I started this week with A for Arneis, and now midway through it’s B for Barbera. We also get a chance to look at region we haven’t seen before, Mudgee in New South Wales. Our wine for today is the Robert Oatley Vineyards Montrose Omaggio Barbera 2006.
Barbera is a red grape of northwest Italy. It’s often found in areas with plantings of Nebbiolo and Dolcetto, sitting comfortably between the two in terms of the esteem with which it is generally regarded. It is the primary grape (at least 85%) of Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Barbera del Monferrato DOC, and Barbera d’Alba DOC, and has been historically been a blending partner for Nebbiolo, but has also been turned into some very cheap wines as well. In addition to Italy, there has been some migration of the grape east into Slovenia, Greece and Romania, but it has been more widely planted in California and Argentina. Within Australia, where the vine arrived in the 1960s, Vinodiversity.com lists almost 100 producers working with the grape. While in many of those cases it is still regarded as experimental, that number is likely to increase.
One reason is that Barbera does well in dry climates and low fertility soils, both of which are in great supply within Australia. Also, it is highly productive and capable of very large yields, though strict pruning to prevent overcropping is generally required for quality wines. The vines are susceptible to a number of vineyard diseases, though modern clonal selection has mitigated that to some extent, and plantings in warm, dry areas suffer less from disease pressure. The grape is prone to high acidity and good colour, but low tannins.
Traditionally the grapes were picked after Dolcetto but before Nebbiolo, to produce a drink-now style without maturation. However, there has been a recent, but not universal, trend toward lower yields, later harvesting for higher sugar and more fruit, and time in oak barriques. This push in the direction of higher quality Barbera wines has met with some success, but there is some difficulty in overcoming consumer associations of the grape with cheaper wines.
Mudgee is an area of New South Wales, northwest of Sydney and roughly 200km from the coast. While the Hunter Valley is a neighbouring region on a map, Mudgee is on the opposite side of the Great Dividing Range, and has a different climate. The altitude of 450m combines with a great deal of sunshine for warm to hot days during the growing season but cool nights. Rain is generally confined to spring and summer, with little during ripening or harvest. While generally thought of as a warm region, the Nullo Mountain vineyard recorded the coldest ripening period in Australia this past vintage between December 2011 and February 2012, based on degree days. There is “ice wine” made in Mudgee, but by “non-traditional methods”. I’m fairly certain that means they stick the grapes in a freezer before pressing them, which seems like a bit of a cheat to me. The region is described as a nest in the hills, and there are mild slopes throughout. The soils vary, though sandy loam over clay is common. Water retention is an issue, and irrigation is the rule rather than the exception.
Vines were first planted in the region in 1858 at Craigmoor (which is now part of Robert Oatley Vineyards) and the region has one of, if not the, longest uninterrupted histories of viticulture in Australia. It is best known for its red wines, though it has also historically been a home to Chardonnay, including a well regarded clone that was unknown to the rest of the country for at least 40 years, and is thought by some to go back to the original set of cuttings brought to Australia in 1832.
Robert Oatley Vineyards is run by the eponymous founder, who built the business in conjunction with interests as diverse as cattle stations and luxury tourism. His first vintages were with Rosemount Estate in the Hunter Valley in the 1970s, and now his company produces wine from vineyards in both New South Wales and Western Australia. The company now offers a collection of ranges, largely varietal, of Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc (also in a Semillon blend), Pinot Grigio, Traminer, Cabernet Sauvignon (also in a Merlot blend), Shiraz (also in a Viognier blend), Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and this Barbera. They also release a Shiraz from South Australia and Pinot Noirs from Victoria. The wines are widely available on the export market, particularly within the USA.
Montrose Vineyard itself was planted in 1972 on red clay-loam at an altitude of 500-550 metres, largely with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, though also with some Sangiovese and this Barbera. Grapes for this wine were picked at 14.0 degrees baumé which is at higher end of the ripeness spectrum for Barbera. It saw a year in older French hogshead before bottling.
In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a very deep garnet colour – opaque to the rim, and even then just deep brick – with thick legs when swirled. On the nose it’s clean and fragrant, with a developing character and spicy black fruit – blackberries and black cherries – with some sweet spice and liquorice. On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium plus alcohol, medium plus tannins, and medium plus intensity. There’s more black fruit, a hint of blueberry, liquorice, sour plum, and a bit of jam, along with some cedar wood notes. It has a medium length, with a chocolate finish.
I tasted this wine consecutively over two days (the note is an amalgamation) and I liked it much better on the second day after some air. I’m happy to call this wine good, but I would suggests decanting and some time for it to breathe. It had a fair amount of complexity of fruit, but the secondary characters have yet to fully present themselves so perhaps some further improvement is in store.