Making a difference, differently
Readers of this column will recognize that lately I have been looking at different wineries who are planting their vineyards with some unusual grape varietals that they think will not only flourish in our northern Sierra Foothills region, but help give it an identity.
At one point Cabernet Franc was considered a potential flagship varietal but never quite made it. With no successor in view, the more basic question might be, does Nevada County even need one?
Jacques Mercier, the owner and winemaker at Solune Winegrowers in Peardale, who was visiting questioned, “Does Sonoma County have a flagship varietal?”
He’s right. Zinfandel may be Sonoma’s poster child, but is it the flagship? Too many other competing varietals could also lay claim to that title.
Mercier doesn’t think a flagship varietal is necessary.
“People don’t decide to go taste Italian wines or Spanish wines,” he said. “They go wine tasting. They go to wine regions, or specific wineries.”
He also thinks it’s unlikely that the region will become linked with a specific variety, especially something as singular as Cabernet Franc.
“Personally, I love Cab Franc,” he said, “but it is not always user friendly. It can be more of a food wine, in the French tradition.”
The main reason Mercier doesn’t think any single variety will establish itself as a flagship is because we have such a diversity of growing conditions in Nevada County. The two biggest vineyards in the county, Naggiar (1,100 foot elevation) and Underwood (1,500 feet) would easily count as mountain vineyards in most other wine regions in California. Here they might be considered part of our lower foothills.
Solune at 2,700 feet is not alone. There are a handful of winery/vineyards straddling one side or the other of 2,500 feet. The growing conditions are different than at lower elevations.
When Mercier first planted his vineyard in 2002, he took his usual, thoughtful, scientific approach. In his first phase, he planted 24 different varietals including multiple clones within each variety.
During the second phase, in 2006 and 2007, he replaced less successful varieties with the ones that fared better. Some of the early budding varieties like Chardonnay were too prone to spring frosts while some of the late ripening varieties like Zinfandel had difficulty ripening before the weather turned too cool in autumn.
Cabernet Franc, which ripens several weeks earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, survived the first phase and into the second. But unseasonably cool and wet weather in 2010 and 2011 caused Mercier to re-think that position.
Mercier is also a world-certified wine judge. At that level, you judge the wines without knowing what the variety is. At two competitions, one in Paris, another in Mendoza (Argentina), he was sufficiently intrigued with certain red wine flights that later he purposely sought out what the variety was that he had tasted. In both cases, it was from a grape called Tannat.
Tannat originates from southwest France, specifically the Madiran region, but is gaining a better worldwide reputation as the primary red variety of Uruguay in South America.
Seeing regional similarities, Mercier thought Tannat might do well in his vineyard and introduced it. What really caught his attention were those inclement seasons of 2010 and 2011.
“Those years were difficult to get anything ripe. But the Tannat ripened perfectly,” he explained.
In fact, it has done so well that he has decided to replace his Cabernet Franc, grafting it over to even more Tannat.
He also thinks Tempranillo, which he grows in his vineyard, offers a lot of potential for this region.
“In Spain Tempranillo thrives from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast, and all the way produces quality wines,” he said.
Interestingly, Sauvignon Blanc is his choice of white varieties for his vineyard site.
“It has a late bud break so it avoids spring frosts, yet it harvests early, avoiding potential rain and cooling temperatures in the fall,” Mercier said. He likes the balance it achieves here, resting between herbaceous and fruity, plus it is well known.
He acknowledges that Tempranillo, and certainly Tannat, are not as well known and are hand-sell wines. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps, he suggests, “Our flagship brand is diversity. People come here and never know what they might discover. It’s the diversity that makes us interesting.”
He’s right. If you visit the wineries around the county, you quickly see there is a big variation of wines being produced. That does make it interesting.
A growing group of local winemakers already think Tempranillo deserves a place here. What about Tannat? Judging by the sample of his never released blend of the 2010-11-12 vintages that Mercier poured me, it clearly shows promise. The wine was loaded with blackberry fruit, flavors of chocolate-kirsch, circled by vanillin oak with a soft and very smooth finish.
Mercier also points out that these wines are made sometimes in very small quantities.
“You might not find the same wine you had the last time but you never know what new wine you might discover either,” he said.
Perhaps, asking, ‘what’s the flagship?’, is not the right question.
Perhaps the better question should be, what else do you have?
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. You can find information about his upcoming Sierra College Wine Classes starting in September at http://www.pinehillwine works.com and he can be reached at 530-273-2856.
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