Winemakers falling in love with untypical grapes

Next time you walk into a wine store, walk right past the shelves of better known varietals — cabernet, chardonnay, pinot noir, et al — and head for the back of the store to the rack marked simply “Mixed Reds” and “Mixed Whites.” This is the terra incognita of the wine world, and that’s where you’ll find rare or little known varieties that most people have never tasted and sometimes never heard of.

One line of thinking holds that the reason these wine varietals aren’t better known is that they’re not worth knowing, but a handful of local winemakers beg to differ. Here is a brief introduction to five little-known grapes grown in Sonoma County and the local winemakers who love them.

Abouriou

Abouriou is a French Basque variety that, under the misnomer “Early Burgundy” was once more widely planted in old field-blend vineyards throughout California. Now that field blends have been replaced by single-variety vineyards, abouriou exists as a contiguous planting in only one place in the United States — a small two-acre plot west of Forestville that is part of the Martinelli family holdings.

“The abouriou was planted in 1930s or 40s,” said Darek Trowbridge, a member of the Martinelli clan, who owns Old World Winery on River Road. “They’re old, head-trained vines, surprisingly vigorous given their age. When I got the opportunity to manage this vineyard and make wine from it, I jumped at the chance.”

Old World Winery’s 2013 arbouriou was crushed the old fashioned way, by foot. It spent seven days on skins and stems before being pressed, and then spent two years in barrel sur lie. It’s an inky, tannic monster that needs time to open up, but when it does it rewards the patient taster with bright rose and caramel aromas and a bold blast of flavor. The 2011, which spent only three days on the skins, is an utterly different creature — delicate as a pinot — which Trowbridge says demonstrates the flexibility of the grape.

Trowbridge never knows year to year what approach he’ll take with abouriou. “It depends on what happens in the vineyards.”

“I’m not interested in varietal correctness,” he says. “It’s more about complexity and creating something of interest rather than some winemakers’ ideal of what a variety should be.”

Like most natural winemakers, he uses wild yeast fermentations for all his wines and doesn’t add sulfites.

Trowbridge sells abouriou under the name “Luminous.” He can’t use the varietal name “abouriou” because the grape is so obscure it’s not listed on the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s list of approved grape names.

Trousseau gris

Trousseau gris, a white mutation of the red trousseau grape from France, is beautiful on the vine — each cluster a marbled wonderland ranging from yellow green to yellow-red to brownish-purple.

“It presents on the vine in every shade or hue, and its aromatics are just as pretty,” said Scott Schultz, owner of Jolie Laide Wines and assistant winemaker at Pax and Wind Gap in Sebastopol.

“Trousseau Gris was once widely planted in California under the misnomer ‘Gray Reisling,’ but when the grape fell out fashion in the 1980s, it was ripped out and replaced by higher-paying grapes throughout California,” Schultz says.

Happily, one local vineyard owner, Arcangelo Fanucchi bucked the trend and planted two acres of trousseau gris in 1981. Today, farmed by his son Peter, alongside the family’s better-known old-vine zinfandel vines, the Fanucchi-Wood vineyards near Fulton and River Road is the only trousseau gris vineyard in Sonoma County, and one of just two in California.

Fanucchi sells his trousseau gris to seven different wineries, including Wind Gap and Jolie Laide. Schultz says that when Wind Gap’s owner Pax Mahle first discovered the Fanucchi-Wood’s trousseau gris, it was being sold as a blending grape for Chardonnay. Looking for a fast-turnaround, aromatic white to add to his line-up of reds, Mahle decided to give it a try as a single varietal. It quickly became a tasting room favorite.

Wind Gap’s trousseau gris is a beautiful pale apricot color with melon and peach aromatics. Fresh, light and bone dry, it reads in the mouth like a crisp but flowery rosé. The Wind Gap trousseau gris is crushed by foot, sits on the skins and stems overnight, then is pressed and fermented into concrete eggs, then stainless steel.

Jolie Laide’s trousseau gris, has an equally extravagant nose, but is paler in color, earthier and more mineral on the palate, with a bracing slate quality that belies its aromatic beginnings.

The name of Schultz’s winery, Jolie Laide means “pretty-ugly,” which is a French phrase for “unconventional beauty.” A better description of trousseau gris would be “hard to find.”

Gamay noir

Wind Gap’s Pax Mahle also produces gamay noir under his Pax Wine Cellars label. Gamay noir isn’t as rare a creature as abouriou or trousseau gris. France produces boatloads of gamay — mostly in the form of gamay Beaujolais and Beaujolais nouveau, but true gamay noir is hard to find in California, perhaps because, like the wines discussed above, it was the victim of a name mix-up.

