage, probably not to be released until late next summer.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

The first obligation of barbera is to be bright, fresh, lean and accessible, ready to fulfill its role at the table upon release. The 2009 more than measures up to that standard.

Whether it was the nature of the vintage, the new plantings or the lessons learned from more than three decades of working with barbera, or a combination of all those factors, the 2009 is more invitingly aromatic, more solidly structured and more layered in flavor than other recent vintages of the varietal.

The direct sunniness of its red-fruit flavor makes it instantly seductive, yet it has the balance, spine and acid to age well for the next decade. It's a barbera that stands up proudly, but doesn't throw its weight around in the manner of a comparably young cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel.

"This is my favorite barbera since the 2003," says Justin Boeger, who credits the wine's sleek build, silken tannins and abiding fruit in large part to the new plantings. With the additional vines, he now has fruit from a wider range of exposures, soil types and elevations with which to work; altitudes at which the family's barbera now is planted, for example, range from 1,500 feet to 2,400 feet.

"That new fruit allows me to blend and tailor the wine more. I now have three separate wines to deal with."

When he put them together, the result added up to a barbera so captivating and capable of enduring that the next edition of "Gold and Wine" almost certainly will devote a paragraph or two to Boeger's instrumental role in developing a firm place for barbera in the foothills.

Boeger Winery

2009 El Dorado Barbera

By the numbers: 14.7 percent alcohol, 4,250 cases, $17

Context: Last summer, when a panel of growers and winemakers at Foothill Grape Day in Plymouth got around to talking of barbera's role at the table, Justin Boeger remarked: "Barbera is what I bring to dinner when I don't know the menu. It's versatile." Other than that, any Italian dish enhanced with tomatoes is traditionally paired with barbera.

Availability: Boeger wines, including the barbera, are sold at several supermarket chains and wine shops in the Sacramento area. They also can be ordered online through the winery's website, www.boegerwinery.com.

Information: The tasting room at Boeger Winery, 1709 Carson Road, in Placerville is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

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