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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On making Barbera - the dirty details megapost

Our 2009 Estate Barbera received a double-gold medal and Best of North Coast at the California State Fair Wine Competition this month; a pleasant surprise to say the least. There has been a lot of Barbera talk on this blog between our participation at #Barbera2 in Italy and the Barbera Festival last month. Here is a bit of commentary from racking time a couple of months ago as well. So in the interest of full closure (and disclosure), let's wrap it all up with a bit of down and dirty viticultural and winemaking detail on the 2009 vintage. This was a vine-to-bottle effort for me, and if any of it is interesting or helpful to aspiring winemakers, so much the better.

We are talking about a little over 1,000 vines here, not a large amount - 9 to 14 barrels per year approximately. They are in two blocks, with three plantings total, 6 1/2' x 9' spacing on bi-lateral cordon, California sprawl. The first and oldest (and smallest) block is clone FPS 02 on Freedom rootstock - the worst combination possible. A little over half of our Barbera is clone 02 which received the lowest recommendation from UC Davis trials. In the Fresno trials it produced the largest berries (small berries are what you want) and had the highest incidence of rot due to the bunch/berry size and structure. Barbera can be a pretty late ripener, and rain with those thin skins can be a disaster, and to make matters worse clone 02 was also the latest ripener, essentially dooming itself in production vineyards. Why bring this up? Because site trumps clonal selection. This means that in our soils, our altitude and with our limited water the bunches are in fact pretty small and the berries are maybe medium size. The Freedom roots have the smallest, lightest crop for us, but the St. George right next to it is still moderate size at most and not a heavy producer. Had the Davis trial taken place in Lake County the results would have been quite different. Our growing conditions alter the grapes Fresno-grown profile. It is fun to treat clonal selection like shopping at a grocery store, and you can optimize some aspects in planting, but site trumps clone, and if you think planting your favorite rockstar clone from the old world in California will yield the same results, stick to selling real estate.

Back to rootstocks. Freedom is a poor choice for us because it is not drought tolerant, and we have limited water. This means that it needs more water sooner and more often than the other vines. It is considered a white wine "Central Valley" rootstock for high production with ample irrigation, its broad adaptability to many soils and good disease resistance. But, having said that, it is our lightest producer of all the Barbera blocks, the berries are tiny, crop load extremely light and earliest ripening. The other 2/3 of our Barbera is planted on good old St. George, the standby for 100 years. It is vigorous, drought tolerant (drought tolerant always means vigorous unfortunately) and works well for virgin plantings that do not have much disease pressure (nematodes). Drought tolerance also pushes ripening back as well, and this can be dicey when it is October 28th and frost is hitting and rain is coming. St. George's vigor also means a lot of handwork shoot thinning (double thinning this year) and trying to get the vines in balance feels really difficult with their monstrous growth. We have been planting more 1103 and 110 as well to try to establish more biodiversity below ground as well. St. George is kind of like Gin and Tonic for old farmers and it has its lore with old vines in California. St. George is all about its taproot, and it likes deep soils where it can really start setting deep roots, so it is no surprise that St. George was a failure in France in shallow soils where it had no drought tolerance at all because it could not establish its root system. Our main Primitivo block is on St. George and there is a hard "crust" layer for lack of a better word just under the top soil, and for the first ten years the vines looked pretty bad as the roots struggled for penetration, but over the last few years they have broken through and they are now really looking much better and are self regulating and in good balance. Again, site always trumps selection.

The second block of the Barbera is clone FPS 03 on St. George, and it is only coming into full production now. The 2009 Barbera has only about 20% of this clone. Clone 03 is not a fancy pants clone either and is considered ho-hum. It came over in 1993 while clone 02 was isolated in the early 80's. It produces heavier bunches with smaller berries, and at this point I can say that monitoring crop load is necessary in some spots, but, our soils are pretty crazy in that block with dense yellow clay, veins of river rock and other impediments. We will need some time to figure out what this clone wants. Crop this year looks fairly low and the vigor can change dramatically in 20 feet, and sugar and acid levels can be quite different from the older block. Most important, Barbera needs time, and a new block can be erratic and difficult for 10 years before it settles into itself and becomes consistent and self regulating.

Oh yeah, Barbera canopies are not very pretty, especially on 2-wire California sprawl. The canes are week and bendy, they droop and have tenacious tendrils that can even strangle themselves. It is not a pretty, upright growing vine, but aesthetics are not really that important are they?