What used to be known as gamay or Napa gamay in California was, in the age of DNA testing, discovered to be a completely different grape, known as valdegui.

As grapes go, gamay noir isn’t very noir at all. Lighter in color and feel than pinot noir, gamay noir is a cross between pinot noir and an ancient white variety called gouais, which is believed to have been brought to France by the Romans. Pax’s gamay noir is fresh and bright on the palate with vibrant plum and red fruit highlights.

Like Trowbridge, Mahle is a practitioner of natural wine making. “This gamay is made the way gamay has been made for hundreds of years,” he says. “Nothing’s added, no enzymes, no chemicals. The grapes are crushed by foot and we do a wild yeast fermentation. We do whole cluster crushing because we like the structure and spice that provides, but because we crush by foot, we don’t get any negative aromas because the stems aren’t being torn apart by machinery.”

The grapes in Pax’s gamay are from a two-acre vineyard at the Castelli-Knight ranch on the Sonoma Coast, the first gamay noir vineyard planted in Sonoma County. He likes working with gamay so much he’s planted two and half more acres of gamay noir on a property above Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa.

Vermentino and arneis

Most Americans’ understanding of wine is still Franco-centric, which is why we’re more familiar with French grapes than, say, Italian. Over the last 20 years, several long-established wineries started by old Italian families in Sonoma County set out to change this by making major investments in lesser-known Italian varieties. This gamble was a mixed bag financially, but it blessed Sonoma wine country with intriguing and delightful Italian varieties that Californians had never tasted before.

The Seghesio family in Healdsburg was deep into Italian varietals from the very beginning. In the 1890s, Seghesio’s founder Edoardo purchased his first vineyard in Sonoma County, planting it to Sangiovese and Barbera.

One hundred years later, his descendents added an array of northern Italian whites, including pinot grigio, fiano, and arneis at their Keyhole Ranch vineyard in the Russian River Valley. In 2008, they added vermentino. Seghesio has since discontinued the pinot grigio and fiano programs, but vermentino and arneis remain popular and the tasting room.

“We chose to pursue our Italian roots, when we planted Arneis in the Russian River Valley in 1993, thus adding to our collection of Italian varietals already in production,” said winemaker Ted Seghesio. “We believed we had a superior clone to work with, and we were not disappointed.”

The Seghesio arneis is a flagrant charmer, opening with aromas of guava and bright citrus, revealing stone fruit and pineapple on the palate, with nice acidity and a long honeyed finish. The vermentino is slightly more restrained with aromas of pear and lime, a melony palate and nicely balanced acidity.

“We were also intrigued with vermentino for many years due to its presence in several countries around the Mediterranean Sea, which have similar climates to us. It is a thick-skinned variety, which adds a pleasant phenolic quality and textural richness.  Think Key Lime pie. We recently began fermenting and aging percentages of arneis and vermentino in concrete vessels, which help to retain freshness and adds another layer of complexity.”

 “We used to produce chardonnay and sauvignon blanc,” Seghesio says, “but find that producing Mediterranean whites like arneis and vermentino pique consumers interests.”

Seghesio brand manager Brett Johnson agrees. “People tend to come here for our reds, so they’re often surprised to find aromatic whites at a winery that’s best known for its red Italian varietals and zinfandels, but they really enjoy them. People like discovering new things.”

What’s driving the production of unusual varietals?

Bryan Cooper, owner of the Sonoma Wine Club in Sebastopol, thinks the rising interest in new varietals is being driven by a combination factors.

“Folks who love wine love trying new varietals. They also love small producers and often these go hand in hand. These wines are experimental — tiny plots producing just a few tons of fruit that may be all there is for the whole state of California. Often a winemaker has tried a super example and falls in love with the grape.”

Wine drinkers may like discovering new things, but Pax Mahle believes the drive to experiment with unusual or heirloom varietals comes mostly from winemakers themselves.

“It’s a reaction to the standardization and globalization taking place in the wine world,” Pax Mahle says. “When you hear or read about another new hot cabernet, it's not very exciting in my opinion because people are all making their cabernets exactly the same way: nothing is really different, nothing is new, everything is very big and rich and concentrated. They taste exactly like everything else and they're very expensive.”

“If you want to do something unique or different it's harder to do that with a variety like cabernet sauvignon because there’s an expectation of what that should taste like. But you have a blank slate when you’re working with gamay noir or trousseau gris. There’s more room for creativity and for creating something different and interesting.”

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