Barbera & Sonoma Wine Country: An Italian's Perspective

It’s not often you have a chance to spend a month with an Italian winemaker during his first visit to the U.S. and Sonoma’s wine country, and observe his reactions to the wines, the land, and the people.  I quickly realized that this was a special opportunity to view the part of the world I have lived for the past 30 years, through the young lenses of an Italian winemaker.  Matteo Pola is 23 years of age and the middle son of the Italian winemaking family at Fontanabianca, in the ancient village of Neive, and with a deep, rich heritage in making world-class Barbaresco wines.  Matteo works with his father Aldo and their business partner Bruno Ferro.  He is the fourth generation winemaker, and the first to be formally educated in chemistry-enology at a university.  When we met in his village in October, he spoke little English, but enough to express a desire to come to the U.S. and learn more.  After finishing his coursework in February, Matteo elected travel to the U.S. for an opportunity to live with the family that was importing his family’s wine to California.  So, when I met Matteo at International Arrival Lobby G at SFO on February 17th, our month long journey together began.

Through the assistance and generosity of my friends and acquaintances in the industry, I was able to present Matteo with a wide range of experiences our region has to offer.   He toured the production facility of a large winery that produces millions of bottles a year, so he could compare them to the methods of his family winery that produces 40,000.  He met a Sonoma winemaker of relatively similar size to his, and exchanged their knowledge and experiences.  And, he experienced a personal tour of the unique, biodynamic farming methods used by a very successful grower and winemaker in the Sonoma Valley, which are not seen widely in the Sonoma wine country or the Piemonte region of Italy.  While each day’s experiences varied, Matteo’s comment, as each day came to an end was always the same, “This was the most amazing day.”   

While Matteo studied the wines of Europe, he had never tasted California juice.  So, we tasted our way through the Sonoma Valley, with a few excursions through the Dry Creek and Alexander valleys. The objective was to sample the diversity of wines available in the region including Sav Blanc, Chardonnay, Vignone, Pinot Noir, Cab Sav, Merlot, Cab Franc, Zin, Petite Sirah, Syrah, and a spectrum of blends.  A stop at a winery producing a wine from an Italian varietal, and yes there are several in Sonoma County, always led to an in-depth discussion and prolonged visit.  But it was Barbera that emerged as the common denominator, the international bond and universal language between Matteo and the local winemakers.  While they shared their experiences working with this ancient varietal, there was common agreement around how and why the Barbera wines from Sonoma, Barbera d’ Alba, and Barbera d’Asti were dramatically different due to the terroir, climates, soils, and production methods.  I was the attentive student for these in-depth discussions, and here is a summary of their sometimes passionate opinions.

Sonoma Barbera is a new world wine that tends to have good acidity that produces and hold bright color in the wine.  The acidity also leads to zesty, astringent notes along with spice, blackberries, and greener tannins. The warm growing climate ripens the fruit fast, and sugar levels can climb quickly leading to higher alcohol.

Barbera is native of the Piemonte region.  It is the 1st most planted variety in Piemonte and the 6th most planted variety in Italy (Source: Italian Wine Central). Barbera d’ Alba is grown in the cool climate of the Barbaresco, where the fruit ripens more slowly, and alcohol levels tend to be below 14%.  This old world wine tends to be soft and velvety in the mouth with aromas of blackberry and anise on the nose, and then lands on the palate with notes of cherry, black currants, chocolate and soft tannins.  The wine is softer and more elegant than its cousin a few kilometers north in Asti. 

I write this as Matteo’s month long journey is coming to an end.  I can’t let him leave without capturing his most memorable impressions and opinions of the past several weeks.  Using a mixture of Italian and much-improved English, Matteo expressed his surprise at the diversity of the varietals grown in California, the immense size of the large production facilities, and the importance placed on branding, packaging, and marketing in the U.S.  He shared his perception that California Pinot Noir was similar in style to the Barbaresco wines from Piemonte.  He was quick to notice the extensive irrigation systems utilized in the California vineyards, as irrigation systems are neither employed nor permitted in is region.  Finally, and with a great deal of emotion, he expressed his gratitude for the immense generosity and hospitality shown him by all the winemakers he met.  He felt a common bond with each.

I would like to acknowledge with great appreciation the following friends for their kindness and generosity with their time and knowledge:  Chris Silva of St. Francis Winery, Chris Benziger of Benziger Family Wines, and Phil Staehle of Enkidu.

Featured Wine: 2010 Fontanabianca Barbera d’Alba DOC Superiore

Variety: 100% Barbera

Alcohol: 14%

Tasting Notes: rich, fruity aromas of ripe berries, plum and cherry give way to lucious fruit landing on the palate with plum red currant and black cherry. Velvety soft in the mouth and a rich, long finish.

Pairing Suggestions: Roasted red meats, ripe cheeses

Don Chigazola