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Monday, July 23, 2012

New grape varieties for California?

You hear about Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, etc. when people talk about California wine. Actually, the vast majority of wine grapes are grown in the hotter Central Valley, mostly the San Joaquin Valley that runs roughly from south of Sacramento through Lodi and Fresno to Bakersfield.

The climate here is much different than Sonoma County and the other coastal areas. So the wines coming out of the Central Valley aren't the same, but they are cheaper to buy. The growers plant a lot of the same grapes you find in the premium wine areas. Lately they've been looking at some other varieties that could do well in their hotter climates--grapes from the warmer Mediterranean areas of Europe.Some have been grown in California for awhile, but not so much in the hotter regions of the state.

Petite Sirah/Durif - From the Rhone. DNA testing has shown that Durif and California's Petite Sirah are the same (they are a cross between Syrah and a lesser-known Rhone grape). It can make a firm, tannic, acidic wine. Growing it in a hot, sunny climate can soften its harsher characteristics.

Petit Verdot - A Bordeaux grape that ripens easier it a hotter climate, like the Central Valley. It can be a dark, tannic grape in cooler climates.

Tannat - Another firm, tannic grape from France. It's popular in Uruguay, of all places, plus other warm areas of the world. In California it gets blended with heavier wines such as Cabernet and Syrah.

Now come some other off-the-wall varieties folks are testing now:

Fiano - A southern Italian white wine grape that may go back to the ancient Greeks.
Biancu Gentile - A white wine grape from Corsica.
Sagrantino - A very inky, tannic red wine grape from central Italy.
Marselan Noir. - A French grape that's a cross between Cabernet and Grenache. Decades ago Cab was crossed with another Rhone grape, Carignane, to create Ruby Cabernet that would grow in hot climates. It didn't do well as a variety and is mostly a bulk blending grape now.

These are grapes that don't necessarily do well in cooler climates but soften up in warm regions -- perfect for the hot Central Valley of California. Will we ever see a wine labeled as Tannat or Sagrantino from here? Probably not, they'll likely be blended with other varieties to make inexpensive red table wines. That is if they do well at all in the hot, dry Central Valley.

UC Davis, the home of California wine education, and Constellation Brands, owners of  Robert Mondavi, Clos du Bois and Ravenswood among others, are cooperating on finding grapes varieties that will grow well here. Innovation is always good to see. It's usually fostered by some need. I expect this need is for more quality wine at the lower end of the price spectrum. As the recession ends and wine sales are picking up there's talk now about an upcoming shortage of grapes in the coastal regions so they are looking where land is cheaper. But don't expect to see these wines on the store shelf anytime soon. I expect this is a decade away.