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Veni, vidi, vino, dude: Italian grapes taking root in California vineyards

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 6, 2013 - 19:06

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LOS ANGELES ― Italian immigrants were instrumental in founding the California wine industry, yet when winemakers sought to upgrade the image of their wines in the mid-20th century, they followed the then-current fashion and went with French grapes ― Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Though perhaps better suited to California’s climate, Italian varietals didn’t have much cachet at the time and were basically relegated to blends and low-cost jug wines.

Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines in Napa Valley thinks that was shortsighted.

“There are thousands and thousands of Italian varietals, but for the most part they are Mediterranean varieties and can handle very dry summers and heat,” he says.

Steve Clifton, winemaker and owner of Palmina Winery at his Lompoc facility in Lompoc, California, looks over a delivery of freshly picked Barbera grapes on Oct. 25. (Los Angeles Times/MCT) Steve Clifton, winemaker and owner of Palmina Winery at his Lompoc facility in Lompoc, California, looks over a delivery of freshly picked Barbera grapes on Oct. 25. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Perfect for California.

He cites Aglianico and Vermentino, both well suited to the hot climate of the Central Valley. He thinks the red grape Teraldogo could do great along the coast. He’s planted the minerally white Greco di Tufo in Rutherford and will make the first wine from it next year. He’s excited about Ribolla Gialla from Friuli too, and blends some Tocai Friulano into his Matthiasson Napa Valley white.

He’s not alone among the Italian converts.

Steve Clifton, co-owner of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay specialist Brewer-Clifton, has had Italian varietals on his mind since 1995, when he founded Palmina, his Central Coast winery that is dedicated exclusively to Italian varietals.

He always appreciated their acidity, which is characteristic of wines meant to go with food. And when he started making wine in Santa Barbara, he found what he thinks is the ideal climate ― the coldest wine region in California ― for Italian varietals.

At Palmina, Clifton says he tries hard to “not make emulations of Italian wines but translations.” If his wines don’t taste grown in Santa Barbara County, then he’s somehow missed the mark. In all, he makes nine Italian varietals, ranging in price from about $18 for the rose to $90 for the single-vineyard Nebbiolo.

Another early pioneer was Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, who has been making Italian varietals under the Clendenen Family Vineyards and Il Podere dell’Olivos labels for more than two decades. After years of working with Italian varietals, he’s more optimistic about the whites. “If we understand that Italian varietals have to be much more delicate than California Chardonnays and pick with balance, with fruit as a focus and don’t get too intricate, we can make delicious white wine.”

Red wines, he feels, are a much more difficult proposition. “You’re going to have to have patience. You can’t have products that are hard or mysterious, or years from drinkability.”

Inspired by the Teroldego of Elisabetta Foradori in Trentino, Clendenen admits that he probably makes it with more of a Pinot Noir sensibility. He also thinks Tocai Friulano is a wonderful grape. At one point, he worked with some Sicilian varieties. They did brilliantly in California, but he couldn’t sell them.

One new producer to jump on the bandwagon is Bill Sanger, a first-generation Italian American. When he bought an old property near Santa Ynez primarily planted with olive trees, he planted a fairly large block of Sangiovese, Tuscany’s red grape. The climates are nearly identical, Sanger says.

His first wines under the Marianello label (a name that combines the first names of his grandparents Maria and Nello) are just out. Marianello Cielo Rubio is a blend of 75 percent Sangiovese with Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

That’s pretty mainstream compared with what Matthiasson is doing. He’s even planted the oddball red grape Schioppettino around his house in Napa Valley. “I could grow Pinot, but with Pinot you pretty much know how it’s going to turn out.” With Schioppettino, he doesn’t have a clue. “That’s why it’s so much fun!”

Vineyards have been experimenting with the grape for decades in a process similar to the pioneering of Pinot Noir.

Is Nebbiolo the next Pinot Noir?

Winemakers in California have been fiddling with Nebbiolo for almost three decades, and yet no one has found the key. In Piedmont, this is the grape that makes fabled Barbaresco and Barolo. Its potential is huge, but it’s notoriously difficult to work with. Sound familiar? That’s what everybody used to say about Pinot Noir.

Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen, who helped pioneer Pinot Noir on the Central Coast, is one of the winemakers who has worked with Nebbiolo longest. “If you think Pinot Noir is challenging, then I can assure you that Nebbiolo is 10 times harder,” Clendenen says.

Palmina’s Steve Clifton, who helps make the cult Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noirs, agrees. “Pinot Noir is a walk in the park compared to Nebbiolo. It’s the most frustrating and scary thing that I’ve ever worked with. It comes in like a really acidic, really tannic rose and over a 4-year cycle keeps evolving and changing. There are times (during that period) when it’s undrinkable.”

But it has taught him patience. “My accountant thinks I’m crazy. We bottled 2008 in June but won’t release it until next year. And I have 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 in barrel, and I just finished harvesting the 2013.”

By S. Irene Virbila

(Los Angeles Times)

(MCT Information Services)