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Roll Over Wine World, Barbera is Spreading The News

By Stephen Eliot

Regular readers of Connoisseurs’ Guide are well aware that Charlie and I have been decidedly bullish on the status of California Barbera over the last couple of years, and, just two weeks ago, we posted a notice about the then-upcoming Barbera Festival slated for June 11 in the Amador County hamlet of Plymouth. In one of those rare moments where I actually take my own advice and spurred on by the promise of temperate weather, I decided to make the trek to the Sierra Foothills last Saturday to check in on the latest goings-on with this longtime member of California’s vast varietal mix.

Barbera is not new to the Golden State but has been give little respect and attention as a serious variety during its more than one-hundred-year tenure, yet it is getting a new look these days from a growing number of artisan producers and is no longer viewed simply as a high-acid red grape best suited to providing structure to inexpensive jug wines. It has been the workhorse red of Italy’s Piedmonte for generations, and, while not rivaling the likes of Barolo and Barbaresco in terms of complexity and sheer depth, it has proven capable of making interesting and very satisfying wines in its own right. It is now doing the same here on the west coast, and it is a variety that very much bears watching as a new generation of vintners and discerning wine drinkers make their marks on the ever-evolving California wine scene.

Several years back, devoted producers from up and down the state decided it was time to band together and make a concerted effort to promote the virtues of well-made Barbera, and this year’s festival, now in its sixth incarnation, was an eye-opening demonstration of just how far the California version has come. Not every wine was compelling and some were clearly in need of a better winemaking hand, but the overall level of quality was quite high, and, importantly, most were priced well within the means of wine lovers with an eye to real value.

My lengthy drive up to the foothills not only afforded me the chance to revisit a number of old favorites, it was also rewarded by the discovery of new, hitherto unknown bottlings that in no uncertain terms signaled that there are very good things going on with Barbera, and the hundreds of enthusiasts in attendance who spent the day tasting wines from some eighty producers were a justifiably happy bunch.

It is time to give Barbera its due, and, while we need no convincing, it is clear that Barbera is gaining new traction in the marketplace and the word is getting out. It may not challenge Cabernet or Pinot Noir for top honors among California’s most renowned red wines, and, in truth, we see little to suggest that it will ever achieve the triple-digit prices that come with cult status, but that is part of its very considerable appeal. It fills a much-needed niche as an affordable, thoroughly tasty, extraordinarily versatile companion to food, and, after all, is that not the point of good wine of any and all sorts?

The number of very good local Barberas is reaching critical mass, and, for the last two years, new Barberas have been featured in a special spring tasting in Connoisseurs’ Guide. Following are a half-dozen recommended offerings from the 2013 vintage as reviewed in our May, 2016 Issue, and we are already looking forward in excited anticipation to the next new crop to come. Please note that we review on a five-level scale, the tops of which are one, two and three stars—each recommended level comparable to the levels of achievement used in the Guide Michelin.

FIDDLETOWN CELLARS Reserve Amador County 2013 $36.00
There is a tendency at times to judge Barbera as if it had to be another ripe and fully expressed red wine, and, to be sure, it is California's ability to find extra measures of depth and richness in the grapes it grows that often makes our wines special. Yet, here is a bottle that has managed to split the difference in that it has depth and likeable fruit but it has not eschewed its varietal focus. Its mix of ripe black fruit comes with the pert, vibrant edges of the variety in both nose and mouth, and there is more than a tad of supportive richness in the wine's long and noticeably bright, almost brisk flavors.

BOEGER Barbeara El Dorado County 2013 $16.00
No, it is not a typo. There is no need to check the spelling of this proprietary blend's title, and, if its name might suggest whimsy, the wine itself turns out to be surprisingly serious stuff. It is not at all uncommon that wines made from an unconventional mix of grapes such as is found here are little more than a mish-mash of leftovers, but this well-made effort is solidly fruited and quite nicely balanced. It is slightly riper and richer than Barbera is wont to be, yet it shows a nice bit of the bounce for which the variety is known, and, if something of a hybrid that charts a course of its own, it is a very good wine at a very good price.

BORJÓN Reserva Amador County 2013 $30.00
In last year's look at Barbera, Borjón stood out as an important new face, and its recently released 2013 Reserva shows that its star has not lost any sheen. It is a deep and very well-focused wine with a generous measure of ripe, black cherry fruit laced with lovely, slightly sweet oak, and, while it is not at all soft and always carefully balanced, its open architecture makes it very easy to taste now. All the same, its ample acidity works to accentuate its nominal last-minute tannins, and a little patience will be roundly repaid. Our vote is to wait and let it evolve for another three or four years.

RENWOOD Amador County 2013 $30.00
Spicy, lightly smoky and charged with a good deal of vital young fruit, this oak-lifted offering tips ever so slightly to ripeness while showing a bit of the grape's brighter side. It is moderately full-bodied with a slight tannic bite and very proper acidity lifting and lengthening its insistently fruity finish, and, even though it is balanced to keep and grow for a good half-decade if not more, it also has the kind of wide-open richness that needs no waiting to fully enjoy.

MONTEVINA Skyland Ridge Amador County 2013 $12.00
Montevina has a long history with Amador County Barbera that dates back to the 1970s, and it remains an important source of well-made and eminently affordable versions to this day. This one leads with plenty of energetic black cherry fruit and shows notes of dusty earth, rich oak and tea running its length, and, although enlivened by very proper varietal acidity, it is pert without ever being too tart or stiff. It would earn enthusiastic endorsement at two or even three times its cost, but its twelve-dollar price tag makes it one of the better red wine values around.

TERRA D'ORO Amador County 2013 $12.00
Brought to you by the same folks responsible for Montevina's noteworthy Skyland Ridge bottling reviewed above, the Terra d'Oro Barbera is not far removed in character or in style. It is a polished, very mannerly offering that is both insistently fruity and carefully balanced with neatly integrated acidity brightening its way, and, if not quite as deep or as concentrated as its close relation, it too hits the mark when it comes to outstanding value.

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