You can read a specific history by selecting a varietal from the following list:
What grape varietal has the potential to express the bracing acidity and minerality of Riesling, the floral bouquet of Pinot Gris, and the mouthfeel and fruit of Viognier? The answer is Albarino, Bray Vineyards newest varietal, and the subject of this month’s newsletter trivia section. A source of high quality white wines from the Iberian Peninsula, it is an important cultivar but morphologically diverse and subject to a considerable amount of name confusion. The grape is known as Albarino in the Galicia region of northwest Spain, (Galicia is an autonomous area of Spain, containing several provinces and located directly north of the Portuguese border). The grape’s name changes to Alvarinho when you move south across the border into northwest Portugal. Although these two similarly named grapes are in fact genetically identical,there is considerable doubt about other synonymous varietals. Two in particular, Cainho Branco (from Portugal) and Cainho Blanco (from Galicia) were once thought to be morphological divergent strains of Albarino. The DNA analysis says otherwise, and the current evidence indicates that these two grapes are the same varietal but a completely separate cultivar from Albarino. To add to the confusion, there are regions in northwest Spain growing grapes that are locally known as Albarino but which are genetically related to the grape named Savagnin which itself is genetically identical to Gewurztraminer.
Albarino displays a large amount of morphological diversity which is usually considered an indicator of an ancient grape varietal. As with most old varietals, there is always some unsubstantiatedromantic folklore associated with their time and place of origin. In Albarino’s case, locals thought the grape to be of German ancestry because the name “Alba-Rino” translates as “the white from the Rhine” and Riesling was thought to be the parent grape. After all, there were some very noticeable similarities between the two both in the morphology of the vine and in physiological characteristics of the finished wine. Legend had the 12th century Benedictine Monks from the monastery in Cluny, Saône- et Loire, France bringing the grape to Spain during a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the Capitol of Galicia and alleged burial site of Saint James the Apostle.
Unfortunately for the romantics, the earliest documented records of Riesling date from the 15th Century and recent DNA analysis shows zero correlation between the two varietals. There is a partial DNA relationship with another old Iberian varietal called Louriero but whether it is as a parent or sibling is unclear. It also has a close DNA relationship to the Malvasia Fina grape which was documented growing in the Minho Provence of northwest Portugal as early as 1790. The Malvasia family of white wine grapes are thought to have originated in Greece. However, there were no written references to Albarino in Galicia until 1843 when a document referred to a parcel of 40 vines that were thought to be between 200 and 300 years old. If true, that would certainly indicate that Albarino certainly has been grown in northwest Spain for a very long time. Immigrant, indigenous, or crossbred from both, the exact ancestry of Albarino, like many European varietals may may never be definitively established. A case in point: there are currentlyover 80 cultivated modern grapes that can trace part of their ancestry to Gouais Blanc an old prolific varietal grown by peasants in medieval times. However, much of that lineage is still conjecture owing to numerous parent grapes being extinct and unavailable for DNA analysis.
Today, the premier growing region for Albarino is the Rias Baixias Denominacion de Origen or DO (a Spanish classification similar to an appellation, but which covers other food products like cheese). Albarino accounts for over 90% of the wine grapes grown in Rias Baixias which is further divided into 5 distinct sub-regions; each with their own micro-climate and wine making traditions. Subject to a maritime influence from the Atlantic Ocean, the region’s overall climate is cool, humid and very wet with annual rain totals sometimes exceeding 70 inches. Albarino is a thick skinned grape with tight clusters, and the damp climate requires care to prevent powdery mildew. Growers typically train their vines on high trellises or pergolas to provide plenty of air circulation but even then a stringent spray regimen is required.While the wines styles can vary by sub-region, they all tend to be bone dry with a pale golden color, crisp acidity, and alcohol levels around 12%. Aromatic profiles can include white peach, apricot, melon, pineapple, mango and honeysuckle.
