Napa Valley Register: Off the Beaten Path Varietals

Editor’s note: Eduardo Dingler of Napa is joining the team of writers contributing to the food and wine coverage for the Register. For the past two decades, Dingler, a certified sommelier under the Court of Master Sommeliers, has worked as restaurants in the Napa Valley, including Bistro Don Giovanni, Belle Arte Trattoria, Tra Vigne and Morimoto Restaurant, where he became international beverage manager for Morimoto restaurants around the world. He is also a certified sake professional who has served as a judge for sake, spirits and wine in Japan and the U.S.

BY EDUARDO DINGLER 

With the holidays upon us and plenty of beverage choices to be made, the question arises, ‘What would I want to share with those special people that I get to call friends and family?”

There are always the usual and proven suspects, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, and certainly some impressive examples coming from our own backyard. However, why not making it fun, exciting and a discovery exercise of some sorts?

In the last few years, there has been a rediscovery and championing of varietals that don’t populate our everyday vocabulary. It appears the younger generations have been rattled of the cages of their comfort zone and went on a quest. Examples are rooted in the Old World; diverse in style, great values and certainly worth finding.

I’ve recently been captivated by efforts from up and coming producers like Wilson Foreigner ($32) with a legendary source for valdiguie, tucked in the southeastern hills of Napa County. This Languedoc-Rousillon rooted varietal gave Robert Mondavi a head start on his eponymous project back in the late 1960s while he was letting his cabernet sauvignon rest in barrel he relied on the valdeguié, back then dubbed ‘Napa Gamay,’ which he used to make a rosé that proved successful. All stories aside, this wine delivers a party! Confetti, dance moves, and lively energy. Holiday spice, cranberry and plum are the driving factors.

Another example of this varietal came to me at a ‘Friendsgiving’ party last month. It was a great, memorable gathering. The night filled with stories, new and old friends and amazing food and then, bam! Cruse Wine Co., an unfamiliar name in my book until now. This wine has a compelling story composed of dried cranberries, clove, acid and a high strong finish.

Other examples are Parador Tempranillo from Napa Valley ($40), which, starting in 2012, comes from the Stagecoach Vineyard. Steve Ventrello has been producing a bold and expressive homage to this Spanish native grape since 1998.

Mendocino County has historically been a refugee ground for old and obscure grapes. Take Benevolent Neglect’s interpretation of Counoise ($24) (yes, you read it right) (and pronounced koo noo ass). It’s an often overlooked grape championed in Chateauneuf-du-Pape blends in the Southern Rhône. In their expression, you’ll find a refreshing light sipper with a cranberry and grapefruit zest.

St. Laurent, an Austrian native, found a welcoming home in the Carneros AVA. Planted by Dale Ricci, it is now produced by a handful of winemakers, some of the noteworthy expressions come from Jon E Vino ($30) who gives this varietal an intoxicating red rose and violet aroma with a tart cherry and wild strawberry finish. A more masculine savory approach is rendered by wine renegade Matthew Rorick under his Forlorn Hope label ($24).

Italian varietals are no exception to this renaissance in the California wine scene. Take, for example, Ribolla Gialla, pronounced ree-boau-la-gee-ala; fun to say right? Also eccentric and pleasing to the palate in strange ways. This Northern Italian friend has known to be produced with skin contact giving the final wine an extra layer of richness and tannin which is rare in the white wine realm. Some expressions in our backyard come from Matthiasson; rich, opulent, orange marmalade and as memorable as your first love ($49).

For a fresher expression of the variety, I find Grassi to make a bright and chipper wine with accents of lemon zest and pleasant bitterness in the finish ($34).

Massican is another well respected producer using Ribolla Gialla. Winemaker Dan Petroski decides to blend his with tocai friulano, another visitor from Northern Italy, and chardonnay. The harmonious blend makes a crisp, chalky mineral wine with bursts of energy ($35).

Lee Hudson has been experimenting with aleatico ($32), a red grape originating in the Island of Elba. This grape is rumored to have been one of Napoleon’s favorite while in exile. Lee vinifies this red grape into a dry white wine that is both exotic, complex and highly satisfying.

Some red varietals have also made California their home thanks to Italian immigrants who arrived over the last century.

Some tasty examples include Houndstooth Barbera ($37), originally from the Piedmont region has made a home in Calaveras County and Hope and Grace Lagrein ($55), a native of Tyrol on the border with Austria, now thrives in Paso Robles.

The “off the beaten path” varietals are here to stay in their ever so diverse forms being experimented with by brave winemakers and enjoyed by many. There is no special occasion required to savor this wines. When seeking new thrills to add to the table, do not hesitate to explore California’s lesser known bottlings.