Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Barbera accessible in any style

This was no day for drinking dark red wine, or even tasting it, for that matter. All week, hyperventilating weather forecasters had been predicting the day's high could hit 110.

Nonetheless, a line maybe 100 people deep was getting scorched as it awaited the 11 a.m. opening of the Barbera Festival in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley.

As it moved forward, guests grabbed wrist bracelets, programs and glasses, and scurried to patches of shade under one of the walnut trees of the Dick Cooper orchard that has been home to the Barbera Festival since its inception three years ago.

Barbera is a black grape best known for yielding a red wine with delicate yet distinct berry flavors and a finish unusually tangy for a California varietal. Not much barbera is grown in California, and most of it continues to get lost in everyday jug wines emanating in the Central Valley.

Over the past couple of decades, however, barbera has grabbed the attention of mostly hands-on vintners who see a market for a red wine that captures in one readily accessible package bright fruit, fine bones and crisp acidity, making it an easily accommodating companion at the dinner table.

Word to that effect must be getting around. The Barbera Festival, for one, has no trouble selling out virtually overnight when its yearly date is announced. And this year, forecasts of downright hellish temperatures looked to have done little to discourage the 2,000 anticipated guests. They wore big hats, carried water bottles and spread on the sunscreen.

And if they were like us, they would start the day with the style most fitting for the conditions – blush interpretations. Though pink takes on barbera may not be the variety's highest calling, the grape has been shown to turn out some mighty fine examples – aromatic, cheery, spunky. Just a week before, the deeply colored, freshly fruity and surprisingly spicy Solune Winegrowers 2012 Sierra Foothills Barbera Rosé ($20) from Grass Valley was elected the best blush in the Amador County Fair commercial wine competition.

Solune wasn't at the Barbera Festival, but several other wineries with barbera rosés were. The pink renditions they poured included the invitingly scented and finely structured Urban Legend Cellars 2011 Clarksburg Holland Landing Vineyard Rosato di Barbera ($19) and the exceptionally fruity, facile and refreshing Miraflores Winery 2012 Sierra Foothills Barbera Rosé ($18).

For two other refreshing and persistent rosés, barbera isn't the major component but was relied upon for its historic role in California winemaking, which has been to add color, structure and acidity to other varieties.

In Palmina Winery's Botasea 2012 Santa Barbara County Rosato di Palmina ($18), the 25 percent barbera adds complexity and support to the 50 percent dolcetto and 25 percent nebbiolo, resulting in a blush of unusual layering and power.

In the Rosa d'Oro Vineyards 2012 Lake County Rosato ($16), the 27 percent estate barbera provides the substantial frame for a veritable Renaissance painting of other grape varieties – grenache, sangiovese, nebbiolo and tinta roriz, all of which add up to a dazzling and compelling canvas.

We retreated to the cool comfort of Cooper's winery, wherein we found copies of a paper that Sacramento grocer and all-around wine scholar Darrell Corti has written on barbera's history in Amador County, which began when Cary Gott planted a small plot to the grape at his nascent Montevina Winery in 1971.

Corti's paper suggests that Amador vintners revisit a style of wine based on the county's two best-known varieties, zinfandel and barbera. In the 1970s, Gott made such a blend, which Corti named "Montanaro." Corti now suggests that the name be tweaked to "Montagnaro" in recognition of barbera's Italian history and that it be trademarked by Amador's wine industry.

"It could become similar to the 'Meritage' blend of Bordeaux varieties, but with an Amador County base and exclusivity," writes Corti.

"Zinfandel by itself can sometimes be rather clumsy and awkward up there. Barbera brings out some zingy character and adds liveliness to the otherwise dullish zin. This is my first notion. Second, barbera relieves the thick sweetness of sloppy grape growing from Amador County," Corti says.

We returned to the inferno looking for customary interpretations of barbera and also for blends that might qualify as "Montagnaro."

As a wine, barbera is transformed into a wide spectrum of styles, from the aforementioned rosés to much richer versions. Those we find at the Barbera Festival tend to fall into one of two camps, either youthful, lean and pure, with little or no obvious oak, or fuller-bodied and more concentrated, their ripe berry fruit complicated with wood.

The former included the sleekly balanced and lilting Cooper Vineyards 2010 Shenandoah Valley Dick Cooper Vineyard Barbera ($28), the angular and refreshingly tangy New Clairvaux Vineyard 2011 Tehama County Poor Souls Vineyard Barbera ($20) and the bracing Wilderotter Vineyard 2010 Shenandoah Valley Estate Barbera ($28).

The bigger style was gracefully represented by the ripe and plush Christian Lazo Wines 2009 Paso Robles Barbera ($25), the fat Ehrenberg Cellars 2010 Amador County Barbera ($25), the lush but lively Jeff Runquist Wines 2011 Amador County Dick Cooper Vineyard Barbera ($26) and the exotic Feist Wines 2011 El Dorado County Reserve Barbera ($32), which had won a gold medal at the California State Fair commercial wine competition earlier that week.

My favorite of the day was the Dillian Wines 2011 Amador County Shenandoah Valley Barbera ($26), which not only popped with fresh cherry-berry aromas at the outset but trailed off with the day's longest finish.

The closest we came to finding a wine that would qualify for "Montagnaro" designation was the firm and cohesive C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery 2009 Sierra Foothills Encontro ($30), a blend of approximately one-third each barbera, zinfandel and primitivo, with a dash of petite sirah.

At a dinner in the tasting room of Renwood Winery, Corti turned mostly to barbera's Italian homeland for examples to show the wine's versatility – the lean and razory Pico Maccario 2011 Lavignone Barbera d'Asti and the richer, juicier Renato Ratti 2011 Barbera d'Alba.

By comparison, the Renwood Winery 2009 Amador County Barbera was riper and bolder.

The day's take-away lesson – other than that wine enthusiasts will not be deterred by a little heat in their quest to find something they like – was that while barbera remains a minor player in the foothills as measured by acres – 187 in Amador County compared with 2,019 acres of zinfandel – it has traction, principally for its accessibility in any style with which it is crafted.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at mikedunne@winegigs.com.