Veni, vidi, vino, dude

Ital­ian grapes tak­ing root in cal­i­for­nia vine­yards.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TASTE - By S. IRENE VIRBILA

ITAL­IAN im­mi­grants were in­stru­men­tal in found­ing the Cal­i­for­nia wine in­dus­try, yet when wine­mak­ers sought to up­grade the im­age of their wines in the mid-20th cen­tury, they fol­lowed the then-cur­rent fash­ion and went with French grapes – Chardon­nay and Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon.

Though per­haps bet­ter suited to Cal­i­for­nia’s cli­mate, Ital­ian va­ri­etals didn’t have much ca­chet at the time and were ba­si­cally rel­e­gated to blends and low-cost jug wines.

Steve Matthi­as­son of Matthi­as­son Wines in Napa Val­ley thinks that was short­sighted.

“There are thou­sands and thou­sands of Ital­ian va­ri­etals, but for the most part they are Mediter­ranean va­ri­eties and can han­dle very dry sum­mers and heat,” he says. Per­fect for Cal­i­for­nia. Matthi­as­son cites Aglian­ico and Ver­mentino, both well suited to the hot cli­mate of the Cen­tral Val­ley.

He thinks the red grape Ter­al­dogo could do great along the coast.

He’s planted the min­er­ally white Greco di Tufo in Ruther­ford and will make the first wine from it next year.

He’s ex­cited about Ri­bolla Gi­alla from Fri­uli too, and blends some To­cai Fri­u­lano into his Matthi­as­son Napa Val­ley white. He’s not alone among the Ital­ian con­verts. Steve Clifton, co-owner of Pinot Noir and Chardon­nay spe­cial­ist Brewer-Clifton, has had Ital­ian va­ri­etals on his mind since 1995, when he founded Palmina, his Cen­tral Coast win­ery that is ded­i­cated ex­clu­sively to Ital­ian va­ri­etals.

He al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated their acid­ity, which is char­ac­ter­is­tic of wines meant to go with food.

And when he started mak­ing wine in Santa Bar­bara, he found what he thinks is the ideal cli­mate – the cold­est wine re­gion in Cal­i­for­nia – for Ital­ian va­ri­etals.

At Palmina, Clifton says he tries hard to “not make em­u­la­tions of Ital­ian wines but trans­la­tions.”

If his wines don’t taste grown in Santa Bar­bara County, then he’s some­how missed the mark.

In all, he makes nine Ital­ian va­ri­etals, rang­ing in price from about US$18 (RM58) for the rose to US$90 (RM289) for the sin­gle-vine­yard Neb­bi­olo.

Another early pi­o­neer was Jim Clen­de­nen of Au Bon Cli­mat, who has been mak­ing Ital­ian va­ri­etals un­der the Clen­de­nen Fam­ily Vine­yards and Il Podere dell’Olivos la­bels for more than two decades.

Af­ter years of work­ing with Ital­ian va­ri­etals, he’s more op­ti­mistic about the whites.

“If we un­der­stand that Ital­ian va­ri­etals have to be much more del­i­cate than Cal­i­for­nia Chardon­nays and pick with bal­ance, with fruit as a fo­cus and don’t get too in­tri­cate, we can make de­li­cious white wine.”

Red wines, he feels, are a much more dif­fi­cult propo­si­tion.

“You’re go­ing to have to have pa­tience. You can’t have prod­ucts that are hard or mys­te­ri­ous, or years from drink­a­bil­ity.”

In­spired by the Terold­ego of Elis­a­betta Fo­radori in Trentino, Clen­de­nen ad­mits that he prob­a­bly makes it with more of a Pinot Noir sen­si­bil­ity.

He also thinks To­cai Fri­u­lano is a won­der­ful grape.

At one point, he worked with some Si­cil­ian va­ri­eties. They did bril­liantly in Cal­i­for­nia, but he couldn’t sell them.

One new pro­ducer to jump on the band­wagon is Bill Sanger, a first-gen­er­a­tion Ital­ian Amer­i­can.

When he bought an old prop­erty near Santa Ynez pri­mar­ily planted with olive trees, he planted a fairly large block of San­giovese, Tus­cany’s red grape.

The cli­mates are nearly iden­ti­cal, Sanger says.

His first wines un­der the Mar­i­anello la­bel (a name that com­bines the first names of his grand­par­ents Maria and Nello) are just out.

Mar­i­anello Cielo Ru­bio is a blend of 75% San­giovese with Petit Ver­dot, Pe­tite Sirah and Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon.

That’s pretty main­stream com­pared with what Matthi­as­son is do­ing.

He’s even planted the odd­ball red grape Schiop­pet­tino around his house in Napa Val­ley.

“I could grow Pinot, but with Pinot you pretty much know how it’s go­ing to turn out.”

With Schiop­pet­tino, he doesn’t have a clue. “That’s why it’s so much fun!”

Neb­bi­ola to the fore

Vine­yards have been ex­per­i­ment­ing with the grape for decades in a process sim­i­lar to the pi­o­neer­ing of Pinot Noir. Is Neb­bi­olo the next Pinot Noir? Wine­mak­ers in Cal­i­for­nia have been fid­dling with Neb­bi­olo for al­most three decades, and yet no one has found the key.

In Pied­mont, this is the grape that makes fa­bled Bar­baresco and Barolo.

Its po­ten­tial is huge, but it’s no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to work with.

Sound fa­mil­iar? That’s what every­body used to say about Pinot Noir.

Au Bon Cli­mat’s Jim Clen­de­nen, who helped pi­o­neer Pinot Noir on the Cen­tral Coast, is one of the wine­mak­ers who has worked with Neb­bi­olo long­est.

“If you think Pinot Noir is chal­leng­ing, then I can as­sure you that Neb­bi­olo is 10 times harder,” Clen­de­nen says.

Palmina’s Steve Clifton, who helps make the cult Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noirs, agrees.

“Pinot Noir is a walk in the park com­pared to Neb­bi­olo. It’s the most frus­trat­ing and scary thing that I’ve ever worked with.

“It comes in like a re­ally acidic, re­ally tan­nic rose and over a 4½-year cy­cle keeps evolv­ing and chang­ing. There are times (dur­ing that pe­riod) when it’s un­drink­able,” he says. But it has taught him pa­tience. “My ac­coun­tant thinks I’m crazy. We bot­tled 2008 in June but won’t re­lease it un­til next year. And I have 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 in bar­rel, and I just fin­ished har­vest­ing the 2013.” – Los An­ge­les Times/McClatchyTri­bune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

A toast to good health: Steve clifton, wine­maker and owner of Palmina Win­ery in Lom­poc, cal­i­for­nia. His fa­cil­ity pro­duces a full range of wines crafted from Ital­ian va­ri­etals grown in Santa bar­bara county. — mcT pho­tos

Freshly-picked bar­bera grapes to be made into wine.

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