Barbera Food Pairings
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.
Recipe courtesy Christian and Jennifer Stark. Adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ten Speed Press, 2012)
6 tablespoons Pernod
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons clementine juice, freshly squeezed
4 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice, freshly squeezed
2 tablespoons grain mustard
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
Black pepper, freshly ground
2 medium fennel bulbs, cleaned and quartered
8 organic chicken thighs
4 clementines, unpeeled, halved
3 Meyer lemons, sliced into ½-inch thick rounds
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons fennel seeds, lightly crushed
Flat leaf parsley, chopped, to garnish
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the Pernod, olive oil, orange and lemon juices, mustard, brown sugar and salt. Season to taste with pepper.
Add the fennel, chicken thighs, clementine halves, lemon slices, thyme and crushed fennel seeds. Turn several times to coat. If time allows, marinate the chicken, refrigerated, for a few hours or overnight.
Preheat a grill and place a chapa (a large, flat cast-iron surface) or a cast-iron pan on it. When the surface is quite hot, sear the chicken thighs skin-side down until crispy. Turn chicken over and place over indirect heat to finish cooking. Cook slowly for about 45 minutes, watching that the chicken doesn’t burn.
Place the lemon slices and clementine halves cut-side down on the chapa. When brown and caramelized, turn over and place over indirect heat to soften.
Place fennel quarters on grill. Cook until browned and crispy. Remove from direct heat, but continue to cook.
Put remaining marinade in a saucepan over direct heat. Bring to a boil and reduce by half.
When the chicken, clementines, lemons and fennel are nicely browned and cooked through, move them to a large platter. Pour the sauce over and garnish with parsley. Serves 4.
Choose Stark’s 2012 Damiano Vineyard Barbera from the Sierra Foothills ($34), a wine that’s juicy and balanced, and awash in bright blackberry and red cherry fruit. It’s a perfect match for this dish’s fresh, distinct flavors of anise, citrus and parsley.
Recipe courtesy James Ablett, chef de cuisine, and Mark Berkner, chef/owner, Taste Restaurant, Plymouth, California
For the duck dogs
3½ pounds duck legs, fat removed, diced
1½ pounds pork butt, diced
1 ounce kosher salt
4 grams tint curing mix
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons Cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon mace
½ teaspoon allspice
1 tablespoon oregano
1½ tablespoons chopped thyme
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 large yellow onions, diced small
6 cloves garlic chopped
1 cup powdered milk
20 feet sheep casings
In a large mixing bowl, combine the meats, spices, salts, onion and garlic. Place in the freezer 2–3 hours, until partially frozen. Run the mixture through the fine blade of a meat grinder (should be ⅛ inch) into a large metal bowl set over an ice bath.
Place ground meat into an electric mixing bowl with paddle attachment. Add powdered milk, and mix at medium speed for 1 minute.
Make a small patty, cook to test seasonings, and adjust, if necessary.
Stuff the sausage mixture into the casings and hang in a refrigerator overnight so a pellicle forms.
Cold smoke at 80˚F for 3 hours. Cool on roasting racks.
Grill sausages until they reach an internal temperature of 155˚F.
Can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
Serve in a soft bun, topped with Cherry Mostarda. Makes 12 dogs.
For the mostarda
1 cup dried cherries
½ cup sugar
½ cup Champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons whole grain mustard
3 tablespoons mixed rosemary, thyme and chive
Place the cherries, sugar, vinegar and ½ cup water in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Stir occasionally. Reduce the liquid until it’s jam-like, about 45 minutes. Remove from stove.
Transfer to a medium-sized mixing bowl and let cool. Fold in the mustards and herbs.
Serve with grilled chicken, roasted duck or pork. Refrigerate covered for up to a month.
Scott Harvey’s 2011J&S Reserve Barbera from Amador County ($35) is an opulent wine that’s big upfront and bright and fruity on the finish. It’s built to age, so decant it before serving to smooth out the woody and peppery notes, which will go beautifully with the flavors of spice and game.
Recipe courtesy James Ablett, chef de cuisine, Taste Restaurant, Plymouth, California
2 pounds skin-on boneless hen thighs, ground
1 large shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons mixed rosemary and
thyme, chopped fine
Salt and pepper
1 stick melted butter, divided
3 ounces baby arugula
6 sheets #4 phyllo dough
3 ounces Brie cheese
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the ground hen meat with the shallot, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper.
In a medium-sized pan over medium heat, cook the seasoned hen mixture in 1 tablespoon of butter. Sauté the mixture until just cooked through, about 8 minutes.
Remove from the heat and transfer to a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add the arugula and stir to wilt. Allow mixture to cool about 30 minutes.
Brush one sheet of phyllo with melted butter. Fold in half, and butter again. Place one sixth of the hen mixture and ½ ounce of Brie on the closest corners, and fold like a burrito. Butter each fold generously. This should form a 2-inch-by-6-inch rectangle.
Bake at 400˚F in a convection oven for 12–15 minutes, until golden brown. Makes 6 spanakopita.
Andis’s 2011 Cooper Ranch Barbera from Amador County ($28) is juicy and substantial, finishing with plenty of succulent cherry and cranberry fruit. Its medium body—supported by 20% Petite Sirah—holds up nicely to the dish’s quiet decadence, especially the rich Brie and buttery dough.
The winery is a relative newcomer to Amador County, but winemaker Mark McKenna, a protégé of Bill Easton, has been turning out lovely reds and whites.
Winemaker Joe Shebl and owner Isy Borjón are focusing big time on Barbera. Their Reposado Barbera is dark and spicy, marked by cinnamon and orange on the finish.
Bill Easton specializes in Rhône varieties at Domaine de la Terre Rouge, but makes a spicy Cooper Ranch Barbera under this label. There’s also one from the Monarch Mine Vineyard that’s marked by earthy black-fruit notes.
Shebl makes about 300 cases of Barbera under his own label. Look for the Reserve and Concerto bottlings.
Chuck Hovey makes wine for several clients in the Sierra Foothills, but under his own label, the Barbera and Tempranillo are standouts.
Ryan Teeter’s tiny Italian-focused label is based in Calaveras County. His Barbera is smooth and crisp.
The former winemaker at Folie à Deux, Harvey makes wines from Amador and Napa Valley, but having grown up in the Sierras and helped build Montevina, Barbera is in his blood.
Based in Healdsburg, winemaker Christian Stark is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy. In addition to Barbera from the Foothills’ Damiano Vineyard, look for Petite Sirah from the same site.
This historic Shenandoah Valley winery, once known as Montevina, still makes a Barbera worth seeking out—medium in body, with a spicy, smoky midpalate and black cherry finish.
Viticulturalist extraordinaire Ann Kraemer produces this lush, refined Barbera from her own Shake Ridge Vineyard.
- 2Chapa-Grilled Chicken with Citrus and Fennel
- 3Duck Dogs with Cherry Mostarda
- 4Guinea Hen Spanakopita
- 5Recommended Barbera Producers