The Best Grapes You Never Heard Of
Chardonnay is California's most widely planted grape, at nearly 95,000 acres, with cabernet sauvignon a distant second. But the state's vineyards also boast an astonishing range of grape varieties. Some are so sparsely planted that they aren't listed in the annual California Grape Acreage Report.
I love sampling wines made from these esoteric grapes. Some of the grapes — think tocai friulano or verdelho — are widely used in other countries but little-known here. Others aren't well-known anywhere. I first encountered a broad range of these sorts of wines at Wild Horse Winery in Templeton. Then-owner Ken Volk loves working with these oddball grapes, and he was always looking for something new. "What's the hardest thing to pronounce, and where can I get the grapes?" he joked at the time.
Volk sold Wild Horse, but he's up to his old tricks at his new winery, Kenneth Volk Vineyards in Santa Barbara County, where he makes wines like verdelho and négrette. Wild Horse also continues to produce some of the wines that Volk liked so much. And these days I'm seeing more of these unusual wines from a number of wineries around the state.
Albariño is a good case in point. The white grape from Rias Baixas in northwest Spain was brought to California in the late 1990s by Michael Havens in the Napa Valley. His Havens Wine Cellars produced California's first commercial albariño. It's still not listed separately in the grape acreage
report, but now there are at least half a dozen California wineries making albariño. Tangent winery in Edna Valley has made a major commitment to it; its 2007 albariño ($17) is crisp and citrusy, with white peach and a soft finish. Bonny Doon also produces a good one under its Ca' del Solo label; the 2007 Ca' del Solo Albariño ($20) is fresh, crisp and floral, with white nectarine and citrus flavors.
Verdelho is a white grape from Portugal that's actually listed in the acreage report, with all of 84 acres. Dan Lee of Morgan Winery produces a good one under his Lee Family Farm label. The 2007 Lee Family Farm Verdelho ($15), made from Lodi grapes, is refreshing and bright, with lemon and green apple flavors. Lodi is also the grape source for the 2007 Fenestra Verdelho ($15), which is fresh and crisp, with green apple and pear flavors. The 2007 Kenneth Volk Verdelho ($24) from Paso Robles offers bright green apple, a hint of peach and just a trace of heat on the finish.
Tocai friulano is an import from northeastern Italy. (Although the European Union has ruled that its name must be changed to simply "friulano" because of a dispute with Hungary's tokaji producers, Californians can still use the old name.) The 2007 David Noyes Tocai Friulano ($20) is crisp and refreshing, with citrus and a hint of almond paste, while the 2005 Borgo Buon Natale Tocai Friulano ($18), from Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, is a little rounder. Arneis is another Italian grape, in this case from the northwestern Piedmont region. The 2007 August Ridge Arneis ($21) is zingy and fresh, with citrus and almond paste flavors.
While muscat isn't uncommon, it's usually made in a sweeter style. The 2007 Ca' del Solo Muscat ($17) is just off-dry and very perfumey, with citrus and white peach flavors. The 2007 Alicats Dry Muscat ($12) is dry and intensely floral, with pear and almond notes. Navarro Vineyards is another reliable producer of dry muscat; its version is usually fairly rich.
Then there are the white grapes that used to be popular in California but are rarely seen now in premium wines. Chenin blanc is one such grape, but you can still find a few good ones, like the 2007 Dry Creek Dry Chenin Blanc ($11.50), which is fresh and crisp, with white peach, pear and a hint of pink grapefruit. French colombard is another, but it's the main component in the delightful, racy non-vintage Seven Daughters Winemaker's Blend ($15). (Both of these grapes are still heavily planted in the Central Valley and used mostly for jug blends.)
I'm less enthralled overall by the unusual reds being produced in California, but there are definitely some good ones. Négrette is a grape from southwest France, and there are some plantings in Cienega Valley, in San Benito County. Those vines are the source of the 2005 Kenneth Volk Négrette ($24), which is spicy and a little floral, with bright berry, a hint of white pepper and a smooth finish, as well as the 2006 Wild Horse Négrette ($24), which is slightly minty, with robust berry flavors and a hint of tobacco.
De Rose Vineyards in Hollister makes a wonderful, concentrated négrette from 150-year-old dry-farmed vines, but I haven't tasted the current vintage, 2006 ($40).
A lot of vintners, especially in warmer growing areas, have planted the traditional Portuguese varieties used in port, like touriga nacional and tinta cao. Now these grapes are starting to appear in table wines, too.
For example, there's the 2006 Fenestra Touriga ($23), which offers ripe black cherry flavors, accented by cedar, spice and a hint of chocolate. There's also the 2004 Murrieta's Well Zarzuela ($29), a blend of touriga nacional, tempranillo and a bit of souzao that's bright and spicy with ample berry fruit and a soft finish. Fenestra also makes a wine from alvarelhao, another Portuguese grape; the 2005 ($19) displays bright blueberry and spice flavors, with a smooth finish. It benefits from some aeration.
Lagrein hails from Italy's hilly Alto Adige region, where it produces rich, low-tannin wines that are often light in color. The California lagreins I've tasted have little in common with their Italian cousins, but some are tasty nonetheless. For example, there's the 2005 Santa Barbara Winery Lagrein ($26), which is quite dark, dense and aromatic, with plump blueberry and raspberry fruit.
Nearly 200 acres of tannat are planted in California, but the grape is better known in southwest France and Uruguay. Lone Madrone in Paso Robles produces a good one; the 2005 ($50) is big and dense, with berries and chewy tannins, along with a remarkable freshness. And the 2005 Ursa Tannat ($18) is inky and floral, with ample black fruit.
Few people have heard of cabernet pfeffer, and its origins are murky. Volk had it tested and found that it was actually a French variety called gros verdot. "Pfeffer" means pepper in German, and the 2005 Kenneth Volk Cabernet Pfeffer ($28) shows plenty of that spice, along with dark fruit and a hint of cedar.
Charbono used to be common in California, but there are now only about 85 acres of it; more than half of it, surprisingly, is planted in the cabernet-centric Napa Valley. The 2006 Fortitude Frediani Field Blend ($24) is about three-quarters charbono; it offers lots of bright blueberry and blackberry with some attractive spiciness.
Because these wines are unusual, most of are made in limited quantities, too. There are exceptions, like the Dry Creek Dry Chenin Blanc, but your best bet for finding many of the wines will be to call or visit the winery or order online.