Tuesday, May 21, 2013

California Barbera v. Piedmont

This past week we had two, that's right TWO, top level Stage Races happening at the same time on two different continents.  The Giro d' Italia continued with its second week of racing and the Tour of California countered with 8 high powered races from San Diego to Santa Rosa.

I called in my expert from the South (California, that is) to deliver a Battle Royale featuring California Barbera tangling with Barbera from the Homeland - Italy.  So, here it is.  Without further ado, the Main Event.  Brought to you by Foxall...

I’m really excited to be guesting on Lucha Vino’s blog again.  When I dropped him a line to point out that this might be a first—two stage races in great wine country at the same time—he immediately took me up on the idea of a Tour of California v. Giro matchup.  Sure, lots of cycling races travel through great wine country—France, Spain, Europe, Australia all have major stage races—but two at one time!  
Then I learned that Lucha had already stolen California’s thunder by pitting our grape—our grape, I tell you!—Zinfandel against its Italian counterpart Primitivo.  I could have been crushed.
But there’s not just one Italian grape in California.  The first major Californian wine makers were people like Robert Mondavi and the Gallos.  Just recently, the last of their generation, Frank Indelicato of Delicato Family Wines, left us. 

Those aren’t French or Spanish names, my friends, and Italian varieties were planted all over the place back in the day, at least when you could tell what was growing where.  Not all of them did well, and you’d be hard pressed to find any old-vine Nebbiolo or Dolcetto.  There’s a smattering of Sangiovese (an ex-girlfriend of mine once noted that Mount Diablo, where Stage 7 of the California tour ended today, looks amazingly like Chianti), but not much of it is good. (One huge exception:  Two Mile Polesky-Lentz Sangiovese.)
But those old Italian farmers drank Barbera, and eventually a lot of it wound up in the Central Valley.  Grown for volume, most of it wasn’t very good.  But up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, they grow some excellent examples.  So, tonight’s match—think of it as the undercard to the Zin v. Primitivo with a couple middleweights-- pits a Barbera from Amador County, California, against an established grappler from Piedmont, in the foothills of the Alps.
2010 Montevina Winery Amador County Barbera v. 2009 Marchesidi Barolo Ruvei Barebera d’Alba

Tale of the Tape:

14.3% ABV.

Aged for 14 months in small oak barrels.

Purchased at Beverages and More (Bevmo) for $8.99 with Club discount, regularly $12.99

85% Barbera and 15% Nebbiolo 

Spends six months in oak barrels. 13.5% ABV. 

Purchased at WineMine, Oakland, CA, for $16.

Round 1. First Opening

Everything about these wines tells you this is going to be a clash of styles.  The Montevina label is bright and rustic and it has a Stelvin (screw-cap) closure.  The Ruvei looks more stately, in its Bordeaux-style bottle with fancy script.  But under the foil is a NeoCork. The Stelvin closure has fans in our audience, as a couple old friends who love a good wine brawl have joined us for the evening.  Working class and picnic friendly,  the Montevina’s user-friendly approach appeals to us.  But we are drawn in by the Ruvei’s elegance. 

On first whiff, the Ruvei is indeed more elegant and restrained, with subtle, plummy aromas.  The Montevina is exuberant and cherry-ish, but not as rustic as all that—there’s technique behind this grappler’s antics. 

On the palate, the stylistic difference continues.  The Ruvei shows a nice use of  wood to soften the acidity of the grape, and to add a little depth and complexity, maybe a little vanilla and cloves.  It’s still recognizably Barbera, but it has aspirations to be a bit more.  Meanwhile, the Montevina is more agile, with brisk acidity and those cherry notes.  There’s a hint of strawberry in there, too, and a nice, smooth finish with no off notes.

The contrast of styles between the sophisticated, almost seductive Ruvei and the energetic, almost manic Montevina have the fans clamoring for more of this entertaining spectacle.

Round 1 goes to the Ruvei by a nose, but the fans are feeling a soft spot for the underdog Montevina here. 

Round 2. One hour after opening
Holy cow, this is a slugfest.  As in, we’re slugging both of these wines down.  The slick Italian has established itself as a favorite of the women, but they seem pretty fickle, going back and forth from bottle to bottle.  Although the plucky kid from California is picking up steam, the Ruvei is holding on.  It hasn’t gained a whole lot of depth with an hour of air, but it’s not backing down, either.  The Montevina isn’t falling apart, but it’s hard to make up for the smooth moves and practiced elegance of the Italian veteran.  Both are staying true to form, plummy, rich and smooth on one hand, bright and mouthwatering on the other.  There’s been some convergence as each has to admire the other’s style, but the styles remain distinct. 

Round 2 goes to the Ruvei, but by half a nose this time.
Although neither of the wines was tired, both bottles were exhausted by the end of Round 2, so the match was called, and the Ruvei declared the winner.  Which is fine:  As a rule, Barbera doesn’t gain a whole lot from age or long-term air exposure.  If you want a good pop-and-pour wine, then Barbera should be on your shopping list.
Wrap Up and Overall Observations:
Both of these luchadors impressed our crowd, adding lots of fireworks to a roasted chicken dinner. If you want to impress someone with a classy presentation and an elegant wine that is very food friendly, the Ruvei is worth seeking out.  The Montevina is a pleaser and is often available at a discount that makes it irresistible.  As our friends left for the evening, they reminded themselves again of the name of the plucky American challenger.

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