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.
The 10 most interesting Lodi grown wines of 2013
So far in 2013 a number of winery releases have come out that are just begging to be cobbled together in one group. We’ll call them exactly what they seem to us: The 10 most interesting wines in Lodi.
We’re not saying the “10 best,” mind you. “Best” is always subjective, and anyone would be totally correct to say that any list of Lodi’s “best” would probably be dominated by Zinfandels produced by Harney Lane, St. Amant, Macchia, or any number of Lodi’s heralded, artisanal producers. Zinfandel, after all, is the most natural wine grape to grow in Lodi’s Mediterranean climate – it loves the warm yet moderated weather, and it loves the deep, rich yet well drained sandy loam soils – which is why Lodi grows more Zinfandel than any other wine region in California.
You may be surprised to learn, however, that Lodi also crushes more Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay each year than Napa and Sonoma County combined (re the most recent California Department of Food & Agriculture Grape Crush Report). Which is not to take away from the fact that most of California’s finest Cabernet Sauvignons undoubtedly come from Napa Valley, or that Sonoma arguably produces the finest Chardonnays.
We are simply making the point: just about all varieties of Vitis vinifera – the family of wine grapes that originated Europe’s great wine regions – seem to thrive in Lodi’s Delta influenced terroirs. Sheer diversity, in fact, is one of the most underrated aspects of the Lodi American Viticultural Area. Because Lodi is neither too hot nor too cold, and because Lodi’s soils are neither too rich nor too restrictive, there is more variety of wine grapes grown in Lodi than in any other region of California, and probably the world – over 100, by our last count, if you include the myriad sub-variants of clonal material currently in the ground (see this Pinterest post, 100 Grapes of Lodi)
Our most interesting 10:
2012 Sorelle Winery, Bella e Rose Rosato ($16) – Sorelle’s 2012 rosé is a slight departure from their 2011 Sogno Dolce Rosato, which garnered a Sweepstakes Award at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (an amazing feat: basically an award for being the best dry rosé in all America). Whereas the 2011 Sorelle rosé was made 100% from estate grown Sangiovese, the 2012 is a 50/50 blend of the Sangiovese and Barbera grown around the winery. The result an orange tinged salmon-pink color and a remarkable citrus-like acidity, giving a dramatic lift and zesty edginess to the wine’s bouncy wild cherry, watermelony fruitiness, enhanced by just a smidgen of residual sugar (.4%, which is technically below the threshold of perception, yet lingering in a backdrop). So if you like a little more of a European style, tart edge to your rosé, this is the wine for you.
2012 Borra Vineyards, Artist Series, Lodi White Wine ($18) – It’s hard to stop talking about Borra these days. This is Lodi’s oldest bonded winery (since 1975), yet few wineries anywhere in California take as many chances with techniques like native yeast fermentation and use of grapes that seem to defy the “rules” about what can or can’t be grown here: grapes like Kerner (a German crossing of Riesling and a grape called Trollinger) and Riesling, which comprise 85%/15% of this wine respectively. Yet if you suspend disbelief and just open the doggoned bottle, you get a surprisingly bright, perky, lacy white wine that is light as a feather, effusively fragrant (Pippin apple, orange peel, rising bread dough), and lemony crisp with natural acidity (no added “adjustments”), just high enough to allow the wine to finish dry (balancing out a smidgen of residual sugar), with touches of minerality and citrus. How does Borra winemaker Markus Niggli do this in a decidedly warm climate zone like Lodi’s? Well, if you wait for grape sugars to go over 21° Brix, then you do end up with a high alcohol/low acid, flabby wine. Niggli picks before that happens, trusting that there is plenty enough flavor in these grapes (grown by the Koth family in their Mokelumne Glen estate) to make a lighter, tarter, unoaked, contemporary style white – and voilà.
2012 Acquiesce Winery, Lodi Belle Blanc ($24) – Acquiesce owner/grower Sue Tipton stubbornly clings to a no-oak approach to her chosen specialty, Rhône style white wines, despite the fact that some of her original inspirations (like Château de Beaucastel’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc) use plenty of wood. But sometimes stubbornness pays off, as it does in Belle Blanc: a bracingly dry and appealingly tart edged, silky/steely blend of Grenache Blanc (60%), Roussanne (30%) and Viognier (10%). Tipton manages to achieve a touch of the floral (suggesting lilac), lavender/Herbes de Provence-like character found in Southern French whites, but perhaps in an even better way – a more naked, mouth-watering style that, as she puts it, “accentuates food rather than fights it.”
2010 Ripken Vineyards, Lodi Pinot Noir ($20) – Like German white wine grapes, the idea of “fine Pinot Noir” grown in Lodi might seem preposterous. Then again, it is hard to comprehend how perfectly delicious Pinot Noirs are often grown in places like San Benito County, Monterey’s Chalone AVA, and Inland Mendocino, which are even warmer than Lodi. Ergo, if you get hung up on pre-formed opinions, you will find much of the wine world confoundingly perplexing. Like the fact that the strong point of Ripken’s Pinot Noir is actually its almost lean, medium bodied, understated sense of balance and restraint – not overripeness or fattiness – plus a zesty, palate freshening tartness pushing up forward yet bright, slightly floral varietal fruit, suggesting raspberry, cranberry, and a touch of cassis (i.e. blackcurrant liqueur). There are also distinctly earthy notes, suggesting red meat and dusty, composted dirt – byproducts of the shallow silty-clay loam soil, mixed with organic peat, where the Ripkens grow their Pinot Noir (in the slough-encircled Delta region west of I-5, 19-feet below sea level). As the Grateful Dead once sang, “If you need an explanation, there’s a quick and easy answer” – just shut up and drink!
