California vintners hope unusual grapes will yield finer wines


September 12, 1993|By Michael DresserMICHAEL DRESSER

Give the California wine industry some credit. At long last, it has broken out of its cabernet sauvignon-chardonnay rut.

No longer is it bold or exceptional for a winery to produce a wine that doesn't bear the hallowed name of those two French varietals. Producers are exploring the capabilities of many different varietals.

Some of these grapes come from long-scorned vines planted by grizzled Italian farmers of the pre-Prohibition era. Others are recent plantings by sophisticated winemakers who have traveled widely in Europe.

Already, some varietals that were still exotic five years ago have become almost commonplace. Syrah, the greatest red wine grape of the Rhone Valley, is now produced by many wineries, and the best are a worthy tribute to the grape's noble origins.

Following on syrah's heels are a host of varietal names that are likely unfamiliar even to the sophisticated wine buyer. For instance, that wine course you took way back when probably didn't spend much time on alicante bouschet.

Some of these varietals will probably never win widespread public acceptance, but others show exceptional promise. The hope behind these obscure varietals is that perhaps this one will take to the soils of California and show qualities far beyond what it achieved in the Old World. It happened once before -- with a grape called zinfandel.

These are some of the unfamiliar names found on the shelves of Maryland wine stores in the last two months, along with my scouting report:


Alicante bouschet: (all-i-CAHNT BOO-shay) This little-known varietal is the ninth most common red wine grape in France and has been a stalwart of American home winemaking for decades. During Prohibition it was prized for its ability to withstand the shocks of shipping to home winemakers in Eastern markets.

Alicante is what the French call a teinturier, that is, a grape variety whose main virtue is the deep color of its juice. According to Jancis Robinson, who literally wrote the book on wine-grape varietals ("Vines, Grapes and Wines," Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), alicante is a flabby, characterless wine "useful only to add color to basic wines drunk young."

There's nothing about the 1989 Topolos at Russian River or 1992 Coturri alicante bouschet that disproves her assertions. These are burly, unsophisticated wines with broad, grapey, chocolatey flavors and not much structure.

Still, there's something to like about these big galoots. They obviously come from ancient patches of low-yield vines, and they have a certain burly charm if you don't examine them too closely.

PROSPECTS: Don't expect to see many on the market. It's an appealing oddity that will never achieve excellence.

Sangiovese (Sahn-gee-o-VAY-zee): If the grower lays his hands on the right clone, this is one of the world's noblest red-wine grapes -- the backbone of Tuscan winemaking. But if it's the wrong clone of sangiovese, prepare yourself for a charmless wine that will make you yearn for a good alicante bouschet.

So far, California's record with varietal sangiovese has been spotty. Examples from Seghesio (a 1988 called Chianti Station) and Atlas Peak have been virtually undrinkable while selling for $20 or more.

But hopes are lifted by the performance of Trentadue Vineyards, which produced a wonderful, authentically Tuscan 1988 sangiovese with loads of black cherry and herb flavor. The price was an eminently reasonable $14.

PROSPECTS: Where the producer matches the right vine to the proper hillside vineyard and keeps yields low, sangiovese could be one of California's most successful red wines. Expect a slow learning curve and high prices.

Carignane (Car-een-YON): This is the most widely planted red-wine grape in France and one of the least respected. This thick-skinned, astringently tannic varietal is the workhorse grape France's Midi region and California's Central Valley because of its abundant yields, not its quality.

Still, when the vines are old and yields are small, strange things can happen. Trentadue has given us an excellent 1991 carignane from Alexander Valley with fine blackberry flavor and good concentration. It's a bit like zinfandel, but more structured and herbal.

PROSPECTS: Maybe it's time to take another look at this common varietal, especially old vineyards.

Mataro (Muh-TAR-o) or mourvedre (MOOR-ved): This grape is a junior partner in Chateauneuf-du-Pape but the leading grape in the great Bandols of Provence. Its medium body, moderate tannins, complex fruit flavors and herbal overtones make it an exceptional companion to the Mediterranean cuisine that is so frequently imitated in California.

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