Posted by: tomciocco | October 2, 2014

FROM PIEDMONT, ITALY TO WARREN COUNTY, NEW JERSEY

It’s fairly common knowledge that most of the earliest vineyards planted in California – the United State’s unrivalled place for viticulture – was done by Italian immigrants, and names like Gallo, Sebastiani, Foppiano and whole host of others are clear testament to this branch of American wine culture. Most of the Italians that emigrated to the west coast, an influx which began in the 1870s, unlike the mostly southern Italian groups that came to the east coast, were from the more northerly and western regions of Italy, mostly from Tuscany, Liguria and Piedmont and it is from Piedmont that this evening’s featured grape hails.

And though the varieties that these immigrants brought to California have been more recently largely supplanted by French/International varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, many of the earliest vineyard sites were originally planted to Vermentino, Grignolino, Sangiovese and the variety that is the subject of this post, Barbera. For a cluster of reasons, some of which have to do with terroir and some of which have to do with fashion and marketability, most of the plots of the first three varieties have been ripped up, but a fairly large segment of the Barbera vineyards in California are still in situ and of late, more acreage has been planted. But unlike Sangiovese or Grignolino or Vermentino, all of which have a fussy nature and/or wines that have somewhat offbeat characters, Barbera is a workhorse in the vineyard (easy to grow with high yields and great resistence to disease) and an extremely versatile partner at the table.

And so we fly clean across the country to the high hills of western New Jersey. Believe it or else, the first documented wine made in what was to become the U.S.A. was made in New Jersey. Exactly what variety or varieties went into making this wine has been lost to history, but throughout most of the history of Garden State winemaking, most the production was made with so-called “French/American hybrid” varieties like Chambourcin, Norton, Vidal and Traminette because of their natural immunity to the phylloxera louse and their stiff resistence to cold New Jersey winters. But as vitis vinifera began to be regularly grafted onto American rootstocks and the of knowledge of the various terroirs around the state and the particular clones that perform best in them began to accrue, the total acreage of French/American hybrids in New Jersey has steadily diminished as the amount of land under pure vitis vinifera varieties has increased, and though much of this shift has been to the easily marketable “international” varieties that have come to dominate in California, a few of the more adventurous growers have tried their hands at more “parochial” vine varieties like the Galician white Albarino, the Austrian red Blaufrankisch and Piedmont’s go-to red, Barbera.

As alluded to above, Barbera is hardy, typically produces large quantities of fruit, and has a bright acidity and an even, friendly fruit profile, all characteristics which make Barbera a great pure vitis vinifra variety to plant in New Jersey’s fairly harsh and uneven weather, and as a result, Alba Vineyards, and quite of few others too, has planted this salt-of-the-earth but still classy grape variety. To be sure, the Barbera now made in the Warren Hills has not reached the levels that the great Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti from its native Piedmont have, but it’s abdundantly clear from the quality and expressiveness of this wine that Barbera could be (almost?) as big a star in New Jersey, U.S.A. as it has always been in its original home in Piemont, Italy. So as so many Italian-Americans say as they raise their glasses, I say “Salut’” – to the health of Barbera in The Garden State.

Because Barbera has such great acidity, deep color and brawny, chewy texture, Barbera pairs exceptionally well with more rustic meals. So with this in mind what better thing to pair with an Italian-American wine like New Jersey Barbera than an Italian-American classic like a cheesesteak sandwich with peppers and onions, fries and a nice green salad?

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Alba Vineyards Warren Hills Barbera 2011

Slightly browned blackish garnet color. Decisive nose of cherry, apple cider, grilled red plums, mocha, spicy oak, damp earth, roasted chestnuts, green underbrush, old leather and tobacco. In the mouth the wine has a medium-weight body with chewy, dry tannins, tart acidity, and clean flavors of cranberry, black currants, strawberry jam all underlaid with a prominent minerality. Long and warm finish. 

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