By Celia Strong
It’s always fun to play with names. People have written songs about clever names, and, on occasion, some of us have even sung these songs. This week we will learn about a wine that tastes great and is priced right — that’s enough to make any wine lover sing. But, hopefully, by the time the singing does start, I will be in my own “safe for singing” place, and you will as well. If the singing does follow, it is not to be discussed. Ever!
So, humming, off we go to learn about this week’s wine and we glide into Amador County, California. In addition to wine, and before a lot of wine came from there, Amador was known for gold mining. Located about 45 miles southeast of Sacramento, Amador is just over 600 square miles, which makes it the fifth smallest county in California. And lakes account for a little more than 11 square miles.
Only months after it was established in May 1854, Amador County was split into Amador, Calaveras and El Dorado counties. It is named for José María Amador, a soldier, rancher and miner who was born in San Francisco in 1794. In 1848, he and several Native Americans established a gold mining camp near what is now Amador City. This part of California is known as “the Mother Lode” because of all the rich gold mines in the area. “Amador” means “one who loves” in Spanish.
Despite their riches, all the gold mines in Amador County were closed in 1942 by the federal government because they were not considered important to the war effort. Recently, there have been attempts to reopen and modernize some of the mines.
The Shenandoah Valley, in Amador County, was once the principal wine growing area in California. Many wineries were built there during and after the California Gold Rush that are still there today — some by miners who did not find gold, or at least enough gold. Prohibition did devastate the wine industry there, but about 40 wineries now operate in Amador County.
Zinfandel is Amador’s claim to wine fame. Some of the vineyards have Zinfandel vines that are 125 years old. The original 10-acre Grandpère Vineyard was planted before 1869, and still grows great Zinfandel grapes. There are county documents verifying its establishment and history.
In addition to Zinfandel, other varieties do well in Amador County. Ours for this week is Barbera. (Not to be confused with Barbara — especially if you have a Barbara in your family.) Barbera is a red variety, the third most planted red in Italy, which is where the grape comes from.
It is prudent, at this point, to remind ourselves that Italian varieties are grown quite a bit in California. They came with many of the immigrants from Italy who turned to grape growing because table wines were such a large part of their daily lives. We have even discussed the name, made up though it is, for California wines made from what are usually Italian varieties. Remember “Cal-Itals?” Zinfandel is an Italian variety, or at least a clone of one. Sangiovese is, and Barbera is too. Arneis is a white grape with a few small plantings in California. And, not to be forgotten the “ever in your glass” Pinot Grigio, as well as Moscato. Many of these make both single variety wines and blends. Our Barbera wine this week is one of these. Barbera grapes are a deep purple color. When young, their wines have intense aromas of cherries, raspberries and blueberries. With aging, and some Barbera wines are meant to be aged, they get blackberry and black cherry flavors. Aged in oak barrels, vanilla flavors attach to the wines for added complexities. Lighter bodied Barbera wines have enough acidity to be chilled slightly, about 20 minutes. Heavier ones, with more oak barrel aging time and/or slightly more alcohol, can be aged and served at room temperature.
Historically, Barbera is thought to have originated in the Piedmont area in northeastern Italy. DNA testing suggests it may also be related to the French variety Mourvedre, used in the Rhône area.
One of the best known wine scandals (and there are a few) occurred in 1985. Barbera producers in Piedmont, Italy, were illegally adding methanol to their wines. More than 30 people died and many more lost their eyesight. (Not to be glib, but was it the addition of the methanol or the killing of 30 people that was illegal?) Anyhow, Barbera wines became very unpopular and plantings of this variety dropped immensely.
Barbera vines are fairly easy to grow. They have high yields and are vigorous. Pruning helps to maintain good levels of acidity and astringency. In Piedmont, their early ripening allows them to be harvested up to two weeks before their Nebbiolo grapes. If a winemaker’s Barbera grapes are too acidic, blending with other grapes is a successful option. Outside of Italy, Barbera is rare in the rest of Europe. In California, it is one of the most successful Italian varieties with over 8,000 acres planted. Napa and Sonoma counties both have produced some good Barbera wines, but it is most planted in the Central Valley where Amador County is located.
Our winery is Montevina, which recently changed its name to Terra d’Oro. Before, Terra d’Oro wines were labeled with the phrase “by Montevina.” But, if you are located in the “mother lode” area of the California Gold Rush, Terre d’Oro, “land of gold,” is probably a more productive brand name.
Montevina was founded in 1979, the first winery in the county after Prohibition. Today, they are the biggest and most modern of all the wineries in Amador. With wineries like Montevina — oops, I mean Terra d’Oro — making good Barbera wines, this has become the sixth most planted variety in California. For the Barbera varietal wine, the grapes are hand-picked, many from their own estate vineyards. The grapes are de-stemmed and gently crushed and fermented in stainless steel tanks. Because they expect to get a low level of tannins from these grapes, they use techniques to maximize the extractions during fermentation — the juice is drained from the tanks and then returned to the same tanks over the grape skins, every day. “Drain and return, drain and return,” that is the winery’s name for it. More skin contact means more textures and flavors. In all, the fermentation with this process takes 14 days. Then, the wine is aged in small oak barrels for 14 months.
Somehow, the cherry cola flavor of Barbera is enhanced, yum, yum! This finished wine also has blackberry and pomegranate flavors and hints of vanilla from the oak barrels.
This week’s wine is ours for $9.99. But, wait, no, that’s not right. These labels say “Montevina Barbera.” Didn’t we just say Terra d’Oro is the new winery name? Yes. So, what’s the scoop? Well, we have great, new wine with old labels on the bottles so we get a deal. Because, really, who should have to drink wine with an out-of-date label? So it is actually available at Bill’s Liquor on Lady’s Island for only $5.97 — now we’re happy. After a glass or two, or a bottle or two, the label really doesn’t matter anymore. Nor does any of that singing some of us might be doing.