"Working the Land" (Viticulture)

Viticulture: Barbera At-A-Glance
Vigor (low/high)
Quite productive and vigorous, so need to control leaf growth through rootstock, soil, and clone matching, as well as, where legal, irrigation management
Does best in poor calcareous soils and sandy clay and loam soils, although vigor decreases in sandy soils
Yield (potential)
Left to its own, extremely high, so it is recommended to manage depending on vigor and winemaker intent. Excessive yields can diminish fruit quality and accentuate Barbera’s natural acidity and sharpness
Growth Cycle
Mid-to late-ripening and known to ripen unevenly within clusters. Extended hang time will lower natural acidity and ripen the phenolics. Barbera is easily recognizable in autumn, thanks to its characteristically violet-red colored leaves
Older vines are susceptible leaf roll, some rot issues and Pierce’s Disease

Growing and Making Cabernet Sauvignon (In California)

Barbera is vigorous and capable of producing high yields if not kept in check by pruning and other techniques. Excessive yields can diminish fruit quality and accentuate Barbera’s innate acidity and sharpness. It likes warm, sunny days with cooler nights and is naturally resistant to many pests, disease, and mildew.

Most vineyards planted to Barbera are in the San Joaquin Valley, specifically Fresno County. Typically where terrain is flat, the vines are planted approximately 2.5 x 3.7 meters (8 x 12 feet), trained on a three wire “California sprawl” trellis system with spur cordon pruning, drip-irrigated, and mechanically harvested. In these instances, most resulting fruit is blended with other varieties, with little wine bottled in this region identified as varietal Barbera.

Although Barbera grapes grow vigorously on high-producing vines, prime examples tend to come from small clusters of the grape. In the Coastal and Sierra Foothills, Barbera is grown more carefully, and the fruit and wine are of higher quality. Here, the older vineyards are planted similarly to those of the San Joaquin Valley, but newer plantings feature vines spaced closer together and usually trained on vertical shoot positioned trellises with spur cordon pruning. In these regions, soils are less fertile, and the climate is cooler, but Barbera remains a robust cultivar regardless. Wines made from Barbera in these areas are usually bottled as a mono-varietal, rather than blended into other wines.

Working The Land

Does soil influence the flavor of the final wine?

Traditionalists answer unequivocally “Yes!” Soil is a key element of terroir, the natural environment in which the vines grow, along with climate (temperature, rainfall), topography (altitude, drainage, slope, aspect) and sunlight.

A more unorthodox view holds that the influence of soil on what you taste in the glass is a myth. Maynard Amerine and Ann Noble, two famous names at UC Davis, California’s premier wine school and research facility, conducted a study on the topic. Though the study is based on Chardonnay grapes, they concluded that the following holds true for all wine grapes: “no outstanding sensory differences were observed in wines produced from different soil type locations.” The key word is “sensory” (sight, smell, taste); they are not claiming that soil doesn’t affect vine behavior (yield, growth cycle, etc.). 

The subject is certainly up for further debate. As with Pinot Gris/Grigio or even to a degree Chenin Blanc, the most significant decision with Barbera in California is determining what the end goal is to be. If the plan is to make a premium example, redolent with fruit, highlighting the best of what the grape can present, that is one goal. Alas, with Barbera that intent reflects a small percentage of what is produced in the Golden State. 

Officially, there are some nine clones, including two proprietary clones, officially authorized at UC Davis. Of them, Barbera FPS 01 came to Foundation Plant Services around 1959 or 1960 from a California vineyard – Marshall 32v7. Lawrence K. Marshall moved to Lodi, California, in 1917, where he established a vineyard and began clonal experiments and winemaking with various grape cultivars. He went on to become a prominent member of the California grape and wine community in the 1930s. What is not clear is whether that material had previously been provided by the university to Marshall for planting in his variety blocks, or if Marshall obtained the material from another source prior to involvement with the university program.

Other clones of Barbera that are today preferred include FPS 03 and Barbera FPS 05 -- both treatments of clone CVT AT 171 from the Centro di Studio per il Miglioramento Genetico della Vite (CVT) grape vine breeding center, in Turin Italy; the center is involved in research on grape vines and cooperates with viticulturists at the University of Turin. Lastly, Barbera FPS 04 was imported to UC Davis’ Foundation Plant Services in 1993 from the CVT in Turin. The plant material is clone AT 84, selected in Piemonte by the CVT, registered in Italy in 1980, and now increasingly the frontrunner for new California plantings with a quality focus.

For more on Barbera clones and trials of the same, check out US Davis Foundation Plant Services’ article entitled “Barbera Finds a Second Home in California.”

And for genuine fans of California Barbera, and as of 2011, there is an annual Barbera Festival celebrating the grape!

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Sustainability and California

As an agricultural industry, the California wine community has a long history of adapting to change and demonstrating its commitment to sound environmental practices and social responsibility. Building on these efforts are the educational and certification programs of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). Established by Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, CSWA is the most comprehensive and widely adopted wine sustainability program in the world, and– together with other important sustainability programs in regions throughout the state– has made California wine a leader in addressing climate change.