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.

Randy Caparoso
September 13, 2018 | Randy Caparoso

Markus Wine Co.'s Markus Niggli approaches grapes like colors on a palette

Markus Niggli taking field samples of Syrah in the Borra family's Gill Creek Ranch (Clements Hills-Lodi)

To Markus Niggli, the owner/winemaker of Markus Wine Co., wine grapes are like paints on a palette. The purity of the colors selected by an artist are important enough; but it’s how the colors are put to canvas – the interplay, the blending, the contrasts and textures, and of course, the arresting skill and imagination – that catches the eye, stimulates the mind, and even riles the senses or emotions, consciously or unconsciously.

And so, unlike your typical American winemaker (or perhaps because he is European-born), Mr. Niggli is less satisfied with interpretations of “varietal” wine – wines made primarily from one grape – than he is with creating blends from different grapes. Therefore, when you taste a Markus Wine Co. wine you are experiencing one winemaker’s thought process, or a culmination of his past experiences. Like an artist’s colors, grapes contribute to characteristics, as do sense of place, or terroir (in Niggli’s case, grapes that are very much “Lodi” grown). But in the end, the sum means more than the parts.

Rare (for the U.S.) Bacchus grapes in Mokelumne Glen Vineyards (Mokelumne River-Lodi)

Take, for example, the Markus Wine Company “Nativo”: Niggli’s wily blend of Kerner (a German Trollinger x Riesling crossing), Riesling and Bacchus ({Silvaner x Riesling} x Müller-Thurgau {Riesling x Madeleine Royale}). On a sensory level, the wine is light, airy, minerally in its dryness, sensual in feel, and provocatively scented – like whiffs of lemon and glowing skin on the wrist of a proverbial maiden. This is what happens when focus is shifted away from single “varietals.”

Mr. Niggli packages his Nativo white under a lime-green label with an abstraction of the postal code of his hometown in Weesen, Switzerland, along with the initials of Markus and his brothers, Konrad and Bernhard. Like the grapes, the vineyard source – Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, tucked into a riverbend on the east side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River Viticultural Area – is an important factor, but so is the winemaker’s sensibility. Whether or not the art label “says” exactly what he is thinking or feeling, the wine itself finds a separate place; an almost secretive niche, different from that of any other wine. The unique colors of “Nativo.”

Markus Niggli sampling 2018 Kerner in Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

For another example: Mr. Niggli’s “Sol” is a red wine based primarily on his two favorite “spice” varieties, Petite Sirah and Syrah, plus blood/meaty qualities supplied from a good dose of the Mourvèdre grape – all Lodi grown. The wine is predictably perfumed – lavish, nostril-tingling in intensity – yet dense, beefy, grounded in senses and sensibility. It is almost like a wine without a continent – somewhat European in its outlook, or disdain for the obvious; yet American in its brazen use of grapes that are very “Lodi” in their sun-soaked intensity. On his Web site, Niggli explains the conception of this particular wine, with its wispy gray artist label:

In 2002, after years of driving the 2+ hours from my home in Switzerland, down to the town of Riquewihr in Alsace, France... my eyes were opened and I was able to look closer at wines that are powerful, concentrated and elegant, but very unique in their own ways, completely depending on the many unique soils and microclimates and terroir... (like) ages of clashing of faults, and the Rhine River eroding mountain rocks, formed in that place an incredible diversity of mother earth soil (“sol” in French)...

2018 Silvaspoons Vineyards Torrontés

Perhaps the most unorthodox of Niggli’s grape machinations? A white wine he calls “Markus Joey Insieme,” which combines the exotically spiced and tropical Torrontés grape from Lodi’s Silvaspoons Vineyards with an even more pungent Traminette (a French-American hybrid grape combining Joannes Seyve 23.416 x Gewürztraminer) grown, in all places, North Carolina. But why? That’s what winemakers like Niggli do.

Late last month (August 2018) we asked Mr. Niggli to take us around to look at the various grapes and vineyard sources he uses as his “palette.” First, his comments on the Germanic white wine grapes sourced each year from Mokelumne Glen Vineyards:

From Mokelumne Glen Vineyards in Mokelumne River-Lodi (from left): 1) Kerner; 2) Bacchus; and 3) Riesling

Explains Niggli: “The Nativo is usually about 75% or 80% Kerner, which you see on the left. Kerner is a German crossing, but is as distinctive as any other grape, with its own character. It is also distinctive in the vineyard. It is an average sized grape cluster; nice and loose, with medium sized berries which always have a little ‘dot’ on them from where the flower pops off during the spring fruit set. It is a grape that seems to do very well in Lodi.

