Moving beyond the obvious with the obscure offerings of Peninsula vintners
By Carol Maskus
Wine tastings can often be a case study in the usual suspects: list after list of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay — typical varietals that have long-thrived throughout California.
In the highly competitive world of wine, it can be a risk for vineyards to invest in more unusual varietals. Since consumers are familiar with status quo offerings, they are far more likely to request them in the tasting room, order them at restaurants, and pull them off the shelf at the wine store. In this regard, consumers just don’t think to ask for an Carignane or Mourvedre, unless they are a devoted grape geek. As a result, winemakers and wineries who take on these obscurities often do so out of passion.
Upon closer examination, we found that many of our local wineries are actually producing some exquisite off-the-beaten path varietal wines. In fact, our research revealed that many of these unknown grapes have a notable history in California, yet have steadily been “uprooted” over the years to make room for more profitable staples like Cabernet and Chardonnay. So in an effort to expand our grape awareness (and to just try something new) we made a list exploring some of these locally-made wine world oddities.
Ridge Vineyards: Carignane
Carignane was once the most planted grape in France, because of its high yields. Ampelographers believe it originally came from Spain, but most of what we see here in the U.S. comes from the Languedoc-Roussillon area of Southern France.
Jancis Robinson, renowned wine expert, says a typical high-yielding Carignane vine makes an unsensational wine, but low-yielding (less grapes grown per vine) produces a better drink.
This is a good thing for Ridge Vineyards, who has a relationship with Buchignani Ranch, an old-vine Sonoma grower from the Alexander Valley.
“There aren’t many old Carignane vineyards left in Sonoma County. Buchignani Ranch is ideally situated in a warm site, which brings out the best in Carignane,” says David Gates, senior vice president of vineyard operations for Ridge.
The wine has cocoa and mineral-tinged plum fruit on the nose, followed by black cherry with a refreshing acidity on the palate, and a spicy chapparall finish, according to John Olney, COO and winemaker at Ridge Vineyards, Lytton Springs. With hand harvesting and use of native yeasts, this is a minimal intervention wine that lets the character of the grape shine, so it’s a great example of Carignane.
J. Lohr Vineyards: Valdiguie and Mourvedre
Valdiguie has a bit of a history in California, when about 6,000 acres were planted here in the 1970s — not as much as today’s Cabernet at 90,000 acres, but sizable at a time when the market was emerging. It was originally thought to be Gamay Noir, the red grape in France’s Beaujolais.
It was known as Napa Gamay here in California, a name that is now banned from labels — probably because it was recently discovered to be Valdiguie, another Languedoc-Roussillon grape. Now called by its correct name, this varietal is something of a rarity at only 300 acres. (The lost acreage of Valdiguie is a prime example of “uprooting” for more well-known varietals.)
J. Lohr is lucky to have 39 acres of these grapes planted on its estate, which they chose to pursue because of its easygoing palate.
“It is just a wonderfully versatile and appealing wine that goes great with food,” says Steve Peck, red winemaker, who recommends it with cheese and charcuterie. He calls the wine “reminiscent of the crus of Beaujolais, with enticing berry fruit flavors, soft tannins and a juicy palate,” also noting flavors of black cherry, lilac, pomegranate and blueberry.
His goal was to preserve the acidity and fresh fruit character of the grape in processing, which he does by partial carbonic maceration, a technique used in Beaujolais. So even though it isn’t Gamay, the wine is still made in that spirit.
J. Lohr also has a Mourvedre, a grape which is often blended with Grenache and Syrah, but not as often seen on its own. All three hail from the Rhone region of France, but have an increasing presence in California.
Robinson says it can be like wet fur, and writer Robert Joseph says it is “blackberryish.” The latter sounds appetizing, the former not so much, but for an adventurous palate looking for something new, those funky notes can be exciting.
Peck might agree with Robinson, saying it has savory “umami flavors” of “tobacco, coffee and soy that lead to bright acidity and a firm texture of black walnut and spicy cardamom.” Sounds enticing, and quite unlike the typical fruit-forward flavors of so many California reds.
The wine is estate grown, from the prized Paso Robles Adelaida district. J. Lohr also makes the more typical Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend, also sourced from Adelaida. Both wines come from Gean Ranch, a vineyard within Adelaida that has a climate similar to the Northern Rhone.
Domenico Winery: Italian Varietals and Pinotage
Out of thousands of wineries in California, only a handful focus on Italian varietals. Some have more typical offerings, like Sangiovese, but some, like Domenico, have more obscure treats. For instance, they have a Sagrantino and Nero d’Avola, as well as a couple of blends.
Sagrantino is native to Umbria and has strong tannins, but they are “sweet,” meaning they don’t overwhelm you or make your lips pucker, even when the wine is young. Nero d’Avola hails from Sicily and makes an equally robust wine with high tannins and a full body.
Pinotage, a French grape which has the most notoriety in South Africa, has characteristics of both red and black fruit, cherry and tobacco. Domenico’s website calls theirs “bold, yet smooth, with sultry tannins.” No description is available for the Sagrantino or Nero d’Avola, although both are available in the tasting room.
Domenico sources much of its wine from Amador County, including the Pinotage. The Sagrantino and Nero d’Avola is sourced from Tracy Hills, located partially in San Joaquin County.
“I love making wine and especially Italian Varietals since I am 100% Italian, American born,” says Dominick Chirichillo, owner and winemaker. “This is part of my heritage and I love having access to these special wines here in California.”
For more standard tastebuds, Domenico has wines like Zinfandel and Pinot Grigio, but for those who want to try something new, there’s nothing like Italian grapes. There are hundreds in Italy, and several at Domenico, and you just never know what you’re going to get when you open a bottle.
Thomas Fogarty: Gewurztraminer
Popular this time of year, perhaps because of its spice cake notes, is Gewurztraminer. This aromatic white varietal hails from the Alsace region of France, and has eked out a modest notoriety beyond its former obscurity.
Thomas Fogarty Winery has been producing their Gerwurztraminer since 1983, and this now popular seller came about serendipitously. The winemaker back then wanted Chardonnay from a certain grower, but “the original grower said we needed to buy Gewurztraminer along with the Chardonnay,” says Nathan Kandler, winemaker — in other words, they were forced.
“But the winery took it and produced a relatively dry version, and it caught people’s attention,” he adds.
They now source from a different vineyard in Monterey (this time on purpose), and continue with their dry version. It’s dry, “but not bone dry,” says Kander, and has a nose of jasmine, ginger and lychee — “incredibly exotic. You might think it would be sweet, based on the nose, but it’s not.”
He adds that it has a lot of texture, with almost the structure of a red, a quality he attributes to giving it 24 hours of skin contact.
The wine is available for tasting and purchase in the tasting room. Also look for it at local wine bars and restaurants.