Linda Murphy April 2011 column

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  • Friday 25 March 2011

Is there any grape Californian vintners don't try?

Linda Murphy

I opened the shipping box and was surprised to see a bottle of Zocker Gruner Veltliner 2009 inside.

Not many Austrian wines get sent to me, so when I receive one, I take notice. Yet this time, the Gruner Veltliner was from California. Yet another ‘a-ha!’ moment in my life as a wine writer.

The Niven family, which owns Paragon Vineyard in the Central Coast’s Edna Valley and the Baileyana, Tangent and Trenza wine brands, recently gave birth to Zocker (meaning ‘gambler’ in Austrian), after planting 4.85 hectares of Gruner Veltliner at Paragon.

Unlike some Californian vintners, who merely stick their big toe in the water and plant a few rows of experimental varieties then bottle a handful of cases to be sold in the tasting room, the Nivens and their winemaker, Christian Roguenant, plunged in at the deep end with Gruner – and their splash is impressive.

The 2009 Zocker is minerally and peppery; put it in a blind tasting of Austrian Gruners and it fits in nicely – and at just $20 a bottle.

It got me thinking about California’s diverse smattering of grape varieties. I’ve since discovered that Dancing Coyote Wines makes a tasty Gruner and a juicy Albarino from grapes grown in Clarksburg near Sacramento.

There is a sprightly Tocai Friulano from Palmina, in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley; Joseph Heitz’s Grignolino Rosé from Napa Valley; and fine Albarinos from Bonny Doon, Tangent and Harney Lane.

On the red side, Italian varieties entered the frame in the 1980s, with Sangiovese hailed as the next great wine from California. Trouble was, Sangiovese is very site-sensitive, and consumers realised they could buy Chianti for half the price of a Californian version.

A handful of Sangiovese makers remain, yet when Piero Antinori reverts his Atlas Peak vineyard in Napa from Sangiovese to Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s a sign to abandon ship – at least in Napa Valley.

California has produced Syrah and Viognier for more than two decades, so these varieties are nothing new. What is trendy is the consumer enthusiasm for Grenache, and to a lesser extent, Mourvedre, both varieties previously limited to Rhône-style blends.

Winemakers here are also making Vermentino, Verdelho, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Tannat, Sagrantino, Tempranillo, Teroldego, Rolle, Edelzwicker and Sylvaner, in varying quantities, and most of them well made.

I’ve recently enjoyed a smooth, fruity Sagrantino from Mosby Winery in Santa Barbara County with Manchego cheese from my local grocer.

Is there any grape Californian vintners don’t try? No – unless they can’t obtain budwood. California is as much a country as it is a state, in that it has a great diversity in soil, geography, climate, culture and tradition.

Think of California as any country in Europe, without the governmental decrees that only X grapes can be planted in X regions and vinified in X ways.

There are no such rules in California, so everything gets planted everywhere, to see what ‘sticks’. It’s a fabulous freedom.

When Californians began making wine seriously for commercial sale in the 1960s, they looked to Bordeaux for inspiration for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, and to Burgundy for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Alsace was the model for Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Riesling (with some German Riesling influence, though California’s climate doesn’t allow such copycatting).

Bob Koth at Mokelumne Glen in Lodi looked to Germany for inspiration for his vineyards and wines, and came up with a lower-alcohol Dornfelder, Kerner and Lemberger (Blaufränkish).

It’s an admirable effort, though the Lodi appellation has little cachet. But taste the wines and you’ll be convinced. And leave it to two European immigrants to enhance the image of Californian grapes that lost favour long ago.

Leo Hansen, a Danish sommelier who moved to California in 1999, bottles a rich yet vibrant, bone-dry Leo Steen Chenin Blanc, from 32-year-old vines in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley.

That his familial middle name, Steen, is the same as the South African name for Chenin Blanc is a happy coincidence; that Hansen found quality Chenin grapes, when most have been replaced by more profitable varieties, is a testament to both his resourcefulness and his sommelier sense for finding adventurous wines to complement meals.

Colombard is still widely planted in the Central Valley, where the grapes get buried in mass-produced jug and boxed wines.

Yet in the hands of Yannick Rousseau, with his tiny source of grapes in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, it becomes a thing of beauty.

If Prohibition hadn’t stalled US winemaking and wine consumption – legal, that is, as people found ways to drink behind closed doors – just think how many varieties might be grown in California today.

Some say there are too many, and urge greater focus, yet with infinite resources and know-how, a trail-blazing spirit, and one of the world’s most diversified growing areas, California may not yet have discovered, definitively, which grapes grow best where.

Winemaking here is a work in progress. If progress results in Zocker Gruner Veltliner, I can’t wait to taste the future.

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