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.
Latest Perlegos Family wines include a groundbreaking Assyrtiko from Lodi's Clements Hills
Lodi's first Assyrtiko
Perlegos Family Wine Co. is entering its second phase, following up on this grower/producer's inaugural releases this past October—and it's a doozy.
The big news: The release of the 2022 Perlegos Family Thera Block Clements Hills-Lodi Assyrtiko ($28), along with the family's latest vintage of a Lodi-grown Cinsaut as well as a Southern Italian-inspired Nero d'Avola.
The Assyrtiko is exciting because, well, it's Assyrtiko (pronounced ah-SEER-tee-koh), the most prestigious of the indigenous white wine grapes of Greece, where winegrowing has been dated as far back as 6,500 years. And here in Lodi, and all of California, we brag about our wine history going back a measly 160 or 170 years.
Modern-day Greek Assyrtiko has recently become something of a thing because the wine world is shrinking; plus, Greece has always been a compelling visitor destination (Greek islands are as dreamy as Hawaii's), especially for adventurous wine lovers. But also because the grape produces genuinely distinct, terrific wine: Usually extremely aromatic—the grape's billowingly honeyed and briny perfumes are unmistakeable, and can be smelled practically across a room when poured into a glass—very full-bodied, and zesty in natural acidity. This is not feeble stuff.
Second-generation Lodi farmer/owners Jeff and John Perlegos took turns talking about their first commercial bottling of Assyrtiko. Said Jeff, "It's not the first California Assyrtiko made—there are a couple of other brands of California Assyrtiko that have come out before us—but I like to think that ours may be the one that matters."
Let's get this straight: The Perlegos brothers are not ones to brag about anything, but they haven't become the suppliers for some of the state's more prestigious, small, handcraft "cool kid" wineries for nothing. They have established a reputation for being meticulous grape growers; and now, conscientious vintners as well.
Assyrtiko suits the Perlegos family to a tee because they are of Greek lineage. They also happen to believe that the Lodi appellation is perfect for grapes of Mediterranean origins, such as those of Greece and Southern France, because of the region's quintessential Mediterranean climate. Therefore, three years ago they planted two short rows of Assyrtiko alongside their old vine Carignan block, which they named Grecque de Pied, on the east side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA.
The grapes going into their first release of Assyrtiko, however, come entirely from their Thera Block, a slightly larger chunk (1.5 acres) of vines grafted in 2021 atop an existing stand of Merlot in Lodi's Clements Hills AVA, right alongside the family's Stampede Vineyard. "Thera" is the original name of the Greek island of Santorini, which is renowned for Assyrtiko.
Consequently, the Thera Block came into virtually instant production—within the space of a year. In a sense, the grapevines literally exploded out of the block, producing a lush canopy and tons and tons of fruit—irrefutable proof that the grape feels perfectly at home in the Lodi environment, over 6,860 miles from Santorini (as the crow flies, even if they don't fly that far).
"The Thera Block Assyrtiko was grafted onto vines originally planted in 1977," says Jeff. "John and I did all the work ourselves. It was a well-established vineyard, but we really didn't expect the Assyrtiko to take off the way it did."
Adds John, "We tried to temper the Assyrtiko vines as much as possible, going out too thin the fruit two times; despite the fact that it was practically dry farmed—watered only once, in June of last year—the vines produced a plethora of big, lush clusters in 2022. Big, delicious clusters!"
"One thing we now know," says Jeff, "Assyrtiko is a really good cultivar for dry, warm regions like Lodi. In the winery, we simply whole cluster pressed the grapes and native yeast fermented them in neutral barrels, where they were held for seven months before bottling. The wine went through malolactic fermentation [i.e., natural conversion of sharper malic acids to milder lactic acids], but the wine still retains great natural acidity, and finished at just 13.9% alcohol [lower than typical Assyrtiko from Greece]."
"You can say we followed an ancient Greek recipe," says John. While being jocular, John is also referring to their personal predilection for wines that taste as "natural," or minimally handled, as possible. If there is a Perlegos Family "house style," it is to let grapes and a "sense of place" (the French use the word terroir for that) stand out over all else, in all their wines.
The result, in the 2022 Perlegos Family Assyrtiko, is a wine that does indeed capture everything you'd want in, say, a Greek-grown Assyrtiko: a flowery nose suggesting wild honey, an almost exotic kaffir lime-like citrusiness, and an acid-driven minerality verging on an oceanic brininess—the latter sensory note clearly intrinsic in the grape, since Clements Hills is a good 95 miles from the Pacific Ocean—and on the palate, a sense of fullness that is creamy textured yet punctuated by a pointed, slightly phenolic, citrus skin tartness.
Although the Perlegos Assyrtiko is fermented virtually "dry"—finishing with about 2 grams of residual sugar, which is below the perception level for the vast majority of people—the varietal fruit profile is so assertive that the wine finishes almost sweet. It is not, however, a slightly sweet wine, like many Rieslings (although Assyrtiko has honeyed, flowery notes not unlike typical Riesling); nor should you expect a wine that resembles Chardonnay (sharing full-bodied properties), Sauvignon Blanc (citrusy acidity), or even other Mediteranean grapes such a Viognier (phenolic feel), Roussanne (creamy texturing), Piquepoul (minerally tartness) and Grenache Blanc (a fluid flow), even though the varietal possesses one or two sensory qualities similar to each of those other grapes. This is Assyrtiko—a one-and-only.
Cinsaut and Nero d'Avola
Perlegos Family Wine Co.'s two latest red wine releases offer contrasting varietal fruit profiles, both indicative of the ease with which grapes of Mediterranean origin thrive in the Lodi appellation.
Of the two, the 2021 Perlegos Family Clements Hills-Lodi Cinsaut ($38) is the softer textured varietal red, flush with red berry/cherryish fruit tinged with kitchen spice (particularly cardamom and pepper); round, easy, supple on the palate, weighing in at an easy-as-pie 12.2% ABV (i.e., alcohol by volume). Jeff Perlegos describes the fresh, wild berry quality of the 2022 Cinsaut as "brambly," explaining that this vintage (the brand's second) was 100% whole cluster fermented with native yeast and aged strictly in neutral French oak.
Whole cluster fermentation—meaning, fermenting with grape stems fully intact, as opposed to destemmed—typically results in red wines with some degree of bitter, astringent, or "stemmy" tannin, but the fruit quality of this particular Southern French grape grown in Lodi's sun-washed Mediterranean climate is such that the overriding sensation is one of soft, gushy fruit rather than any sense of hard or green tannin. Grapes sourced from Sprague Family Vineyard—young, trellised vines planted in Lodi's Clements Hills in 2017.
The 2021 Perlegos Family Fernow Ranch Mokelumne River-Lodi Nero d'Avola ($38), by way of contrast, is a considerably darker, deeper, more densely weighted red wine, despite its remarkably restrained 12.9% ABV. Other Lodi-grown bottlings of Nero d'Avola, a black-skinned cultivar associated with Sicily, the Mediterranean Sea's largest and most populous island, have been shown to produce wines of similar weight and phenolic (i.e., a combination of pigmentation and tannin derived from skins and seeds) intensity, but Perlegos Family's iteration of the grape is the region's deepest and most extracted Lodi bottling yet—dense and thick with tannin, yet svelte and compact in feel, while redolent with black and red-toned berryish fruit.
Grapes were destemmed (there is obviously more than enough color and tannin in Nero d'Avola skins!), native yeast fermented and aged 16 months in neutral oak; sourced from the Des Voignes and Hartwick families' organically farmed 16.5-acre ranch on the east side of Lodi's Mokelumne River appellation.