You Can Teach an Old-Vine Grape New Tricks

In California, a handful of popular grapes accounts for an overwhelming proportion of the state’s vineyard acreage. These grapes — cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, zinfandel, merlot, pinot noir, syrah and sauvignon blanc — dominate production and the perception of California wines.

Yet some of the most satisfying California wines today are made by producers working outside this mainstream.

Some gravitated toward lesser-known grapes simply because they were interested in making different sorts of wines. Others did not own vineyards and lacked the means to buy the better-known but more expensive grapes.

Regardless of their motivation, winemakers who have adopted these scorned grapes have provided a necessary counterbalance to what had become a stultifying lack of diversity among California wines.

Unlike in Europe — where, in many regions, decisions about which grapes to plant were culturally preordained — Californians faced no such restrictions. Without traditions or local grapes, they could choose whatever they desired.

Beginning roughly in the 1960s, American winemakers began to narrow down their preferred varieties. Robert Mondavi and others, eager to lift the image of California wine, ambitiously aimed to compete with the best wine regions in the world, which back then they identified as Bordeaux, where cabernet sauvignon and merlot are the leading grapes for reds, and Burgundy, for white wine, where chardonnay rules.

These grapes, along with a handful of others, came to dominate California wines. At the high end, they could indeed produce world-class bottles. Because of their popularity and the critical acclaim, large producers of inexpensive wines sought to mimic them, using the same set of grapes — along with technology and other manipulations — to make dull, contrived imitations.

As homogeneous as California wine may have seemed, the state always had the potential for greater diversity. Before cabernet, chardonnay and the rest were hard-wired into the industry, California was growing far more different sorts of grapes: riesling, sémillon, grenache, valdiguié, gamay noir and many others, and that was just in Napa alone.

Most of those grapes are gone, at least in Napa. The economics of growing anything but cabernet in, say, Rutherford, were too plain to ignore. But some of those grapes still exist, and beyond Napa, intrepid winemakers have sleuthed out stands of old vines or eccentric newer growths all over the state that have long existed outside the mainstream.

Trousseau, picpoul, ribolla gialla, palomino, refosco and counoise are among them. Several less obscure Mediterranean grapes, like mourvèdre, cinsault and carignan, have also gained a toehold.

This is why we spent the last month tasting California carignan here at Wine School.

We have nothing but respect for the grapes that made California’s wine fortune. But we have seen the need, particularly among moderately priced bottles, for wines that did not masquerade as something they were not. That is why wines like California carignan, presented straightforwardly without pretense, are so exciting.

As always, I chose three bottles to taste: Lioco Mendocino Sativa 2015, Porter Creek Mendocino Old Vine 2015 and Broc Cellars Alexander Valley Old Vine 2016.

Each represents a modern expression of carignan — immediately accessible, friendly and soulful, delicious and drinkable, yet not simple. Still, the wines clearly differ from one another. While the intents of the three producers were somewhat similar, they achieved their goals through different methods.

The one thing these producers have in common is that they all use grapes from very old vines — 65-plus years for Porter Creek and Lioco, and 100-plus years for Broc — from vineyards that survived or ignored the wholesale purge of grapes considered too proletarian for most California winemakers.

Older vines are less vigorous than younger vines, and so are thought to produce grapes of greater concentration and potential quality. This is an issue with carignan, which, when young, produces very high yields resulting in insipid wines.

Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars was just starting out in 2009 when he learned of old-vine carignan in the Oat Valley Vineyard in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma, which was going to be replaced by cabernet sauvignon. It was suggested that if he was interested in buying the grapes, he might talk the owners out of tearing out the vines. He did, and he is still making the wine today.

Mr. Brockway was inspired by some of the lighter-bodied, refreshing carignans coming out of southwestern France, where many of the wines are made using the technique of semi-carbonic maceration, which is most closely identified with Beaujolais.

In the ordinary production of red wine, grapes (with or without their stems) are crushed and put in some sort of vat, where the juice eventually begins to ferment as yeast transforms the grape sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

In semi-carbonic maceration, uncrushed grape bunches are piled into vats filled with carbon dioxide. The bottom grapes are crushed by the weight of those on top and begin to ferment, but the uncrushed grapes in the airless environment also begin a different sort of intracellular fermentation.

Eventually, a conventional fermentation is completed, but the process generally yields a wine that is light, fresh and fruity, with diminished tannins. That’s an important point with a grape like carignan, which can be quite tannic.

The Broc carignan was easygoing and relaxed, rich but not heavy, with aromas and flavors of red fruits, herbs, spices and flowers, and a savory, almost salty edge to it, which made the wine deliciously refreshing.

The Lioco had a lot in common with the Broc. Matt and Sara Licklider, the Lioco proprietors, generally make excellent pinot noirs and chardonnays, but they wanted to explore an heirloom variety from old vines. That led them to carignan, which Mr. Licklider said in an email allowed them to make the sort of wine they were looking for: “bistro-friendly, food versatile, low cost, authentic.”

The Lioco is made by a different method. Whole clusters of grapes (stems and all) are stomped — the oldest method of crushing grapes — then put into vats. The skins and stems, which generally float to the top of the grape juice to form a cap, are pushed down by a perforated steel sheet, which Mr. Licklider likened to a French-press coffee maker.

Some of the grapes are not crushed by the feet, however, and these grapes do undergo a carbonic-style intracellular fermentation, which perhaps accounts for some of the similarities to the Broc carignan.

I loved the aromas of red fruits laced with herbs, spices, flowers and a savory touch of tobacco. The wine was lighter-bodied than the Broc, but taut and precise, lively and energetic, and great with a stew of white beans, herbs and sausage.

The Porter Creek stood out from the other two. The winemaker, Alex Davis, has procured his organic carignan grapes from an old vineyard near Hopland in Mendocino since 2008. Like Lioco, Porter Creek is better known for its pinot noirs and chardonnays. So why carignan?

“It allows me to produce a wine with a sense of soul and place that is very different from the pinot noirs that we are mostly known for,” Mr. Davis said by email.

Rather than leaving the bunches intact, he destems the grapes and ferments them in the conventional fashion. The result is a wine that is darker and richer than the other two, maybe a little more structured though not heavy or unpleasantly tannic. Along with a creaminess, and aromas of red fruits and herbs, the wine had delicious flavors of tobacco, licorice and what I called menthol but several readers referred to as “pine.”

All three of these bottles were the sort of unpretentious, everyday wines that good California winemakers have recently rediscovered. Some readers complained about the cost of these wines, $27 to $30, but sadly that often seems to be the cost of doing business in California, particularly if you want wines made with care from grapes grown conscientiously.

Several readers suggested carignans from southern France or Spain, and why not? But the idea here was to learn something about California carignan.

My takeaway was a reinforced conviction that many grapes like carignan, once scorned or written off, have great potential to make delightful wines. They may not necessarily compete with the best wines in the world, but as the philosophers say, a pursuit of the best should not be the enemy of the good.

Follow NYT Food on Twitter and NYT Cooking on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest. Get regular updates from NYT Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.

Source: Read Full Article