Dunne on Wine: Montevina Winery gives starring role to barbera

Special to The Bee IApril 3, 2013 

If they follow their usual timetable, federal and state agricultural officials any day now will release their annual calculation of vineyard acreage in California.

A year ago, the report concluded that state farmland devoted to wine grapes totaled 543,000 acres as of 2011. It likely will be up for 2012, with the state's most popular grape varieties – chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon – no doubt again expanding their domination of California's vineyards.

Barbera? Probably not so much. Last year's acreage report pegged barbera at covering just 6,659 acres, up only a few hundred acres from a decade earlier. That compares with almost 100,000 acres given to chardonnay, 80,000 to cabernet sauvignon, 48,000 to zinfandel and 45,000 to merlot.

Now, as 10 years ago, most of California's barbera is planted in the Central Valley, with more than 4,000 acres tended in Fresno County alone.

There, the wine the grapes yield generally gets blended into generic jugs, barbera's traditional role in California.

But barbera is going through something of a transformation, from anonymous bit player to starring role, quite capable of delivering a captivating soliloquy all on its own. Vintners and consumers alike are taking notice.

Two factors account for barbera's rising stature: Its strong performance as a stand-alone varietal on the competition circuit in recent years, and its easy accessibility and ready flexibility at the table. Even in its youth, barbara is characterized less by rigid tannins than by juicy, clean fruit flavors that run to blueberry, raspberry, cherry and plum. Coupled with that freshness and friendliness is barbera's tangy acidity, which help make it an amiable match with all sorts of foods, from husky stews to lighter pizzas.

Not much barbera is planted in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento – around 200 acres in Amador County, less than 100 in neighboring El Dorado County – but the Gold Country is the epicenter of the varietal's rising esteem. Cary Gott introduced barbera to Amador County's Shenandoah Valley in the early 1970s when he founded Montevina Winery, now known as Terra d'Oro Winery and now owned by Trinchero Family Estates.

"Montevina" lives on, however, as a Trinchero brand devoted largely to inexpensive varietals bearing a "California" appellation. An exception to appellation but not to the bargain intent of the label is the Montevina Winery 2010 Amador County Barbera.

This is just the sort of barbera that shows why Montevina's longtime winemaker, Jeff Meyers, became known as the "Baron of Barbera." It's animated with sunny fruit, supportive but non-intrusive tannins, and the sort of brisk acidity for which barbera is recognized, especially in its native Italy.

Today, Meyers is Terra d'Oro's general manager and vice president, having turned over day-to-day winemaking to Chris Leamy.

They seem to share the same philosophy, which amounts to taking the rich fruit that the Gold Country produces and handling it with a sensitivity that retains its clear expression without having it interrupted by too much of anything else, such as alcohol, tannin and oak.

Their goal is gracefulness but not timidity, and with this barbera they seize it, producing a take on the varietal with a forward fruity and floral smell that beckons you in and then rewards your anticipation with flavors bright and spirited.

While the wine itself is direct and frisky, Leamy's approach is deliberate, patient and precise. For one, he provided the freshly squeezed juice with two weeks of full skin contact to help fill out the body of the wine. For another, he applied more new American and Hungarian oak than usual to the wine; it's evident mostly in added spice, body and complexity.

Other than that, the wine is solely barbera.

Barbera is a grape recognized for its high natural acidity, which brings zing to its wines even when the fruit is grown in a warm region like the Sierra foothills. With 2010 being an unusually cool growing year by foothill standards, Leamy faced the prospect that the barbera could end up with more acidity than he prefers. His concern grew when the secondary malolactic fermentation that helps soften acidity took forever to take hold and to finish, but it did, and Leamy ended up with a barbera that's bright without being razor-sharp.

Montevina and Terra d'Oro, which also releases a barbera, could be the largest producer of the varietal in the state, releasing roughly 10,000 cases a year, with plans to continue to expand production.

"It's a niche wine, with pockets of enthusiasts here and there. Some communities get it, some don't," Leamy said.

Those that don't perhaps just haven't yet been introduced to this vivid example.

A footnote: Terra d'Oro/ Montevina expects to join an anticipated 80 or so other barbera producers at the third annual Barbera Festival in Shenandoah Valley on June 8. For information: www.barberafestival.com.


Montevina Winery 2010 Amador County Barbera

By the numbers: 14.5 percent alcohol, 7,000 cases, $12.

Context: Chris Leamy calls the 2010 barbera his "everyday wine," finding it a suitable companion for such basic fare as macaroni and cheese, hamburgers and pizza, especially one topped with prosciutto, vodka sauce and fresh basil. Because of the wine's reserved tannins, he's also found that it goes well with dishes that are lightly spiced, such as chili-glazed salmon.

Availability: The Montevina barbera is widely available in the Sacramento region, including Raley's markets.

More information: The tasting room at Terra d'Oro/ Montevina, 20680 Shenandoah School Road, Plymouth, is open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily.

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.

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