In looking for an angle with which to approach the fourth annual Barbera Festival in June, I recalled something that Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti said at last year’s gathering: Amador County vintners should blend two of the region’s more esteemed grape varieties – barbera and zinfandel – into a single style of proprietary wine that, in effect, would be unique to the area.
He even had a name for the style – “Montagnaro,” Italian for “mountain,” recognizing the mountainous terrain of both Italy and California where barbera is gaining traction as a standalone varietal. For decades in California barbera was cultivated mostly in the San Joaquin Valley, where it got lost in blended everyday jug wines.
Corti figures that with more carefully considered blending the frequent sweet sappiness and awkwardness of zinfandel would benefit by the freshness, lightness and inherent zesty acidity of barbera.
More often than generally recognized, Corti has been instrumental in determining the direction of the California wine trade. A case could be made that he’s been the pivotal player in the current popularity of barbera through the Mother Lode by advocating early on that it be planted in the region.
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But when it comes to “Montagnaro,” vintners by and large aren’t heeding his advice. Maybe it’s too early, given that Corti started to lobby for “Montagnaro” only a year ago, though he had persuaded former Shenandoah Valley winemaker Cary Gott to bottle such a blend at his Montevina Winery as long ago as the 1970s.
At any rate, in my first tour of the 80 wineries to set up Barbera Festival pouring tables in the walnut orchard of Dick Cooper’s ranch in the Shenandoah Valley, I routinely asked to taste only barberas that had been blended with some other grape variety or varieties.
I might as well have been asking for a glass of chardonnay, to judge by their perplexed response. This is a barbera festival, their looks reminded me. Barbera, several did note, is a complete wine all on its own. To be charming and vivacious, it doesn’t need any help from any other grape.
Nevertheless, several winemakers did acknowledge that they added a dash or two of some other variety or varieties to their barbera.
Jeff Runquist, who may be responsible for more gold-medal barberas than any other vintner, says he added the maximum allowable 5 percent of petite sirah to his electric vineyard-designated Jeff Runquist Wines 2012 Amador County Dick Cooper Vineyard Barbera ($28). “I use petite sirah from the (Sacramento/San Joaquin River) Delta because it adds color and some depth without adding astringent tannins,” Runquist explains. “I like the way the petite sirah rounds out the wine and keeps it from being a bit too lean, given the acidity of barbera.”
Of all varieties used to bring another dimension to barbera, petite sirah is clearly the first choice. Susan Feist of Amador City blended about 3 percent petite sirah into her brightly fruity and unusually fleshy Feist Wines 2012 Amador County Shenandoah Valley Reserve Barbera ($32) to enhance both the tannin and the color of the finished wine.
Scott Harvey of Scott Harvey Wines in Napa Valley says he’s often but not always motivated to add other varieties to barbera to avoid the “doughnut” effect – a wine without a middle. “Some wines don’t give me a complete wine, so I blend to finish the wine out,” Harvey says.
As with Runquist and Feist, his go-to variety for completing barbera is petite sirah. For the classically composed Scott Harvey Wines 2012 Amador County J&S Reserve Barbera ($30) he blended in 9 percent petite sirah that he salvaged from a Napa Valley grower who had picked the grapes before they were fully ripe and had planned to discard them.
“I told him to put it (the fruit) into bins and I would make wine out of them. It turned out to be a bright red cherry, red-fruit wine of about 12 percent alcohol. It was perfect to make this wine complete, since the (barbera) was a little heavy and over-extracted, with lots of black fruit flavor,” Harvey says.
In contrast, to add heft and complexity to his lighter and simpler Scott Harvey Wines 2012 Amador County Mountain Selection Barbera ($22), he added 11 percent syrah for more weight and 4 percent zinfandel for more spice.
No foothill vintner may study the blending of wines with more intricacy and imagination than Chaim Gur-Arieh of C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery in El Dorado County. He didn’t join this year’s Barbera Festival, but later via email explained why he added 10 percent zinfandel and 5 percent primitivo to his C.G. Di Arie 2009 Sierra Foothills Barbera ($24).
“I find barbera to be a highly acidic grape, which is rich in fruit flavors, especially tart cherry, cranberry and pomegranate. These fruit flavors make the acidity (of barbera) more dominant. Blending the barbera with zinfandel and primitivo brings into play dark and light berry flavors that can balance the acidity and bring some sweetness to the wine,” says Gur-Arieh, a longtime food scientist. “I think these two components make the wine better balanced and more complex.”
That gets close to the Corti model, both in intent and content. But no wine was closer to Corti’s vision than the Karmere Vineyards & Winery 2011 Shenandoah Valley Empress Juana Primabera ($27), which by its expansive and complex flavors seemed to justify Corti’s thesis.
A decade ago, Karmere winemaker Dawn Martella began to blend barbera and primitivo, a variety genetically identical to zinfandel, when the winery received more barbera than it was planning to bottle as a varietal and some primitivo it hadn’t anticipated at all. As an experiment, Martella blended the two, and “Primabera” became so popular that she’s kept it in the winery’s lineup ever since.
The blend of the 2011 is half primitivo and half zinfandel, resulting in a wine voluminous with red-fruit aroma and sweetly jammy on the palate. The oak barrels in which it was aged contribute notes of vanilla and spice.
Similarly, with the 2012 harvest winemaker Ryan Notestine of Nine Gables Vineyard and Winery, also in Shenandoah Valley, blended approximate equal amounts of barbera and primitivo to create the winery’s first proprietary “Primera” blend ($27). Bright, light and tasting of freshly harvested wild raspberries, the wine won a gold medal at this summer’s Amador County Fair commercial wine competition.
Notestine also won a best-of-class award at the El Dorado County Fair commercial wine competition with another similar proprietary blend, the Nine Gables 2012 “Calitalia” ($28), a zesty mix of half barbera and half sangiovese, to be released this fall.
Thus, while “Montagnaro” blends of zinfandel and barbera have yet to be adopted by foothill winemakers, a few seem to concur with Corti that the synergy that unfolds when barbera is blended with something else trumps the varietal on its own.