Grape varieties from Portugal, Germany, Italy, France and Spain flourish in California.
From Greece, not so much. Until now.
Up at Vina in Tehama County, the Trappist monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux are shepherding to the American market what almost surely are the first commercial wines to be made in the United States with Greek grape varieties.
Beyond the abbey itself, the principal point of sale for the wines is the Sacramento market Corti Brothers, which is fitting, given that grocer Darrell Corti was the instigator for the abbey’s cultivation of Greek grape varieties, a project that began nearly a decade ago.
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But why Greek grapes, when California already is blanketed with dozens of other varieties?
“Why not?” asks Corti. “They are from warm areas,” he says of the Greek varieties, “and Vina is a warm area. In California, just as with olive varieties, we need to find those (grapes) that are compatible with the climate and weather. Rather than make another continental-climate wine, why not a Mediterranean one?”
Monks began to cultivate wine grapes at the monastery in 2000 and over the past 17 years have developed a following for such varietal wines as tempranillo, albarino and syrah.
In 2011 they planted a quarter-acre each of the Greek varieties assyrtiko and moschofilero, working with cuttings from a UC Davis vineyard. The late UC Davis grape breeder Dr. Harold Olmo had gathered and imported the original cuttings in 1948, but no one apparently had taken much interest in the vines until Corti and New Clairvaux winemaker Aimee Sunseri agreed to give them a try.
Sunseri, a fifth-generation California winemaker, first experimented with the Greek grapes from the 2015 harvest. She liked what she’d made, so increased output with the 2016 vintage, though production still is small – about 40 cases of the assyrtiko and 30 of the moschofilero. She is so hopeful that the varietals will find a place on the American table that she and the monks are to plant an additional acre of each this year.
Assyrtiko – pronounced ah-seer-tee-ko – is a green grape most closely identified with crisp, minerally and high-acid white wines of the Aegean island of Santorini. The New Clairvaux Vineyard 2016 Tehama County Vina St. James Block Assyrtiko ($20) faithfully reflects that reputation. It is dry, lean and high-pitched, with a fleeting complexity that ranges from suggestions of peaches to olives against a citric backdrop.
Moschofilero – pronounced moo-scho-fee-leh-roh – is a grey-hued grape that yields golden, perfumey, muscat-like wines of the Mantinia region on the Peloponnese peninsula. The New Clairvaux Vineyard 2016 Tehama County Vina St. James Block Moschofilero ($20) is a fairly husky dry white wine, forward in aroma, substantial in build and limned with suggestions of honeydew melon, peaches and spice. Both carry relatively low alcohol - 11.7 percent.
In a gutsy move last year, Sunseri and Corti took a few bottles of the two varietals to share with Greek vintners at a tasting of Santorini wines in San Francisco. They were unsure of the reception they would receive, and were gratified at the warm response given the wines. Several Greek winemakers, recalled Sunseri, praised the New Clairvaux wines as equal in character and quality to assyrtiko and moschofilero made in Greece.
In addition, an American retailer at the tasting told her: “You crash a party well.”
El Dorado Couple Hops to a New Style of Wine
Some kind of bug for experimentation must be traveling through North State vineyards and cellars. In El Dorado County, it’s also bitten winemakers Carrie and Josh Bendick of Holly’s Hill Vineyards in Pleasant Valley outside of Placerville.
They are about to release two wines of unusual breeding. One might even be mistaken for a beer, at least as far as its label is concerned. That would be the Holly’s Hill Vineyards 2016 El Dorado Dry Hopped Picpoul ($28). “Dry hopped” customarily is a brewing term, meaning dry hops are added to a batch of beer during fermentation to bolster aroma and flavor without adding bitterness.
Josh Bendick is a home brewer as well as winemaker. As he was making beer last year one of the couple’s daughters asked him why hops weren’t added to wine. That got him to thinking, and to experimenting. He tinkered with several hop varieties, adding them to several lots of wine.
The couple liked best what hops brought to their picpoul, which customarily is a lean, citric and snappy white wine. Its aroma can be subdued, but the hops – one pound of the hop strains Cascade and Citra added to one barrel of wine – heightened the wine’s floral notes, the couple found. “Unlike viognier, picpoul doesn’t have a lot of aromatics, but the hops give it a different dimension,” says Josh Bendick.
To this palate, the dry-hopped picpoul does carry an intense and exotic aroma that complements well the wine’s broad build and suggestions of candied lemon. In a blind tasting, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were mistaken for an unusually aromatic chardonnay. The Bendicks are so pleased with the result that they expect to do “quite a bit more” this vintage, says Josh Bendick.
The couple also is releasing another white wine with a twist, the Holly’s Hill Vineyards 2016 El Dorado Fermented on the Skins Roussanne ($25). Red wines generally are fermented on their grape skins to draw out more aroma, flavor and structure, but the method only rarely is used in making white wines.
Nowadays, however, several vintners are fermenting white wines on their skins in hopes of capturing more heft, tannin and complexity. Such wines fall into the fashionable category of “orange wines,” given that their color frequently is deepened.
The Holly’s Hill roussanne must not have been on its skins for long, given its light, bright color. The wine is more viscous than other California roussannes I’ve tasted, but aside from that it retains the varietal’s pleasantly refreshing fruit.
Both wines are to be released the weekend of Aug. 19-20, when the winery also will be offering a vertical tasting (vintages 2002 to 2015) of its flagship wine, Patriarche.
At Shenandoah Valley, It’s Getting Easier to Stay
In Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley, wine enthusiasts customarily have spent the day tasting, then gone home. The land pretty much had been appropriated for vineyards, not overnight accommodations.
That’s changing. A year-and-a-half ago, the stylish boutique hotel Rest debuted in Plymouth, the somnolent but awakening gateway to Shenandoah Valley.
Now, a posh bed-and-breakfast inn in the solid yet airy style of a Tuscan villa has opened right in one of the valley’s vineyards.
It is Grand Reserve Inn, the inspiration of Jay and Maggie Wilderotter, who in 1990 began to plant grapes on their 40-acre estate near the southern entrance to the valley. A little more than a decade later they added their winery, Wilderotter Vineyard. Their six-suite Grand Reserve Inn is at the secluded far reaches of the vineyard, a short drive beyond their tasting room along Shenandoah School Road.
In addition to the two-person suites, the inn includes a large dining room, central courtyard, outdoor fire pits and rocking chairs on a patio with sunset views.
Introductory room rates are $299 to $399 per night. More information: 209-245-5466 or www.grandreserveinn.com.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.