Lodi’s cutting-edge at Treasure Island
One thing you will find for sure at the Treasure Island WineFest – Lodi on the Water: Lodi is a lot more than about Zinfandel. There’s a plethora of fine wine grapes, from A to Z, that are grown and made into delicious wines in this Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta influenced region. Some of these grapes are extremely fascinating in lineage and provenance — just the thing for jaded palates, tired of the sea of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, and even Pinot Noir dominating our markets. Lodi, in short, is also all about the cutting-edge…
Starting with an A, nine of the more notable grapes you should expect to experience on Treasure Island this Sunday (10/10/10):
Taste: This grape yields dry, full bodied red wines of strong tannin constitution – as a caveat, not usually for the faint of heart – with rather wild, briary, almost floral, black, sweet berry aromas often reminiscent of elderberry. It is also known for being one of the few varieties of Vitis vinifera (the European family of classic wine grapes) with grapes having red colored flesh (the pulp of the vast majority of vinifera, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, are clear colored, their pigmentation derived from their skins rather than juice).
Geeky tidbits: Alicante Bouschet is actually a cross of two other vinifera grapes – Petit Bouschet (itself a cross of Teinturier du Cher and Aramon) and Grenache – first developed by a Frenchman named Henri Bouschet in the mid-19th century. It’s still fairly widely cultivated in France because of its combination of thick skin (hence its intrinsically strong tannin), generous yield, and penchant for adding darker color and body to red wines when blended with other grapes. It was widely planted in California’s North Coast (especially Napa Valley) during Prohibition and up until the 1960s for the same reasons; and was also favored because its thick skin’s resistance to rot made it ideal for shipping via long train rides through the Midwest to the East Coast for home winemakers and other wineries. In Lodi, where much of the yearly crop is still sent cross-country (these days, packed with dry ice and trucked in refrigerated containers rather than loaded onto trains), Alicante Bouschet vines dating back to Prohibition are still being cultivated; and in fact, the few Lodi wineries producing varietally labeled Alicante Bouschet are some of the wildest, most unique wines made in California today.
Taste: This Spanish white wine grape has emerged as one of Lodi’s brightest stars. Why? Whereas the rare examples grown in places like California’s Carneros and Arroyo Grande Valley have tended to be mouth puckeringly tart, meager and, unfortunately, on the expensive side, in Lodi it has been proven to grow accessibly priced dry whites with just the right amount of citrusy acidity (like squeezes of fresh lime or orange), while retaining the beautifully floral, apricot, peach and nectarine-like qualities found in the best examples from the grape’s native Galicia (Rias Baixas). Not as lavendery or flinty as those from Spain; but lusher and (if you can dig this) juicier in flavor, while never heavy in body and never light in flavor.
Geeky tidbits: Ever wish you had the “perfect” wine to follow a champagne and precede a Chardonnay in a multi-course/wine meal? One that you can serve with things like crab cakes with sweet corn relish, a shrimp salsa or seviche, or dolled up oysters before going on to the fish or chicken in butter or cream sauces? Look no further: Albariño fits the bill with refreshing ease. If you’re unfamiliar with this grape’s charms, this is well worth investigating.
Taste: The aromas of this classic Italian red wine grape range from red (raspberry, cherry, cranberry) to black fruits (like blackberry without the jamminess of, say, Zinfandel) in both its native Piedmont as well as in Lodi; often with nuances suggesting charred red meat and/or soft leather. It is the taste of Barbera on the palate, however, that really turns people on, as it is the combination of slightly elevated acidity, moderate tannin and medium-to-full body (rarely heavy in feel) natural to this grape that makes it a quintessential “food” wine. And any wine that makes food taste that much better can never be a bad thing at all.
Geeky tidbits: As with any fine wine grape, there’s good, bad and ugly made from Barbera, and the ugly in Barbera happens when there is not enough varietal fruit definition to keep the natural acidity from curling the tongue (not uncommon in Italian bottlings). The nice thing about Lodi’s Mediterranean setting is that ripening Barbera to optimal fruit qualities is never really an issue: these Barberas tend to retain a natural balance – soft and round enough to enjoy, yet still zesty and edgy enough to turn the primavera or roasted peppers in the most pedestrian pasta dishes into culinary epiphanies. Look for it!
Taste: Petite Sirah (a.k.a. Durif) might not be considered cutting-edge except for the fact that in Lodi love and devotion has been lavished on the grape for well nigh 100 years; whereas in other regions, the vine has ignomoniously been pulled out in favor of the usual onslaught of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, et al. Petite Sirah is not only the primary blending grape for varietal Zinfandel bottlings (its densely textured body adds beautiful structure to Lodi zins, which can be on the soft, lush side), it also makes epic, must-try red wines on its own. Both old and young plantings of Petite Sirah in Lodi tend to yield dark, full bodied wines with ripe, peppercorn spiced blueberryish fruit qualities that stop short of numbing the palate with excessively hard or astringent tannin (common to Petite Sirahs grown elsewhere in California), as the grape responds well to the deep, rich sandy loam soils of the region.
