Barbera Food Pairings

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By Virginie Boone, photos by Mark Lund

When Andis winemaker Mark McKenna is invited to dinner and doesn’t know what’s on the menu or what style of wine the host likes, he brings a bottle of Barbera.

“It is the most versatile, comforting, easily pairable, yet drinkable wine on its own,” he says. “It’s not an obsessive’s wine. You drink it for joy and comfort.”

McKenna is based in California’s Sierra Foothills, where Barbera has a long history. Now, as a coterie of skilled young winemakers cultivates the grape’s fruity succulence, it has a growing future.

“Barbera is hot,” says Chuck Hovey of Hovey Winery, who sources grapes widely across the Foothills from El Dorado to Calaveras County.

“Interest in it has grown dramatically,” says Hovey. “It’s very friendly to drink young, there’s not a lot of tannins, but it’s complex and ages well. Winemakers are letting the fruit speak more.”

Native to the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy, Barbera is beloved for its high natural acidity, mellow tannins and juicy red-fruit flavors, which range from red and dark cherries and blackberry to cranberry and pomegranate.

Barbera’s modern lineage in California—it was planted as parts of field blends as early as the 1880s—traces back to the wilds of the Sierra Foothills, specifically Amador County, where Montevina Winery (now Terra d’Oro) planted it in 1971.

Hank Cooper soon followed suit, sourcing cuttings from Montevina for his Cooper Vineyards. Now run by his son, Dick, Cooper Vineyards remains one of Barbera’s leading proponents.

Each summer, Cooper Vineyards hosts the popular Barbera Festival. More than 80 California producers, as well as some from Italy, pour their best wines alongside bites from restaurant chefs, who love the wine’s versatility and fair price point—usually under $30.

“In the modern era of the Sierra Foothills, Barbera is more of a given than Zinfandel,” says McKenna. “Every serious wine region can do Zin in some form. We happen to do Barbera better than any other region.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Prone to vigor, the key with Barbera is patience.

“The big thing with Barbera is making sure you’re pulling it off the vine when the acidity is perfectly in balance,” says Joe Shebl, winemaker at Renwood Winery.

The Foothills’ well-drained soils and daily temperature swings of 25 degrees restrain the grape’s innate vigor, but not its bracing acidity, says Shebl. He also makes Barbera for his own Fiddletown Cellars and up-and-coming Borjón Winery.

“I don’t look at the sugar numbers,” he says. “I look at acids. It’s one of the easiest wines for me to make if I nail that pick date.

“You have to play this waiting game. Otherwise, you’ll get a really tart wine.”

In the cellar, new oak is a sin, says McKenna. He focuses more on stretching out extractions, racking the wine often to retain its natural freshness.

“People are excited to identify a varietal with a region,” says McKenna. “We’re in a diverse neighborhood (the Foothills), but we all make Barbera, so people can compare apples to apples.”

“Barbera may be becoming California’s second true variety—it doesn’t echo the European tradition too much,” he says. “In California, it’s its own animal.”

What remains the same is the variety’s food-friendliness and typically modest pricing, making it a wine for almost any occasion.

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Barbera Food Pairings

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