Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Niven Family Wine Estates

Among California’s wine regions, San Luis Obispo County, in particular the cattle-and-horse town of Paso Robles, is recognized for its torrid summers and muscular red wines, especially cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel.

But just south of Paso Robles, starting at the eastern edge of the university community San Luis Obispo and stretching south and east almost to Pismo Beach, is one of the state’s cooler grape-growing enclaves, Edna Valley, where leanly graceful white wines rule.

Across the low rolling hills of Edna Valley, even in mid-summer, even at midday, joggers and cyclists hardly break a sweat as temperatures only occasionally top 80 degrees.

The Edna Valley climate, which also includes steady maritime breezes and frequent morning fog off the nearby Pacific Ocean, has made the appellation synonymous with chardonnay, forthright yet crisp, the clarity of its fruit veined with suggestions of minerality and perhaps a hint of honey from the botrytis that can start to develop in vineyards just as harvest commences.

Edna Valley’s customarily long and gentle growing season also favors the languid development of cool-climate grapes other than chardonnay, including albariño, pinot grigio, grenache blanc and grüner veltliner, the latter of which is what prompted my visit.

The Zocker Winery 2012 Edna Valley Paragon Vineyard Grüner Veltliner ($20) won a Best of California award at the State Fair for its clean lashings of grapefruit and peach, its current of lemongrass, its generous dashes of white pepper, its angular construction and its zippy acidity.

Grüner veltliner isn’t a mainstream varietal anywhere but Austria, where it yields a similarly lean and coltish wine with which Austrians celebrate the dawning of spring after the dark and arduous winter. Grüner veltliner isn’t the Next Big Thing for California, for sure, but it has developed a small and enthusiastic following among sommeliers who like it for its exoticism, its appealing price and its compatability with food, particularly seafood.

At any rate, the Zocker grüner veltliner gave me reason to catch up with Christian Roguenant, vice president of winemaking for Niven Family Wine Estates smack dab in the middle of Edna Valley.

The Nivens planted 8 acres of grüner veltliner in 2007 and an additional 4 acres the next year. They were motivated by the success they were having with another cool-climate green grape, riesling. “In Austria, grüner veltliner and riesling grow side by side, so it made sense,” Roguenant explains.

Zocker is one of six brands that Roguenant oversees for the Niven family, which in 1973 in Edna Valley began to develop their Paragon Vineyard, now up to 1,000 acres, about two-thirds of which is chardonnay. The labels are Baileyana for the vineyard’s flagship wines modeled after Burgundy, Tangent for strictly white wines, Trenza for only blended wines, Cadre for high-end signature wines, Zocker for Austrian varieties, and the new True Myth for entry-level chardonnay from Edna Valley and cabernet sauvignon from Paso Robles.

Roguenant, reared in Burgundy, educated at the University of Dijon, and a former sergeant and nurse with the French Army, signed on with the Nivens in 1999. His first task was to design the family’s unusually bright and airy winery as the Nivens intensified their interest in making wine as well as growing grapes.

His winemaking, Roguenant says, has less to do with what he and his colleagues do in the cellar than what the Nivens and their crews do in the vineyards. “Farming has an extraordinary influence on terroir,” Roguenant says. “With so much work done in the vineyard, the winemaking becomes very easy.”

Though the Nivens have been growing wine grapes in Edna Valley for four decades, they and Roguenant still are learning how best to farm varieties that look most promising for the enclave’s cool yet sunny climate. “We’ve refined a lot of our grape-growing,” Roguenant says, “but we’re still defining how to do things properly. Our farming today is different than it was 20 years ago, even 10 years ago.”

As the vineyard was developed, rows of vines typically were laid east/west. As the Nivens gained more appreciation for the area’s intense sunlight, they began to rearrange rows in a more north/south pattern to better manage the exposure of grape clusters.

The precise, aggressive and labor-intensive practice of leaf pulling also has become a standard method of vine management at Paragon. That is, crews swarm through the vineyard at key times to trim leaves from some varieties so bunches will be better exposed to sunlight as a way to manage the acidity that helps make the valley’s white wines so refreshingly crisp.

Sauvignon blanc, for one, is subjected to ambitious leaf pulling just before harvest to allow sunlight to reduce the compounds in the grapes that otherwise would leave the wine they yield tasting like green beans.

In contrast, crews more selectively pull leaves from the grüner veltliner, chardonnay and albariño. “Each variety is farmed differently,” Roguenant says.

Trellising techniques, tilling practices and even the selection of yeasts for fermentation have changed periodically as Roguenant and the Nivens seek to eke out ever more character from their grapes.

Their efforts are reaping plenty of awards on the competition circuit. Other wines crafted by Roguenant that did well at the 2014 California State Fair were the Tangent 2012 Edna Valley Paragon Vineyard Albariño ($17), which won a double-gold medal and was deemed best of its class for its region, and the Baileyana 2012 Edna Valley Firepeak Pinot Noir ($30), which also won a double-gold medal and was named best of its class for its region.

In his own backyard, both the spirited Tangent albariño and the forthright Zocker grüner veltliner won gold medals at the 2014 Central Coast Wine Competition in Paso Robles.

Introduction of the Zocker grüner veltliner, which wine enthusiasts often refer to by its nicknames “GV” or “groovy,” was difficult, coming during the depths of the country’s recent recession. Nevertheless, despite its obscurity in the United States its acceptance and celebrity has risen fast, Roguenant notes. For one, it almost invariably wins a gold medal in whatever competition it is entered. For another, for two years running it’s been one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s top 100 wines in its annual roundup.

“Zocker,” incidentally, is German for “gambler,” a name the Nivens and Roguenant chose to recognize the challenges they faced in adding underappreciated Austrian varietals to their portfolio. Since then, however, the grüner veltliner has proved a consistent winner.