What comes to mind when you think of Italian wine? Barolo, Sangiovese, Asti Spumante, or the popular rule-breaking Super Tuscans? I normally do. But a few weeks ago, I was re-introduced to Barbera in, of all places a winery on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State – hundreds of miles away from grape growing territory.
I was researching Mt. Townsend Creamery, an artisanal cheese making company in Port Townsend. Their three cheeses have become hugely successful in a short time
and I wanted to find out more about them: Cirrus, a camembert style, Seastack, a Chaorce style (cow’s milk cheese masquerading as goat’s milk), and Trailhead, an aged Tomme style. Of course, when food people get together talk turns to wine pairings. We tossed ideas around, and agreed that you need a wine with some acid to cut through the fat in the cheeses. Beaujolais and Sparkling wines seemed to fit the bill.
Ok, I thought, that works for me. Then I started to think. I’ve visited Port Townsend nearly every year for the 13 years I’ve lived in Seattle – it’s a beautiful little Victorian port town, a charming weekend getaway. But I’ve always ignored the wineries west of town. After all, they don’t actually grow the grapes here, so what’s the point? This time I decided to get beyond my own snobbery and check a few of them out in what I thought would be a quixotic quest to match a locally produced wine to these local cheeses.
I found what I wanted at my second stop – Lost Mountain Winery, at the edge of the Olympic Mountains. The directions said that it was six miles off the main highway, but I became nervous as the nose of my car maintained a vertical tilt, climbing ever higher. The snow banks on the sides of the road were alarming, as was the steep drop in temperature.
This part of Washington is beautiful, with a narrow strip of habitable land between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains. At this altitude I could see north across the water to Canada, and just south, the glaciered, forested, forbidding Olympic Mountains. Not a likely place to find wine, I thought.
I found the winery in a small wooden building in the woods at the end of a single lane dirt road. Inside, it resembled a cozy tree house at birds nest level. Cute, I thought. Let’s see what they’ve got.
I tasted my way through several wines, seriously impressed by the quality. They were making good wine here. Then I tasted the Barbera – and realized that I had found my wine.
Barbera originated in Piedmont, Italy where it is one of the most prevalent grape varietals. But it’s not grown much in Washington – in fact, Lost Mountain is the only winery to produce Barbara in the state. Its history in California includes a stint in jug wines, but it’s getting its due in the Central Coast area now with high quality bottlings by Eberle and Midlife Crisis Winery among others.
Barbera is a deep red color with a cherry-raspberry nose and palate, moderate tannins and a good twang from its high acidity. It can be vinted into a youthful, easy drinking wine or an aged, intense wine requiring years of cellaring.
Lost Mountain Winery hits the middle road here in its 2005 vintage with rich cherry-berry notes and a light oak overlay for complexity. I knew that that back-of-the-palate tang would cut through those rich cheeses.
Back home, my friends and I tested this wine with the cheeses and other strong flavors: salad with red onions and orange and Greek style lamb with garlic, rosemary and oregano roasted over a bed of orzo and tomato.
The camembert-style Cirrus was glorious with the Barbera. The cheese was aged to a Daliesque ripeness. It sighed and slumped as we cut the first wedge, then its creamy interior slowly slipped out onto the plate. Soon we gave up on knives and crackers and just spooned the cheese directly into our mouths, alternating the rich, nutty creamy cheese with sips of palate clearing berry brightness.
The more acidic, salty Seastack was a wake up call to my taste buds. The aged, mellow Trailhead was rich and a little grassy, and both went well with the wine. Between murmurs of “Oh, this is so good…” we realized we had to stop, or it would just be cheese for dinner.
Greek Lamb was an inspired match – strongly flavored, rich and gamey, its flavors were absorbed into the orzo, and brought out the richness in the wine. We were momentarily silent as we ate, a testament to the delicious flavors and sensations we were enjoying. It’s rare that a food and wine match can shut us up, but this one did.
This test has convinced me to add Barbera to my wine arsenal. This wine is not afraid of the strong flavors that I love – garlic, pesto, stinky, creamy and nutty cheeses, barbeque and grilled meats. I’m looking forward to pairing it with fresh tomato sauces or pesto on pasta and plates of antipasti this summer. I even think I’ll serve it with our cheeseburgers and grilled sausages at the Fourth of July barbeque.
One thing I know for sure is next time I’m up on the Olympic Peninsula, I’ll explore wineries that I didn’t have time for on this trip. This experience tells me that I’m sure to find other liquid treasure in those mountains.