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.
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.
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.
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.