So you think you know your wine grapes? Perhaps you do, and perhaps not as much as you think. Whatever the case, here’s a fun exercise: see if you can identify the following six Lodi grown grapes captured below in recent photos, accompanied by detailed descriptions of each grape’s history and provenance, past and present. We’re not telling you the names of these grapes until the very end of this post, which gives you the chance to test your knowledge of both the wines of Lodi and of wine grapes in general. Warning: this won’t be easy (meaning: if you guess all of them, then you’re either a “master” or “doctor” of something, or a plain ol’ ampelographical genius).
Are you up for the challenge? Then guess away!
Mystery grape #1:
The black skinned grape pictured above is currently grown on the west side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA in a vineyard owned up until recently by a now defunct family winery — which bottled several vintages of medium bodied, easy drinking varietal red from this grape — and is now being cultivated by a Lodi family with ties to the region dating back to the late 1800s. This variety of Vitis vinifera is said to have originated in Greece (where it is no longer grown) and brought over to Southern Italy (where it is still widely grown) by early Greek settlers over two milleniums ago. During the glory days of the Roman Empire, it was the principal grape of the “Falernian” wine accorded the equivalent of grand crus status in its day; as famously mentioned in the Satyricon by Petronius, as well as by the Roman poet Catullus. In modern day Italy, the grape achieves heights in the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, i.e. Italy’s highest ranked) regions of Taurasi in Campania, as well as in varietal bottlings grown from Basilicata — both producing red wines prized for their deep color and longevity.
Mystery grape #2
The grape pictured above is a crossing of two varieties of Vitis vinifera: a black skinned grape and a white wine grape far better known than its offspring for producing extremely fragrant, grapy, usually sweet, flowery, spice scented wines all over the world. This grape was once grown extensively as a table grape in California’s Central Valley — indeed, it remains a popular, if curious, culinary grape in both France and the U.K. — but plantings in the The Golden State have dwindled to close to nothing, thanks to the current domination of seedless table grapes. A few ancient vines are still lovingly cultivated in one of Lodi’s most esteemed heritage vineyards, where it goes (as in years past) into the making of sweet, fortified “dessert” wine.
Mystery grape #3
Barely a handful of California wineries — including one in Lodi — still produce varietal reds from the black skinned grape pictured above, once considered one of Napa Valley’s finest wines (long before the “cabernezation” of that region). It produces a sturdy, full bodied if aromatically low key red wine that is also amazingly round and fluid, and almost legendary for its longevity. A California based “appreciation society” devoted to this grape still occasionally meets, to share the few contemporary bottlings still commercially produced and, presumably, to commisurate on the vine’s failing fortunes. Recent genetic research has shown that this grape originated in France’s Savoie region. In fact, it has been identified as the same grape that, for many years, has been the second most widely planted wine grape in Argentina, where it is known by a completely different name (and thus, bottled under a different varietal nomenclature).
Mystery grape #4
The clusters pictured above are of one of the few varieties of European wine grapes known as a teinturier — the French term for wine grapes with red pigmented juice (the pulp of almost all vinifera is colorless). It is, in fact, a cross of two other vinifera varieties, first developed by a Frenchman in the mid-nineteenth century. It was widely planted in California’s North Coast (especially Napa Valley) during Prohibition because of its thick skin’s resistance to rot, which made it ideal for shipping back East to home winemakers. It has since disappeared virtually everywhere except in Lodi, where it is still prized as both a blending grape (bold enough to bolster even big reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah) and as a varietal (makes a big, wild red wine on its own, with the distinct flavor of elderberry).
Mystery grape #5
The grape pictured above is another a crossing of Vitis vinifera: this one developed in 1946 by U.C. Davis’ Dr. Harold Olmo, with hopes of emulating all the qualties of its parent grapes — the richness of Cabernet Sauvignon, the roundness of Merlot, and the fruitful promiscuity of Carignane. Although the grape never really caught on, as Olmo intended, with growers and wineries in California’s cooler coastal regions, the few plantings existing in Lodi have produced some delicious wines with exactly those qualities — strangely enough, more appealing to critics, and enthusiasts with esoteric tastes, than to wine lovers at large.
Mystery grape #6
Our final mystery grape is still widely grown and bottled as a dark, sturdy, zesty, wildberrryish varietal red in its probable homeland in Northern Italy, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol. While far from a household name, a few growers in Lodi have been cultivating it in hopes that it may someday serve as an alternative to the varietal that Italian bottlings have often been compared to: Zinfandel. Although actual California bottlings have been far and between, results have been promising.
The mystery grapes:
1. Aglianico (photo: Vino Con Brio estate, now owned and farmed by the Mettler Family)
2. Black Prince; a.k.a. Black Muscat and Muscat Hamburg (photo: Jessie’s Grove estate)
3. Charbono; a.k.a. Bonarda (photo: Sanguinetti Vineyard, grown by Pasos Vineyards)
4. Alicante Bouschet (photo: Mohr-Fry Ranches)
5. Carmine (photo: Ripken’s Under the Sea Vineyard)
6. Teroldego (photo: Lewis Vineyards/Dancing Fox Winery)