Spanish winemakers have enthusiastically embraced the entire pallet of modern winemaking techniques. Pre-fermentation maceration, wild yeasts, barrel fermentation, extended Lees contact, and malolactic fermentation are all possible depending on the producer. Regulations on planting density, pruning, training methods, and authorized yields have also had a positive influence on quality.
Traveling south into northern Portugal, Albarino (Alvarinho) is one of a number of white grapes permitted in the Vinho Verde DOC (denominação de origem controlada: the Portuguese appellation system for agricultural products). In the early 16th century the Portuguese established regulations designed to maximize the production of Maize. As a result, grape vines were restricted to the margins of fields and grown around the trunks of trees and draped over bushes surrounding fields that were used for other purposes. Today, there are still some vineyards that are relics of this practice, but most vineyards have transitioned to traditional trellis systems. One aspect of viticulture that has not changed is the Portuguese practice of over cropping the vines. High yields coupled with a cool maritime climate result grapes with less than optimum ripeness, and wines with alcohol levels less than 10%. Vinho Verde literally means “green wine” but translates as “young wine”. Most of the whites, Albarino included, are destined to be blended into this early drinking low alcohol wine. These wines are sometimes bottled with a little CO2 added to give them a light sparkling and refreshing sensation in the mouth. In two smaller sub-regions of the area, Monção and Melgaco, Albarino is destined for single varietal wines with higher alcohol and those grapes are carefully nurtured to achieve the optimum ripeness necessary for that style.
Inevitably, Albarino has found its way to the grape growing regions of the new world with varying degrees of success. The Australians began importing the grape in the 1980’s and have achieved some success with their version of this varietal’s wine. However, in 2009, a French ampelographer identified some of the vines in Australian vineyards as the French grape Savagnin, which DNA testing subsequently confirmed. Apparently the original 1951 clippings in the Spanish collection were actually miss-identified cuttings of Savagnin. True Albarino clippings were added to the collection in 1975. So depending on when they were planted, some vineyards in Australia are imposters and some true Albarino. It has become a marketing and legal nightmare.
Fortunately, with the grape being a more recent arrival in California, vintners here avoided the Albarino identity crisis. According to the California Grape Acreage Report, there were less than 2 acres planted prior to 2001, with a gradual expansion to 280 acres by 2015. Today there are vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley, Clarksburg, Napa, Edna Valley, Los Carneros, and in Amador’s Shenandoah Valley. While the climate of these areas is markedly different than Spain’s Rias Baixias region, the vinicultural practices, particularly in regard to lower yields may be more in line with Albarino’s needs.
The Bray Vineyards Albarino was grafted over to established rootstock and the vines are now 3 year old. Selective pruning kept the 2016 crop small and in balance with what the young vines could support. We processed only enough grapes to produce 12 cases of wine for our first Albarino vintage. The inaugural release is scheduled for March at the “Behind the Cellar Door” celebration. This is a light, medium bodied wine with only 13% alcohol. The nose is predominately floral with hints of green apple, while on the pallet the refreshing acidity combines with overtones of honeysuckle and pear. This easy drinking Albarino will be a perfect summer time choice for hot lazy afternoons.
Unlike most major wine grape varietals whose origin is obscured by myth, legend and time, the history of Alicante Bouschet is well known. Alicante was created on purpose to fill a void in French winemaking. Its creation was brought about by the confluence of two unrelated developments: canals and imperialism.
The Romans were the first to express an interest in joining the Mediterranean to the Atlantic with a canal, a concept also expressed by Charlemagne. However, it was a French farmer, Pierre-Paul Riquet, with an extensive knowledge of southwestern French rivers who actually attempted the feat. He designed and built the “Canal Royal de Languedoc” in 1667, but it wasn’t until 1856 when an extension called the “Canal de Garonne” finally linked the Bordeaux region with the Mediterranean. With the immediate success of this first canal, France embarked on a quest to use canals to link all four of its major rivers: the Seine, the Loire, the Garonne, and the Rhone. Viewing the French canal system as a waterway version of our own interstate highway system is an appropriate analogy, and its development is inextricably linked to France’s political and economic development. The canal pertinent to the creation of Alicante Bouschet was the “Canal de Bourgogne” started in 1777. When completed in 1832, it linked the Saone, a tributary of the Rhone, to the Yonne, a tributary of the Seine. It was then possible for bulk cargo to travel by canals and waterways from the Mediterranean to Paris.
