Dunne on Wine

Dunne on wine: Amador County barbera

Barbera vines flourish at Boeger Winery.
Barbera vines flourish at Boeger Winery. Courtesy of Boeger Winery

Though the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in Sonoma County is a strictly all-American show, this year it drew 98 barbera entries.

My panel at the competition tasted just one of the barberas, Healdsburg’s Portalupi Wine 2013 Amador County Shake Ridge Ranch Barbera ($45), a faithfully vibrant and solidly built interpretation of the varietal. (The 2013 no longer is available, but the 2014 has been released at the same price.) It was the only one to be nominated for sweepstakes consideration.

Though the Portalupi wasn’t ultimately crowned the best red wine in the competition, it was fitting that a barbera in the final round was from Amador County, which further enhanced its standing as the epicenter of modern barbera production in the nation.

Consider: Of those 98 barberas, 25 won gold or double-gold medals, an exceptionally high percentage for any style of wine. This reflects in part quality and in part novelty, given that wine judges tend to be especially receptive to upstarts and underdogs. (A double-gold medal, incidentally, is awarded when all judges of a panel concur that a wine deserves a gold medal.)

Of those 25 gold-medal barberas, 11 were made from grapes grown in Amador County, including the Portalupi, a Healdsburg winery that buys its barbera from Ann Kraemer’s Shake Ridge Ranch east of Sutter Creek. No other appellation came close to matching Amador County’s success with the variety. Four gold-medal barberas were made with grapes from El Dorado County, three bore the appellation “Sierra Foothills,” which could have been made with grapes from any county in the region, two were from Lodi and one each was from Calaveras County, Sonoma County and Mendocino County.

Two factors principally account for barbera’s success in Amador County. For one, Amador County has the heat, sunshine and well-drained soils in which the variety thrives. The acidity of several grape varieties tends to sag when cultivated in such hot vineyards, but not barbera, which despite the heat of the foothills retains its snap, best represented in the barberas by a refreshing tang to their finish.

Secondly, Amador County growers and winemakers have had more experience with barbera than their contemporaries in much of the rest of the state. Cary Gott introduced the variety to Amador County at his Montevina Winery in 1971. In short order, a couple of his Shenandoah Valley farming neighbors, Hank Cooper and his son Dick, got cuttings of barbera from Gott, planted them and soon became its principal source for other growers in the Mother Lode.

Other principal players in the development of barbera in the foothills have been the Greg Boeger family in adjacent El Dorado County and Jeff Runquist in Amador’s Shenandoah Valley, whose barberas under his eponymous label began to win high honors on the competition circuit a decade ago, drawing attention to the varietal and to Amador.

While barbera’s prominence in the foothills is relatively recent, the grape has been cultivated in California since the late 1800s. Throughout its history, winemakers primarily have taken advantage of its lush fruit, deep color and zippy acidity to add character and spunk to everyday blended jug wines coming out of the Central Valley. That role is diminishing, however, with barbera’s total acreage in California shrinking from around 10,000 acres in 1991 to about 6,000 acres today. Cultivation of barbera in the foothills has been growing, however, from 34 acres in Amador County in 1991 to 217 acres today. El Dorado County has seen similar growth, expanding from 20 acres in 1991 to 102 today.

People eager to explore barbera will have a large and varied field awaiting them when the sixth annual Barbera Festival is held June 11 at the Shenandoah Valley winery Terra d’Oro. About 80 wineries are expected to pour their takes on barbera.

New to the festival this year will be a “sensory station” where visitors can get a grasp on attributes that account for the varietal’s popularity – blueberry, raspberry, cherry and plum flavors, customarily restrained tannins, ample bodies and zesty acidity.

In the meantime, however, there are all those local gold-medal barberas from The Chronicle competition to explore, most of which are relatively easy to find hereabouts.

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. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.

Barbera gold medalists

The barberas from these regional wineries earned top ratings at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition this year.

Double-gold

  • Terra d’Oro 2013 Amador
  • Amador Cellars 2013 Amador
  • Divergent Vine 2013 Amador
  • Due Vigne 2014 El Dorado
  • Solitary Cellars 2013 Amador
  • Westwood Family Cellars 2011 Sierra Foothills Sierra de Montserrat
  • Villa Vallecito Vineyards 2013 Calaveras Villa Vallecito Vineyards

Gold

  • Montevina 2013 Sierra Foothills Amador
  • St. Amant Winery 2014 Lodi
  • Bella Grace 2013 Amador
  • Borjon 2013 Amador County Shenandoah Valley Reposado
  • Feist 2013 El Dorado Reserve
  • Frog’s Tooth 2012 Sierra Foothills
  • Helwig 2013 Shenandoah Valley Reserve
  • Hovey 2013 El Dorado Walker Vineyard
  • Shadow Ranch 2013 El Dorado
  • Shenandoah Vineyards 2013 Amador County ReZerve
  • Vina Moda 2013 Sierra Foothills
  • Wilderotter 2013 Shenandoah Valley Estate
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