Californian Terroir: Drinking off the beaten path

69 grape varieties

With all the attention that California's top wines get, I wouldn't blame people for thinking that the only varieties that grow here are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Merlot and perhaps one or two others

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The truth is that California has at least 68 grape varieties, in significant enough acreage for the state Department of Food and Agriculture to list them in the 2009 Grape Acreage Report, the latest available.

That number includes 40 red varieties and 28 whites. In addition, the Report lists thousands of acres that are planted to undefined “Other White” and “Other Red” grapes.

Chardonnay is the most widely planted white grape by far, while Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted red grape. There exists an ongoing debate concerning whether the American wine market is diverse enough to warrant planting or rebudding over to other varieties. American wine drinkers are conservative; they tend to stick with what they like, and what they like (or think they like) is Chardonnay and Cabernet. So that’s what growers plant, even in terroir unsuitable for those varieties, such as the hot Central Valley (where Portuguese or Sicilian varieties would actually do quite well).

However, here and there you’ll find winemakers who are interested in something “off the beaten path,” as the saying goes. They don’t want to make Chardonnay or Cabernet, they want to make something different and unusual, something that reflects their terroir, that interests and challenges them, and that offers consumers an alternative. Wine writers, like me, appreciate these vintners who are working with alternative varieties. When their wines are good, it makes us especially happy.

Red varieties such as Tannat, Charbono, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Tempranillo can perform quite well, but it takes a lot of passion and commitment to make them succeed. The first two I mentioned, Tannat and Charbono, are interesting varieties one increasingly comes across. Officially, there were only 240 acres of the former planted in 2009 and 89 acres of the latter, but I suspect that number is under-reported, and will be considerably greater when the 2010 Report comes out. There’s evidence that renewed critical interest in both varieties is persuading growers to plant them, or re-bud existing vines to them.

For example, in 2010, a famous vineyard in the Russian River Valley, Matthew’s Station (named for the owner’s son) rebudded 4 acres of Merlot over to Tannat, in addition to the 1 acre already planted. The grapes go primarily to the well-known Russian River Winery, Joseph Swan, whose 2007 Tannat I gave a good review. The Tannat grape, which is histrocially grown in the Madiran region of southwest France, likes a cool climate, which the southern Russian River Valley certainly is. Charbono, on the other hand, does better in a warmer climate; it is Argentina’s second most widely planted variety, but traces its origin to France’s Savoie region.

The task of persuading American consumers to open themselves to alternative varieties is not an easy one. Americans are notoriously unsure of themselves when it comes to wine. They feel intimidated and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of brands and types, and therefore they turn to so-called “gatekeepers” for guidance. Unfortunately, too many gatekeepers–writers, restaurateurs, merchants–are themselves conservative. They have an economic stake in protecting the existing order, which is Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, and so that is what they tell consumers to buy.

This is changing, but very slowly. However, there is a cadre of writers and sommeliers who are aware of the imbalance in the American palate, and are trying to correct it. When one goes to better restaurants in major centers of culture, such as San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, one still sees major collections of Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux, and Pinot Noir and Burgundy, on the wine lists. But one also increasingly sees alternative varieties. When I dine out at such places, I put myself in the hands of my sommelier, and almost always this person recommends something obscure or exotic, which helps to make a great meal what it ought to be: a discovery.

Written by Steve Heimoff

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