“Bacchus, which you see in the middle, is usually a small, tight cluster with lots of gray specks. It also seems to produce very interesting wine in Lodi, but is very slow to ripen, usually several weeks after Kerner. Some years it barely ripens at all, which is aggravating; but it makes a wine with great acid, a robust flavor, yet very refreshing.

“Riesling is Riesling – it is the classic grape of Germany, not what you expect to find growing in Lodi. It also brings very good acid to the wine, and lots of fragrance and flavor. In the Nativo, Kerner is responsible for the mouth-feel – light, fresh, flinty, playful. The Riesling provides a sense of sweetness in its fruit, but has better acid than the Kerner. Because it is not always completely ripened, the Bacchus from Mokelumne Glen usually ends up giving us even more acid backbone, adding to the overall balance of the blend.

From left: 1) Borra Vineyards' Gill Creek Ranch Vermentino (Clements Hills-Lodi); and 2) Silvaspoons Vineyards Torrontés (Alta Mesa-Lodi)

According to Niggli: “The Vermentino cluster on the left is a good example of the grape, which is another late ripener – not usually picked until the second half of September, unlike most white grapes in Lodi, which are picked in August. This is why it still has a young green color, although it keeps its green color late into the season. Steve Borra first planted Vermentino a few years ago after tasting a Sardinian Vermentino in a restaurant in San Francisco. But he planted in a part of the Gill Creek Ranch (in Clements Hills-Lodi, just north of Lockeford) right next to the Mokelumne River, where there is a strong cooling effect; and so fruit from there always retains very good acid.

“Vermentino can be refreshingly light or structured and intense. Its typical ‘lemon/lime’ package can be kept in check based on picking levels. Every time I open a bottle of Vermentino, I am amazed how diversified this varietal is. You can really taste the vineyards and its location in each bottle.

Riverside Vermentino block in Borra family's Gill Creek Ranch

“The Torrontés grape, you can see, changes from a green to yellow color in August, and is usually ready to be picked in the first half of September. Both can produce pretty large clusters with large, loose berries, yet both varieties carry their acid well – obviously ideal for Lodi’s climate.

“I like to showcase the aromatics of Torrontés. The wine has to be on the lighter (i.e. lower alcohol) side; and with a solid acid structure attached, you can create a masterpiece – a great conversation piece for any table, especially in terms of wine and food pairings.”

From left: 1) Gill Creek Ranch Syrah (Clements Hills-Lodi); 2) Gill Creek Ranch Petite Sirah; and 3) Silvaspoons Vineyards Touriga Nacional (Alta Mesa-Lodi)

Mr. Niggli tells us: “In the comparison of these three grapes, you can see differences between Syrah and Petite Sirah, even though the grapes are related (Petite Sirah is a 19th century crossing of Peloursin and Syrah), as well as Touriga Nacional, a grape that I just started working with.

“Syrah berries, to me, always resemble olives with their slightly oval shape, and is always very loose owing to its longer pedicel (i.e. stem), which helps keep the bunches less prone to disease pressure. It is a smaller cluster, and has smaller berries with higher seed/skin-to-pulp ratio, which gives you the added tannin, structure, and increased concentration you like in a red wine.

“Petite Sirah, as you can see in the middle, is the opposite. Because it is a tight cluster, with berries packed in together, it can have rot issues; especially inside the cluster where you cannot see berries pushed up against each other, causing the skins to split open well before a vineyard is ready to pick. It is a larger, heavier cluster, usually with a good-sized wing attached to the main part of the bunch.

Gill Creek Ranch Syrah

“When I blend Syrah and Petite Sirah together, it is the Petite Sirah that delivers a firm structure and really keeps the wine together, without being too harsh in tannin. The fruit profile of the Syrah enhances the middle-palate and mouth-feel. Syrah also delivers an exceptional color – its dark, intense red makes a perfect base in red wine blends.”

“Finally, the third grape you see on the right is Touriga Nacional, the classic grape of Portugal. The idea of using Touriga in a new style of blend came to me during a visit to Portugal, where I tasted a number of red wines blended with Touriga. I liked those wines’ heavier, darker fruit. They had dark color, quite a bit of tannin, very bright fruit, and very good acidity – all the qualities you find in Touriga.

“In a 2017 blend that I have resting in barrels – for which I still do not have a name – I did a 33%/33%/33% blend of Touriga Nacional, Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah. I plan to make a similar blend in 2018. The 2017 Touriga that I got from Silvaspoons Vineyards was not quite as ripe as I may have wanted it – it came in at about 23° Brix (i.e. sugar reading) – but I really liked the dark color and, of course, acidity. This should be very interesting wine!”

2018 Silvaspoons Vineyards Touriga Nacional



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