Imperialism is the next piece of the puzzle. In 1827, two merchants owed Hussein Dey, the Ottoman ruler of Algiers, money, but they could not pay their debts until the French paid them for wheat they had sold to the French Army. The Dey summoned the French Consul, Pierre Deval, to demand that the French commit to paying their debts. When Deval gave only unsatisfactory answers, the Dey expelled him from the country waving him away with his fly whisk, a type of fan. One of the feathers of the fan touched the consul, who in anger informed the French Government that the Algerian ruler had struck him. The French initially demanded an apology which was followed first by a blockade and later by an invasion. Three weeks later Algeria was a colony of France. In time, immigrants from southern Europe followed, and their influx changed the Algerian economy into a producer of cash crops which were mainly imported to France. Wine became the county’s most important single export.
In the early 1800’s the French used their new canal systems to flood the markets with wines from Le Midi (Southern France) that were inexpensive, ordinary, light in color, and low in alcohol. Known as petit rouge or little reds, they were consumed by French workers as every day table wines. Later, competition from the darker more concentrated, and higher alcoholic wines from Algeria forced a change, and Alicante Bouschet was developed to improve the Le Midi wines. At the time, Aramon was one of the most widely planted French varietals, and although resistant to powdery mildew, its propensity for high yields produced rather lightly colored bland wines. In 1824, Louis Bouschet crossed Aramon with Teinturier du Cher in an attempt to add more color and named the varietal Petit Bouschet. Teinturier is a French term meaning to dye or stain. In a Teinturier varietal the anthocyanin pigments responsible for color accumulate both in the skin and also within the pulp of the berry unlike other red grapes. This produces wines of a deeper darker hue. Louis’ son Henry created a string of different varietals by crossing Grenache with Petite Bouschet. He named his first attempt in 1855 after himself, Alicante Henri Bouschet. Later iterations were named Alicante Bouschet Nos.1 through 13. All of these siblings were morphologically similar but produced wines that varied in quality. Some of these variants never made it past grape collections while others were propagated and tested in vineyards. In most cases they were just given the generic name of Alicante Bouschet. Fifty years later, all but the most productive had fallen from favor which left the original, Alicante Henri Bouschet. Unfortunately, it was impossible to distinguish the original from Alicante Bouschet No.2, so some vineyards in France are a combination of the two. For simplification the varietal is just called Alicante Bouschet. It was Alicante’s color enhancing quality that induced the winegrowers of southern France to use it primarily as a blending partner for lighter colored wines.
A surge in plantings occurred in the late 19th century to replace Phylloxera devastated vineyards thanks in part to its deep color and impressive yields. Acreage has declined since the turn of the 20th century, but Alicante still ranks thirteenth in total French acreage. It can make soft fruity wines, but in France, Alicante is most often used as a blending grape where its teinturier heritage adds color as well as fruit to the blend. Interestingly, because it is a red fleshed Vitis Vinifera, French wine laws have sanctioned its use in production of “quality wine”; something that is prohibited for other hybrid varietals. Not surprisingly, Alicante has drifted south across the Pyrenees, and under the name Granacha Tintorea actually has more acres planted in Spain than in France. It is also increasing in popularity in Portugal where it produces impressive dark structured deep-fruited wines particularly in the drier hotter terroirs.
New world plantings are found in Chile, Argentina, and of course in California where it became extremely popular during Prohibition. The 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating beverages, was passed in 1919. The Volstead Act was the law intended to implement Prohibition, and section 29 of that legislation allowed the head of every household to produce up to 200 gallons of “non-intoxicating cider or fruit juice. This loophole in the law made it legal to purchase grapes for juice production, and the grapes were often sold with carefully worded instructions on what “not to do” to prevent the accidental production of wine.
