Dunne on wine: On the twisted trail of torrontes

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

After an unusually cool growing season left his Santa Barbara County stand of touriga nacional in poor shape in 2011, Ken Volk went looking for a new source of the black Portuguese grape variety.

His search took him to Silvaspoons Vineyards in the Alta Mesa appellation just outside of Galt in Sacramento County.

There, he found not only touriga nacional but a kindred spirit, grape grower Ron Silva, who in drawing from his Portuguese heritage has staked out portions of his vineyard to such Iberian varieties as tempranillo, mourvedre, verdelho and albarino, among others.

Volk, meanwhile, has staked out at his eponymous winery in Santa Maria a similar reputation as a proponent of such offbeat heirloom varietal wines as cabernet pfeffer, négrette and trousseau.

In touring Silva's vineyard, Volk spotted a plot of torrontes, a green grape that yields a fragrant and refreshing white wine that is being credited these days with helping establish Argentina as a source of fine wine.

Volk is a big fan of the green grape malvasia bianca, from which he makes a varietal wine. He knew that both malvasia bianca and torrontes share a parent, Muscat of Alexandria. Thus, he figured, torrontes would fit perfectly into his portfolio. He bought a bunch of it from Silva, hustled it into a refrigerated truck soon after it was harvested, and that night back in Santa Maria began to manipulate it into a white wine of such compelling fragrance and revitalizing acidity that the following June it was elected the best of show white wine at the California State Fair commercial wine competition.

The wine followed that honor by being named the best wine in its class at the first Sunset Magazine International Wine Competition.

At the winery, Volk pressed whole clusters of the torrontes in a bladder press gently calibrated to minimize the extraction of bitter compounds from the skins, stems and seeds of the grapes. He stretched out the fermentation of the juice for four weeks, keeping it on its lees throughout to enhance its complexity and texture.

Compared with torrontes wines from Argentina, the Volk is similarly floral, but rounder in structure, more viscous in feel and longer in the finish. Anyone eager to start drinking the sort of refreshing white wine associated with spring will find an agreeable dining companion in the sweet fruitiness of the Volk torrontes.

If the torrontes strikes tasters as suggestive of perfumey muscat, itself enjoying a surge in popularity, the reason has to do with the variety's parents. According to DNA profiling, the torrontes grown in Argentina is a progeny of a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and criolla chica, the latter commonly known in California as the mission grape, given that was one of the early varieties to be cultivated in the Americas by missionaries.

Three strains of torrontes are grown in Argentina, and their relationship to torrontes cultivated on the Iberian peninsula remains unclear. Silva doesn't know which strain of torrontes he used in establishing his nearly 6-acre stand of the variety.

Kenneth Volk Vineyards 2011

Alta Mesa Silvaspoons Vineyards Torrontes

By the numbers: 13.3 percent alcohol, 416 cases, $24.

Context: With the wine's suggestions of jasmine, nectarine, melon and peach, Volk finds it fitting as an aperitif, but its generous build and tangy acidity also make it an appropriate companion for pastas with a white sauce, seafood dishes and herbed chicken.

Availability: In the Sacramento area, the torrontes has been stocked by Nugget Markets, but call first to be sure your local branch has it on hand. It also can be ordered through Volk's website, www.volkwines.com.

More information: The winery's tasting room, 5320 Tepusquet Road, Santa Maria, is open 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily.

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