Who is that gaucho, amigo? (Steely Dan)
"Lodi may be known for old vine Zinfandel, but right now it is surprising the wine world with the success of its wines made from Spanish varieties." Thus spoke Mark Chandler, Executive Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, while leading a seminar called Lodi-Beria – The Latin Side of Lodi at the SF Chefs 2010 celebration, last Sunday in San Francisco.
If you're a jaded, or simply fearless, California wine lover, you would have loved to have sat in on this tasting led by Chandler, with author/Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson as well as San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Bonné adding further commentary. The proof, of course, was in the pudding made up of the eight Lodi grown wines made from native Iberian grapes selected by the wise and wily Chandler.
But before we begin our rundown, one caveat: Lodi is not Rioja, or La Mancha, Rias Baixas, Ribera del Duero, Douro Valley, or any of the other famous regions of Spain or Portugal. So you cannot expect, say, a Tempranillo grown in the deep, sandy clay soils of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA to make a red wine that resembles the Tempranillo based reds grown on the slopes of Rioja. Then again, Tempranillo based reds in Rioja are significantly different from those grown in Spain's Duero and Portugal's Douro, so there.
Same for grapes like Garnacha, also known as Grenache throughout the vast expanse of Southern France where it is also commonly grown. Garnacha a.k.a. Grenache has adapted quite well to various Lodi terroirs, but they are as different from the Garnacha style wines of Spain as the Spanish wines are different from those of France's Languedoc-Roussillon or Rhône Valley. This, needless to say, is also true of all the other classic grapes of European lineage grown on the West Coast, be it Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon.
That said, the wines:
2009 Alta Mesa, Lodi Verdelho - Verdelho is one of the major grapes of the Portuguese island of Madeira, where it is turned into outstanding fortified wines. Australia's Hunter Valley has long been known for its fragrant, citrus fresh table whites made from Verdelho, and so it was only a matter of time before Californians took a gander at this grape. In the hands of Alta Mesa, it is a dry white wine with peach skin and lime perfumes; tart edged yet silky smooth in texture, light and easy in body. Andrea Robinson marveled at the "marzipan/almondy qualities" she first found in the nose, and then in the finish; and she talked about how she immediately thought of "Barcelona style spinach, replete with pine nuts and raisins," as an ideal match, and we liked her thinking.
2008 Bokisch, Lodi Garnacha Blanca - The white mutation of the red Grenache grape is actually more extensively grown in France (where it is called Grenache Blanc) than it is in Spain along the Pyrenees (Navarra and Catalonia). Whatever the case, in Lodi it makes a marvelously round, viscous dry white wine with a subtle, almost unfruity nose (in this sense, somewhat more "European" than Californian); plus mild yet pinpoint, citrusy precision on the palate. Robinson, however, found "red currant, cranberry-like" perfumes in this wine; and to her, the acidity seemed "rhubarb-like… mouthwatering… ideal for Greek style salads with briny feta and olives." We'll drink to that!
2008 Bokisch, Terra Alta Vineyard Albariño - Bokisch is Lodi's leading proponent of Iberian grape varieties; and for that matter, California's leading progenitor. So they're pretty good at it; especially with the Albariño from Rias Baixas (native of Galicia, at the northwest corner of Spain where it meets the Atlantic). These estupendo dry whites have burst upon the wine world only during the past twenty-five years; but during the past ten, Californians have been steadily catching up. In Lodi, the moderate climate attenuates the naturally high acidity of the grape somewhat; yet the result (as in this Bokisch) is still appley tart and steely, with a sleek texture of viscous, peach-like fruit and minerals running like fresh mountain streams. This would also make an stellar summer salad wine, laden with sliced stone fruit and caramelized nuts; although Louisiana style shrimp or crawfish with red mustardy remoulades is not such a bad idea either.
2009 Harney Lane, Lodi Albariño - Grown in the deeper, sandy clay loams of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA, this made a nice, subtle contrast to the Albariño made by Bokisch (grown in the cobblestoned, alluvial clay soils of Lodi's Borden Ranch AVA, east of the Mokelumne River area). Thus, the Harney Lane is aromatically a peachier, more flowery perfumed style; and on the palate, creamy textured, yet buoyed by a lively, tart tidiness. Added Robinson, "I thought of vanilla yogurt." Well, if it helps you live longer, why not?
2007 Bokisch, Lodi Garnacha - Lots of strawberry/red cherry-like fruit fragrances in the nose; on the palate, medium bodied (neither light nor heavy) with bright, almost sweet cranberry/raspberryish flavors undiminished by moderate tannin, finishing with a touch of pepper and French oak smokiness that Bonné found a little "unnecessary," and Robinson noted slight undertones of "game or animal," which she attributed to the natural qualities of the grape. In any case, both the smokiness and the gaminess would make this wine even more of an ideal match for char grilled beef, especially if marinated in classic soy-ginger sauces.
2007 Bokisch, Lodi Graciano - Because Spain's Tempranillo grape is often deficient in acidity, the zesty, modestly flavorful Graciano is often used as a "blender" there. But surprise of surprises, when they transplanted Graciano to Lodi, Markus and Liz Bokisch found that it yields a sturdy, deep colored red wine with an almost effortless, natural balance of acidity, tannin, body (i.e. alcohol) and all-important extracts of flavor — in this wine, a mix of crushed, juicy red and black berries with gingery and cracked peppercorn-like spiciness. On the palate, the feel is dense and compact without the weight of alcohol or excess tannin, and the wine finishes rich, almost Christmas-plummy. So forget the fact that you've never heard of a grape called Graciano: in Lodi it makes a red wine no connoisseur of vinous sui generis would soon forget, period.
2007 Cosentino, The Temp Lodi Tempranillo – This respected Napa Valley based winery is far better known for its 100% Lodi grown The Zin than its The Temp. Yet this is a full bodied yet rounded red with a nose of strawberries encased in leather; flavors of the same spreading like jam on toast across the palate. By no means a wine of great subtlety or complexity; but rather, one that drinks well, with more lust than intellect, if you can get down with that.
2007 Harney Lane, Lodi Tempranillo - Compared to Cosentino's, the nose here was deeper, redolent of black and blue berries, punching through the nose. Firm yet moderate tannins are layered beneath a plush, velvet texturing of dense, seeping fruit, brimming a full, curvaceous body. Lovers of more finesseful styles of Rioja may find the generosity of fruit intensity (Robinson described it as being like "baking blueberry galettes") in the Harney Lane a bit much; although aficionados who favor the bigger, unabashedly fruit forward styles of Ribera del Duero reds (made by producers like Bodega Pesquera) may have an easier grasp or understanding of this approach to the grape. Those who don't think at all about what the Tempranillo is like in Spain might simply say that this wine kicks butt… and lo que es para ti, mi buen amigo?