Geeky tidbits: Not to be confused with true Syrah, Petite Sirah is a red wine crossing of two varieties of Vitis vinifera (recent DNA studies have shown it to have originated from Syrah pollen germinating on a Peloursin plant), propagated by a Dr. Durif in 19th century France (where it is no longer in commercial use). Petite Sirah aficionados are such fanatics, they even have their own special club made up of both wine lovers and producers called P.S. I Love You.
Taste: Although Primitivo is a genetically identical clonal variant of Zinfandel — and in fact, red wines made from Primitivo may be legally bottled as Zinfandel in the U.S. — it is not a good idea to expect a classic Zinfandel profile (i.e. full body, jammy fruitiness, cracked peppercorn spices, etc.) when you taste it. The aromas of Primitivo suggest raspberry or blackberry fruits, but without the overtones of jamminess more typical of Zinfandel. On the palate, expect Primitivo to be a little lighter — usually medium in weight — and softer in tannin. Zinfandel light, perhaps; yet still, with all the buoyant charms we all love in a good zin.
Geeky tidbits: Primitivo tends to be different because it is not exactly Zinfandel. In the field, for instance, Primitivo has a slightly different leaf (smoother backsides); and its clusters tend to be markedly smaller, slightly looser, and more uniform in size (much of the jammy berry flavor of Zinfandel derived from that grape’s tendency to produce clusters of different sized berries, from “hens” to “chicks”). It is the lower skin to juice ratios of Primitivo’s berries, plus the grape’s penchant for ripening earlier than “regular” Zinfandel, that yield lighter, softer wines. Whatever it is, just enjoy it for what it is, which is plenty delicious!
Taste: As with Alicante Bouschet, Tannat is for red wine lovers who fear neither the dark nor tannin. The typical Tannat is almost black as night and big without really being heavy; yet unrepentantly hard bodied, while bursting at the seams with almost sweet meat and raspberry flavors.
Geeky tidbits: The deeply pigmented, thick skinned Tannat is a major component in the thickest, darkest red wines of South-West France‘s Basque regions (specifically Madiran, Irouléguy and Cahors), where it is often earthy to the point of gaminess, or someone who hasn’t bathed in a while (the French call these qualities animal). In Lodi, Tannat is grown with the same sturdy structure, with more emphasis on the thick, almost berry liqueur-like fruitiness (sans animal) that you find in French reds that utilize the grape. Well worth a try!
Taste: For such a noble red wine grape, the aroma of this native of Spain is never easy to describe; but think of black fruits tinged with tar and red licorice, and burning tobacco leaves verging on smoking meats. Tempranillo in Spain as well as Lodi is never a high acid red wine, and both alcohol and tannins tend to be moderate (although they can get “big” in parts of Spain’s Ribera del Duero). But what’s nice about the flavors of reds made from this grape is that they tend to settle onto the palate like a very comfortable, well worn, soft leather glove. Mi casa es tu casa.
Geeky tidbits: These are classic food wines: think slightly charred grilled red meats, sans sweet-spicy-vinegary sauces (aggressive barbecued meats is a job for Zinfandel) and earthy, meaty vegetables (eggplant, portabello, squash, etc.) slathered in olive oil and mixed herbs.
Taste: In Lodi Vermentino produces a lovely, lilting, lightish dry white wine with an almost amazing multitude of fragrances – cantaloupe or honeydew melon, wild honey and cream, thyme and lime blossoms, and various woody herbs. The texture is usually silky, almost fleshy on the palate; but always, with a feathery, airy feel.
Geeky tidbits: Vermentino has been called “the thinking man’s Pinot Grigio,” and when you think of it, it is not unlike Pinot Noir in terroir related transparency: it always tastes “of a place.” That is to say, everywhere it is grown in the world – notably in Provence (where it is called Rolle), Italy’s Liguria (where it is called Pigato), Corsica and Sardinia – it has shown a distinct inclination to encapsulate the brushy, herby, lavenderish, often thyme or rosemary-like sensations of the natural scrublands that surround the vineyards where it is cultivated. In Lodi, these transparencies are sun driven, a little less herby and a little more lavish in the melony fruitiness, yet just as pinpoint, refined and refreshing as those of the real Mediterranean.
Taste: The Master Sommelier/wine book author Andrea Immer Robinson has described the taste of Lodi grown white wines made from Verdelho as “white peaches, marzipan and almonds.” As dry white wines go, it tends to be light and refreshing, its rather old fashioned flowery perfumed (faintly of lemon verbena) fruitiness underlined by a tingling lemon-lime tartness just short of puckering, with silken, stony sensations in the texture.
Geeky tidbts: Verdelho is one of the grapes grown on the Portuguese island of Madeira to make sleek, slaking, sweet fortified wines, and has also been grown successfully for years in places like Australia’s Hunter Valley to make zesty dry table whites. In California, you must come to Lodi to experience this distinctive grape; and in fact, it’s owing to the small contingent of Portuguese immigrants (coming to Lodi two, three generations ago, primarily to establish the dairy industries that endure in this region until today) that we can now enjoy the refreshingly unique taste of Verdelho.