Letters from Lodi
An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.
Ancellotta, Assyrtiko, Chardonnay rosa, Macabeo, Parellada, Prieto Picudo and Xarel-lo are among the latest grapes of Lodi
The Lodi Viticultural Area is, if anything, prolific. We now count over 125 grape varieties planted in the region, all variations of Vitis vinifera, belonging to the original European family of wine grapes.
Why Lodi? Simply put, this is where the California wine industry sources most of the grapes going into wines that most Americans actually drink; especially wines selling for less than $10 or $15. Lodi grows grapes, in part or entirely, going into some 75% of all the wine sold in the U.S., domestic or imported.
There are three reasons why you can find more variety of commercially grown grapes in Lodi than anywhere else in the U.S.:
1. Ever-proliferating consumer tastes for a wider range of wines, to which both giant and tiny, artisanal wineries alike are responding.
2. The cost of grape growing is markedly lower in Lodi than elsewhere in the U.S.
3. Because Lodi can.
Regarding point #3: The region’s classic, moderate Mediterranean climate classification is, simply, naturally conducive to wine grapes. The cultivation of Vitis vinifera, after all, originated in the Mediterranean Basin, in the vicinity of present-day Iran, Israel, and Egypt as long ago as 5,000 years ago, and was first perfected around 2,500 years ago in Greece and the ancient Roman Empire.
Lodi also possesses the classic soil types for high-quality viticulture. Historically, vines were planted in the deep, porous yet fertile sandy loam soils around the City of Lodi, now falling within the Mokelumne River AVA. Since the 1980s, most of the plantings have been in either the shallow sandy clay terraces or cobbly clay hillsides falling in the appellations north or east of the Mokelumne River area.
Similar grape-friendly conditions, mind you, can also be found in coastal wine regions ranging from British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon up north down to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara towards the south. Even if, however, vintners in these regions wanted to grow grapes such as Piquepoul or Pinotage, Verdelho or Vermentino, or Alicante Bouschet and Zweigelt, for the most part, it would not be economically possible. Land values, farming costs, and market realities make growing anything other than mainstream varieties (namely, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir, Chardonnay, or Sauvignon blanc) outside a region such as Lodi less and less feasible with each passing year.
During the early stages of the 2022 harvest, we were able to photograph a few new, promising varieties just now coming into production in Lodi.
Parellada—pronounced pah-ray-YAH-dah in its native region of Catalonia in Spain—is one of the three major grapes used to produce Spain's perenially popular sparkling wines, known as Cava. Parellada is also used to produce light table whites, although these wines are rarely seen in the U.S. market. Most recent figures show that there are approximately 10,000 hectares (about 25,000 acres) of Parellada planted in Spain. There is less than a third of an acre grown in California.
As we speak, Lodi's only planting of Parellada is still hanging on trellised vines on a gentle slope at the northernmost edge of Lodi's Clements Hills AVA. Owner/growers Markus and Liz Bokisch (of Bokisch Vineyards) call this block Miravet Vineyards. The soil type is in the shallow, rocky, reddish clay series classified as Redding, more typical of Lodi's Borden Ranch AVA, just a few feet away.
Mr. Bokisch planted Parellada alongside two other grapes traditionally used in Spanish Cava, Macabeo, and Xarel-lo. Out in the vineyard, he explained: "Parellada is known to contribute the aromatics of Spanish sparkling wine blends, whereas Xarel-lo contributes the acid structure and Macabeo serves as more of a filler, adding roundness and texture to the wine."
Bokisch Vineyards picked their 2022 Xarel-lo (pronounced shah-REL-low in Spain's Catalonia) from their Miravet block three weeks ago. The photo (above) that we took over this past weekend is of one of the few clusters overlooked by the pickers but is more or less true to this variety's typically small cluster morphology.
Even while the winery's first pick of Xarel-lo was just finished fermenting, Bokisch winemaker Elyse Perry has been very excited about what she is already seeing. "We are still trying to form an opinion on its aromatic profile," says Perry, "but the wine is already showing a beautiful structure, great acid backbone, and dense texture on the palate."
Xarel-lo as a grape is found almost exclusively in Spain's Catalonia region, blended with Parellada and Macabeu to produce the oceans of Spanish Cava each year. There is an estimated 8,043 hectares (19,870 acres) of it grown in its native region.
While planted at the same time as their Parellada and Xarel-lo, in 2022 the Bokischs decided to drop all of the fruit hanging on its Macabeo (pronounced MAH-kah-veen by Catalans, and MAH-kah-vay-oh in Spanish) vines to give the young vines an extra year to mature before bearing a crop.
The photo (above) that you see is of a second crop Macabeo cluster in Bokisch's Miravet Vineyards, juxtaposed with an illustration of a typical Macabeo grown in Spain's Rioja region as well as the Cava regions of Catalonia. Macabeo is also known as Viura in Spain and is widely planted throughout the country—an estimated 45,000 hectares (110,000 acres) in 2015, making it the second-most grown white grape variety in Spain (after Airén).
While typically lower in acidity than Xarel-lo and less aromatic than Parellada, Macabeo is valued in Cava blends for its textural qualities, and a mouth-feel often described as saline. It is also the primary white variety used in the white wines of Rioja (i.e., Rioja Blanco), bottlings of which are imported into the U.S.
