Monday, May 3, 2010

Unique Varietals: Stepping Outside of the Box

Last night was filled with mixed emotions for me. Each month a group of 12 of us get together at someone's house for a wine party. We rightfully refer to ourselves as the Grape Nuts. Since some are in the service industry we meet on Sunday nights, once a month. From CFO's to Natural Healers the group covers a wide range of lifestyles and professions. Some are really in to wine and some just like to drink, I span the range. We are all different but we have something in common, we enjoy each others company and we drink.

The reason last night was filled with mixed emotion is because it was our last meeting for the season. Our tasting season runs from September to May. Since the summers are hectic and people are busy chasing around family, vacations, and social events we take them off. While I too am hard to tie down in the summer, I truly miss the group. Last night's theme was Unique Wines and boy did the group bring their A game. From Xarel-lo to Roussillion we had some really cool stuff.

The wine I was most interested in was a Lemberger we had from the Red Mountain region of Washington State. The producer was Kiona and if you have never heard of them don't feel bad, I hadn't until last night. Kiona is owned by the Williams family and was started in 1975. They are best known for their Rielsing which has been reviewed by trade magazines like Wine Spectator with fairly good success.

Lemberger is a red grape variety from Germany. It is also known by its synonym of Blaufrankisch in Austria and goes by Kekfrancos in Hungary. It's profile is low acid, medium bodied, and spicy and it usually displays black fruit flavors and aromas. It's becoming popular in Washington State accounting for about 120 acres of land under vine. While it doesn't sound like very much it is the largest planting outside of Austro-Hungarian Europe.

Kiona's plantings come from the Red Mountain AVA which is located in the Yakima Valley, which is inside of the Columbia Valley, confusing I know. Anyway, the Red Mountain region (which is neither red nor is it a mountain) is a fairly new AVA gaining its status in 2001. It's fairly small covering just over 4000 acres of land. The Williams family of Kiona are the pioneers that inspired the Red Mountain district. They petitioned for their own AVA (American Viticulture Area) siting the region has specific characteristics that defined and separated it from other regions in the Columbia Valley AVA.

The couple that brought the wine to the tasting last night found the Kiona at a local retailer and decided to bring it to the tasting as a backup. You see, when the Grape Nuts get together the event is as much about food as it is about wine. The themes either revolve around wine or food but either way each member brings a food to pair with the wine they are sharing. The wine they brought to pair with their dish was the Tangent Albarino. Tangent is a label produced by Talley Vineyards in the Central Coast of California. The Tangent was great, I love seeing more and more California producers in the Central Coast planting Albarino. The first example I ever tasted was by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards. It was one of the finest examples I have ever tasted outside of Rias Baixas in Spain, Albarino's home where it accounts for 90% of the area under vine.

Back to the tasting. The couple brought the Tangent Albarino to pair with a delicious pastry filled with cheese, chicken, spinach and more. It was a great pairing. But like a good Grape Nut, they knew that we always need transition wines. Transition wines are the wines we drink in between courses while the next person or couple gets their dish ready. The transition wine after the Tangent was the Kiona. I was blown away by this fantastic domestic example of a grape I had tasted maybe a handful of times in my life. One of the lists I consult on a has a sweet example of a Blaufrankish (Lemberger's synonym from Austria). It sells well because it is the only sweet red on the list. But I had never tasted one from the United States before last night.

Unique Varietals in the US are an interesting topic because we do not have native Vitis Vinifera vines (European grape vines used for making wine). Bordeaux has its Cabernet, Spain has its Tempranillo, Italy has its Sangiovese, but the US doesn't have a staple native Vinifera varietal. Grapes like the Concord (the most widely planted grape in the US) are an example of a Vitis Lambrusca vine, the vine used for table or eating grapes. So with all of this said I have no strong feelings for one grape variety over another. We don't have a history that involves a native grape that we must preserve. Our most notable variety we plant and praise is Zinfandel but it's not even ours really because researchers have found it is the same grape as Primativo from the South of Italy.

Other regions throughout the world have strong feelings against certain grapes intruding in to the vineyards. In Italy, 'Internationals Varietals' like Cabernet and Merlot have made their way in to their sacred Tuscany well known for producing Chianti. There are some traditionalists who think that the wines of Italy should only made from native Italian grapes like Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Barbera. Spain is no different putting emphasis on native varietals like Albarino, Tempranillo and Monestrell (which is France's Mourvedre) and believing that Internationals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir should not be planted in their vineyards.

So that brings us back the US. We as American's are a bunch of Unique Varietals. And more importantly we are all transplants from somewhere. Our culture is a byproduct of European trends. As much as we think we invented Gallons or Feet these were European units we adopted. So when it comes to grapes I say the more the merrier. Bring it on, I would love to see all sorts of unique vines growing in the US. The whole world perfects and boasts their examples of Internationals like Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir. Lets take obscure grapes and see if we can do them well. Look at Argentina, they took a minimal varietal like Malbec which was used in small amounts for blending in the Bordeaux region of France, and perfected it. Now it is their signature varietal and most people think it's native to Argentina.

I applaud pioneers like Kiona, Bonny Doon and many others for stepping outside of the box and growing unique grapes in the United States. I want to see more Gruner Veltliner, Aligote, Carignan and Tannat planted stateside. Of course with attention payed to site selection, growing season, climate, etc. I am not saying just pump out a bunch of below average to mediocre unique varietal wines for the sake of being different. But Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet, Sauv Blanc and Chardonnay are not the only things that will grow well in the US.

So it is to you Kiona and all the other unique varietal pioneers that I tip my hat to. Bravo, and keep up the good work. It is producers like you that will help put the United States on the international wine map. Okay, I am going to step down from my soapbox now. Make sure to check out our new website for more fun wine goodies.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director
Cru Wine Online


Cru Wine Specialists said...

I need to make a correction on this post. The Tangent label is made by Baileyana NOT Talley. Talley's second label is Bishop’s Peak. However Baileyana is up the street from Talley. Thank you to Anna for correcting me and please accept my sincerest apologies. Salut!

Cliff Rames said...

Hi Nicholas,

As always I enjoyed your post and read this one with great curiousity, as I am a big fan of native varieties from off-the-beaten path places. Just one extension on something you mentioned regarding Zinfandel: while it is true that Zinfandel has the same genetic footprint as Primitivo in Italy, UC Davis has identified its origins as being Croatia, where it is known as Crljenak Kastelanski, an ancient variety in Croatia that later spawed an offspring called Plavac Mali, which is now the most widely planted red grape in Croatia. So next time you want to try another outside-of-the-box grape variety, try some Plavac Mali - the son of Zinfandel! :))

All the best,
Cliff Rames