Without a doubt there will be many opinions on making Barbera, and our view may conflict with others, and this just our limited experience with it. Here is a very nice piece with with several more experienced Amador winemakers and growers for the sake of critical complementarity. Barbera ripens at high brix, meaning high potential alcohol, that is hurdle #1. It ripens late, so if you ferment it outside like we do, be prepared to tarp and wrap the tanks and put all your space heaters underneath as the fermentation comes to an end. Getting it dry has not been too difficult, though due its naturally high acid it is not uncommon to find a touch of residual sugar left which also fattens the palate and enhances the nose. This approach is not for us though as we are compelled to adhere to the dry Italian model.

Fermentation temperatures are one of the big winemaking choices. In 2007 it hit 88 degrees F., in 2008 we kept it low at 82. In 2009 we went midway at 85 and I think this is the sweet spot (depending on your yeast, vintage, etc.) for us - warm enough to dig some deeper qualities out of the grape but cool enough to keep it somewhat primary that should complex in the bottle. In general a weaker year will get a cooler fermentation to protect the fragile fruit, a better year goes hotter. A certain amount of heat is necessary though to bring those "terroir-ish" aspects out otherwise you are all bubblegum and grape. Barbera has an inevitable jug wine characteristic for good reason - it is grapey and not really unique without finessing; it is enjoyable but rarely moving unless the terroir is profoundly unique, so we need some heat to moderate that aspect. In a sense Barbera falls into old and new world based on red fruit or plum (old world is red) and we want both.

Another tool in the bag is splitting harvest time up and crushing the freshly picked grapes into the already fermenting ones, this allows some aspects of longer fermentations and some of shorter fruitier to combine if you do not shock your yeast or alter the temperature too much. We have tried it but this approach is probably better suited to some of our other grapes though. There is also the complexity issue, like how you hear the Pinot dorks whining about building complexity all the time - there is a time for complexity and a time for focus. Pinot is about complexity - a focused one is boring and one dimensional because it is a deficient princess grape that needs oak to survive. Zinfandel is naturally complex and needs to focus, as does Grenache. Nebbiolo is ridiculously complex, the ultimate princess, and must be restrained to hold itself together. Barbera wants to be what it is, and it wants all of its natural elements to show coupled with minerality on the finish, but it ain't no Cabernet and never will be. Makeup hangs badly on it.
winemaking, racking

So, our fermentation was nine days long, hit 85 F, was aerated a couple of times, and used Rockpile yeast. It was fermented in tank (though we do plenty of other small lots in bins - Barbera does not seem mind tanks though) and pumped over standard hose style, no fancy irrigators or delestage. We don't use DAP or do much yeast feeding besides some yeast hulls toward the end. No tannin additions, no enzymes - if you want tannin let the maceration go longer on ripe seeds. Blunt tools my friends. I am personally opposed to heavy acidification and have ethical problems with it in general and this is a large topic for later dicussion, so in short this is a med-low acid Barbera because Lake County is hot, end of story. Anything else is spoofulated. We pressed it, mixed the press wine in, and let it settle for a day. We do choose to innoculate for malo-lactic fermentation (barrels are peroxycarbed before barreling down every year).

And this is where the handling magic starts: we did not sulfur (and do not sulfur reds in general unless there is a suspicious reason to do otherwise) until June. It was gravity racked from tank to barrel (and this took a long time because the tank is just barely above barrels on our crush pad). In spring it was gravity racked again one barrel at a time by lifting each rack on the forklift, filling the barrel from the bottom unless it wants air (like the Aglianico or Dolcetto). The gravity racking is most apparent on the finish, and we now gravity rack every wine unless it has been fined early and needs a rough filtration to make sure all the egg white or casein is out. It also tends to retain more CO2, which protects it a bit and helps guard against oxidation at bottling. 2 barrels were held back to produce more reductive meaty elements until racking in July. At this second (and last racking) a few barrels went from totally neutral old oak to 2nd year oak for three months - the most we have ever used. It is unfined and only went through a bug screen filter at bottling - we hate filtering. Be prepared for sediment in the future, we call it black gold.

We hand bottle our own wines, nothing fancy there, tank to filler, corker then PVC capsule. Unfortunately we are very limited in our barrel storage capacity, so we bottle early (11 months) and flip the barrels for the impending harvest. That means that most of our 2009 and beyond wines could have taken more barrel time, so they have quite a bit of bottle strength and will open up for a while after uncorking. Because tannic structure is not really a concern with Barbera, the short aging is more stylistic than structurally necessary. Needless to say, not all the cultivars can turn around so fast. Amen.

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