Ancellotta (pronounced ahn-chay-LOT-tah) is a black-skinned grape grown primarily in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. LangeTwins Family Vineyards & Winery vineyard manager Aaron Lange has been especially excited about the potential of this grape. The Langes have planted 0.2 acres of Ancellotta on their home estate, just north of Jahant Rd., adjacent to their winery.
For Mr. Lange, the significance of Ancellotta is, in his words, "the darkest juice I've ever seen in a non-teinturier grape" (teinturier grapes are varieties with red pigmented, rather than clear colored, pulps). Lange believes that, grown in shallow, clay-based soils of the Jahant-Lodi AVA, this may turn out to be a grape of some significance.
While it will probably be at least another year before we can report on how a red wine made from Ancellotta actually tastes, we do know that in its native Emilia Romagna, it is used to complement the Lambrusco grape. Up to 10% of Ancellotta, for instance, is permitted in Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce DOC, and up to 15% in the Lambrusco Reggiano DOC. Elsewhere in Italy, Ancellotta is often blended with Sangiovese-based red wines.
Prieto Picudo, one of the major wine grapes of Spain's Tierra de León DO, is making its commercial debut this month under the PRIE Vineyard label, where it is estate grown along Alpine Rd. on the east side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA.
As we have recently reported in our post, PRIE Vineyard's road to discovery of new grapes and wines ideal for Lodi's Mediterranean terroir, PRIE owner/grower/winemakers John and Lisa Gash rolled the dice with this little-known (at least, outside of Spain) grape because they read that it is a classic blender for Mencía, an even sturdier black-skinned grape that the Gashes love. All the same, there is a reported 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) of Prieto Picudo planted in Spain.
We can already taste why Prieto Picudo has historically found favor in Spain: PRIE's 2021 bottling of the varietal is beautifully scented, suggesting currants, elderberry, and blue fruits. It is zesty with natural acidity, yet just moderate in tannin and alcohol (13.3%). Clearly, this is a cultivar that is so well suited to Lodi's Mediterranean climate that it can come to full ripeness without excess amounts of grape sugar (which would result in higher alcohol) and with a refreshing fruit profile that does not need a lot of oak to stand on its own. Promising for Lodi, and promising for California in general!
We know virtually nothing about Chardonnay Rosa. What little we know is this: This pink-skinned clone of Chardonnay definitely exists. We know, having walked through rows and rows of these brilliantly colored clusters in LangeTwins Family's Railroad Vineyard, located in Lodi's Jahant AVA just north of Peltier Rd. It was (the grapes were picked a week ago) a stunning sight to behold. It remains to be seen what kind of wine they'll produce. Hopefully something equally stunning.
On the website for Duarte Nursery, the California-based plant supplier, the description given for "Rosa Chardonnay" (as Duarte lists it) is that it is "a mutant of Chardonnay with a pink pigment." That's all the information given. Currently, there is no listing of this Chardonnay variant on U.C. Davis' Foundation Plant Services site.
On wine-searcher.com, however, there is a reference to a "Chardonnay Rosé" grape, described as "an extremely rare pink-berried mutation of Chardonnay found, oddly enough, almost exclusively around the village of Chardonnay in southern Burgundy... Wines made from Chardonnay Rosé are extremely hard to come by." I would say, impossible to come by.
Finally, on the France-focused Plant Grape website, there is a reference to "Chardonnay rose," citing the fact that the "only certified Chardonnay rose clone carries the number 1284," and has been officially listed among France's "Catalogue of vine varieties" only since 2018.
The planting of Assyrtiko (pronounced ah-SEER-tee-ko) in Lodi is exciting because this white wine grape, indigenous to the island of Santorini in Greece, is a quintessential Mediterranean grape. Theoretically, tailor-made for Lodi's sun-soaked Mediterranean climate.
Second-generation Lodi growers Jeff and John Perlegos, who are of Greek descent, planted Assyrtiko three years ago on two sites; one on the east side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA, and the other on a sandy riverside terrace in the Clements Hills-Lodi AVA—1.5 acres in total.
While a tiny bit (less than a ton) of Assyrtiko was picked in 2021, in 2022 the Perlegos brothers' vines have yielded closer to 6 tons. The last of it was picked early this past Labor Day morning (September 5).
Says Jeff Perlegos: "John and I wanted to honor our cultural background and planted what we feel are some of the best examples of wine grapes of Greece with the most potential to do well in Lodi’s Mediterranean climate. So far we feel that Assyrtiko and Vidiano [a second grape of Greek origin and of even richer fruit intensity planted by the Perlegos brothers to complement the Assyrtiko] are living up to their potential. They are delicious; or as John says, fruit fit for the Greek gods themselves!
"As far as what we plan to do with the grapes, we are sharing some with friends and also making the rest into wine for our own fledgling wine brand Perlegos Family Wine."
So far, we cannot report on the sensory profile of the Lodi-grown Assyrtiko, since the 2021 harvest, fermented on native yeast, has not yet completed fermentation. We can tell you that the finest examples of Greece are full-bodied whites with a beautiful sense of minerality and fragrance, plus palate-tingling acidity despite the high degree of ripeness the grapes reached under the searingly hot Grecian sun.
There is nothing but high hopes for how well Assyrtiko can do under the conditions of Lodi's sunlight, more moderate than Greece's, and within California's more pronounced diurnal temperature swings (Lodi's evening temperatures are lower than that of the Mediterranean Basin).