"Working by Hand" (Winemaking)
- Most common styles
- Still (red, blush/rosé, late-harvest) and fortified (port)
- Winemaker choices and options
- Virtually all winemakers make use of available options (skin contact, malolactic, lees-stirring, choice of fermentation vessel, etc.)
- All options used, from stainless steel, concrete, oak (barrels, vats, barriques, oak alternatives)
- Aging potential (yes/no). If “yes,” give range
- Yes. While entry level examples should be enjoyed young, most are best within 1-10 years of release. The finest bottlings have the potential to age 20-30 years
- Presented solo or frequently blended with...
- Very malleable. Many pure 100% bottles. Also prevalent in “mixed black” blends made from “fraternal” varieties. Finally, some vintners enjoy combining Barbera with other red grapes in the increasingly popular red blend category.
Working By Hand:
Barbera grapes are fairly acidic, and avoiding a taste of astringency is a common concern for winemakers. One common way of combating possible astringency is to blend Barbera with other grape types. Another way of adding dimension to Barbera is to age it in oak barrels. Although this is not the most common practice for Barbera winemakers, oak-aged versions of the wine are being produced in the Sierra Foothills of California, as well as around Alba in Piedmont, Italy.
Consensus is that, at its best, Barbera is all about a vibrant berry-cherry fruit expression, a refreshing acidity, minimal tannin, and a hint of earthiness. It’s also understood that of the Cal-Ital wines/grapes, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese seem quite site-specific while Barbera is more malleable. To make things yet more challenging for Barbera in California, it has sometimes been viewed as a Zin surrogate which, in conjunction with some less-than-stellar early California efforts with fellow Cal-Ital grape Sangiovese, may have resulted in a “Cal-Ital stigma” that has been applied to any domestic wine made from Italian grape varieties. And for the best of Golden State Barberas, that is a real shame.
The choice here is to use them or not. There are some great old Barbera vines in choice spots in California’s Lodi and Amador counties. While one does not see producers frequently label wines as “Old Vines,” “Ancient Vines,” and “Heritage Vines,” you can sense a profundity to these bottlings. Additional factors to consider include low yields, in concert with a ceiling to the price that Barbara can command on the open market and, as such, whether or not it is worth continuing to farm those old vines? The choice is for each winery to make.
What it does:
Old vines produce lower yields which equates to more concentrated fruit.
The organoleptic results are always worth it -- deeper, richer flavors, and somewhat greater mouth volume. The cost of farming and amount of harvested fruit per vine may not be. The decision is therefore personal and emotional, and commercial.
What it does:
Proponents of wild yeast embrace the unique flavors attached to “place,” including savory and matchstick-like aromas that many love and associate with minimal intervention. Cultivated yeasts are more predictable and can be selected/customized to contribute specific flavors and aromas.
Some winemakers blend the two, perhaps starting with native yeast, and reserving use of commercial yeast only if something does not go right (e.g. fixing a stuck fermentation).
The wood employed for most wine barrels, used for aging wine or actual fermentation in the barrel. Barrel decisions include the type of wood, the amount of toast (when the staves of the barrels are bent over an open flame), size (smaller = higher ratio of wood to wine = stronger oak influence) and the age of the barrels.
What it does:
- Chocolate, mocha and vanilla flavors that many identify with some wines come not from the grape, but from oak-aging.
- Heavily toasted barrels impart more intense roasted flavors (caramel, molasses, toffee, coffee and burnt sugar).
- Oak bestows a waxy, velvety texture and can add a perceived sweetness to the wine.
- New oak contributes much more flavor than older, previously used oak which, depending on the wine and the grapes, may be a better choice.
- Small (barrique-size) barrel fermentation at warmer temperatures than those in stainless steel and over shorter increments of time also imparts a richer, smoother texture to the wine.
Today, there is a movement towards keeping the oak in check, i.e., minimizing “over-oaking,” or even using no oak at all. This is just fine for Barbara, which can be easily over-oaked if not adequately managed. While there are some delightful examples of oaked Barbara made in California,most feel that the purity of Barbara’s fruit is easily lost behind the veneer of new oak.
As noted earlier, Barbera is often blended with other red grapes for the purpose of adding acidity to said assemblages.
What it does:
Adds acidity, additional diverse flavors and possibly an extra dimension of complexity.
Blends result in different styles of wine. For example, a deft blending of Barbera with Petite Sirah or other high-tannin wines could make an interesting bottling, with Petite Sirah adding tannin and Barbara contributing acidity.