2011 McCay Cellars, Lodi Carignane ($28) – Less than 40 years ago California’s most widely planted grape was Carignan. Sure, most of it went into jug reds, but there was a reason why it was so extensively cultivated, prior to the days when grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir became all the rage: like Zinfandel, Carignan is perfectly suited to the Mediterranean climate dominating most of California’s coastal wine regions. McCay‘s bottling demonstrates what handcrafting and sourcing from ancient vines (in this case, a 109-year old vineyard on Lodi’s east-side, along Bruella Rd.) can do: pure and penetratingly appealing perfumes of cranberry and cherry, spiced with sweet cinnamon and undertones of loamy earth; coming together in a fleshy medium-full body, unimpeded by excess tannin or oak. Sometimes the best things aren’t the most unusual or exotic; but rather, grapes like Carignan – which have been growing here all along, just waiting to be “rediscovered.”
2011 Onesta Wines, Bechthold Vineyard Lodi Cinsault ($28) – It is almost inevitable than red wines from this vineyard – the oldest continuously farmed vines in Lodi (planted by Joseph Spenker in 1886, and still owned by his descendants) – makes a “most unusual” list. Why? Because phenomenally old Cinsaut produces wines that challenge our preconceptions of what makes “great” wine. Should it be wines that taste big and powerful, or should it be wines that are the virtual opposite – as perpetually soft as a baby’s skin, and as intoxicatingly wonderful to touch and smell? The relatively cool conditions of the 2011 vintage resulted in even more of such a wine coming out of Bechthold Vineyard; accentuating the cracked pepper, cardamom-like spice inherent in the grape – still teeming, in this bottling, with strawberry and rhubarb-like fruit, couched in a soft, long, tender medium-full body.
2010 Bokisch Vineyards, Lodi Tempranillo ($21) – This, the tenth vintage of Tempranillo grown and produced by Bokisch, represents a milestone of sorts for this Californian pioneer of Spanish grapes. As vines have come into maturity the winemaking has become sharper, making Tempranillos like this far more than just “interesting” – but also incredibly fine and complete. The 2010 is round, springy and fleshy; exuding perfumes of baking berry pies (cherry, blueberry, blackberry) along with notes of rare beef and just the right amount of oak to fashion cozy touches of cigar box and warming cocoa.
2010 Watts Winery, Los Robles Vineyard Lodi Montepulciano ($25) – Although there is a famous region in Tuscany (Italy) called Montepulciano, the actual grape called Montepulciano is not to be confused with Sangiovese, the grape that is grown in the DOCG of Montepulciano. The Montepulciano grape makes a bolder, earthier wine than Sangiovese, which is why the Watts family makes a fetish out of growing it; producing this compellingly zesty, medium-full bodied red, loaded with blackberryish fruit tinged with notes of cracked green and red peppercorns, a touch of black olive and cardamom spiced cherry juice. Unique to Lodi, and even more so to all of California.
2011 Mettler Family Vineyards, Lodi Pinotage ($24) – There is not much Pinotage – a Vitis vinifera crossing of Pinot Noir x Cinsaut – grown anywhere in the world outside of South Africa, where the grape was developed in 1925. Many say this is well and good, since South African Pinotage has always been an acquired taste (experts have likened its taste to “rusty nails”). All we know is that Mettler’s Lodi grown Pinotage is amazingly bright and brambly, with aromatic suggestions of blueberry and baking marionberry pie; plus, just a faint notes of dusty leather, transformed into a bacon-ish nuance in combination with the moderate, toasted oakiness. This is a full bodied red filled out (but not overwhelmed) by tannin, keeping the flavors focused on the fruit and a clean (no rust!) earthiness.
Harney Lane Winery, Lodi Patriarch’s Promise ($40) – This rare wine is already a collector’s item; conceived and executed over four vintages (blending wines from 2007 through 2010) by Harney Lane owner/grower Kyle Lerner and winemaker Chad Joseph in honor of founder George Mettler, who passed away this past spring. It is special because of all that, and also because it is a wine that eschews varietal profiling (Lerner and Joseph refuse to reveal the exact identity of the grapes going into this blend) or expectations. Like George himself, Patriarch’s Promise is all about the thick skin it has historically taken to gut it out as a winegrower in Lodi, and crafted to express an impeccable sense of balance and dignity: thick and chewy with dense yet perfectly smooth flavors of dried trail-mix berries, spiked with cinnamon, cracked pepper and – strangely, mysteriously – aromatic suggestions of fennel root and loamy earth, all the while looming large without a hint of ponderousness, with a brightly fruited concentration tucked in all the way through a tight fisted finish. Truly, Lodi at its most interesting!