Two hundred gallons equates to approximately 1000 bottles of wine or about 2 ½ bottles per day; more than enough to keep a resourceful family happy, and many California grape growers in business. New York’s Penn Station built a special auction room to handle the grapes and in 1928 one lot of 225 boxcar loads (enough to make 2 million gallons of wine) was purchased by a single buyer. However, the “home” bootlegger was the principal buyer, and focus shifted from varietals that could make high-quality wines to those that could survive the journey east.
Alicante’s thick skin and resistance to rot made it a good candidate for the long cross-country trek. However, it was the red pulp and intense color that allowed for a second or even third fermentation when additional sugar was added. These Alicante sugar wines were referred to as “jackass” wines, and the process could boost the yield to as much as 600 gallons of wine (or something that resembled wine) per ton of grapes. This was more than twice as much as any other red grape, and that sealed the deal for Alicante. By the 1930s, Alicante was the second most-planted grape in California, and it accounted for a third of all grape production with vineyards approaching a total of 30,000 acres by the 1940’s.
With the repeal of the 18th Amendment, focus slowly shifted from quantity to quality, and as the vineyard saw a resurgence of other classic wine varietals, the acreage devoted to Alicante Bouschet started a gradual decline. By 1985 acreage had dwindled to less than 3000, and by 2016 the reported acreage was just under 1000.Terroir is important for a varietal and no less so for Alicante Bouschet which thrives best in hot drier climates. While still primarily used as a blending grape by most wineries, Alicante does well in Amador’s Mediterranean climate, and can, with the proper attention, make a delicious, concentrated dark red wine. Floral notes and rich red fruit aromatics with a round mouth feel, pleasant acidity and soft tannins are all possible with proper pruning and moderate yields. It is one of those wines that always presents better when it has had time in a bottle. Time helps to develop the tertiary aromas which add complexity and enjoyment.
The varietal we know as Barbera is believed to have originated in the hills of Monferrato in central Piedmont which geographically is at the top of the Italian boot. It is mentioned in Piedmont as early as the thirteenth century but there is some evidence for an even earlier cultivation. Historians believe it grew spontaneously from the seed of an older local grape variety and was later planted to replace old and poorer quality local grapes. Recent DNA evidence suggests that Barbera may be related to the French-Spanish varietal Mourvedre. Interestingly, in the Piedmontese-Italian language the vine is considered male (IL Barbera) while the wine is female (LA Barbera); possibly because the ancient farmers got more enjoyment from drinking a pleasurable wine than performing hot dusty field work in the vineyards. Today, Barbera is the third most widely planted grape in Italy and the most widely planted in Piedmont./p>
In 1880, the University of California’s Department of Viticulture established an experimental station system tasked with determining grape varieties suitable for different regions. One of the original four stations was located in Amador County but an 1884 report of varietals known to be grown at that time did not include Barbera.
While few would dispute the likelihood that undocumented vines probably arrived along with Italian immigrants in the post gold-rush era, the first documented case of importation belongs to John T. Doyle, a lawyer, scholar, and wine industry leader. He purchased land near Cupertino for a winery in 1883 but also donated a parcel to U.C. Berkeley for incorporation into the experimental station system. Barbera was among the first varietals evaluated at the Cupertino station and by 1893 had made its way to the Sierra Foothill Station in Amador County. Prior to enactment of the Volstead Act in 1919, there were approximately 5000 acres of Barbera planted in California. However, during the Prohibition era, numerous vineyards were replanted with thicker skin grapes varietals. Grapes that were capable of being shipped back east by rail and used for making the 200 gallons of home wine allowed by the Volstead Act. The varietal was slow to regain its popularity after repeal, and as late as 1968 the California Grape Acreage report listed a mere 1214 acres of producing vines. Barbera returned to the Sierra Foothills in 1971, when winemaker Cary Gott, following a suggestion from Darrell Corti, planted the varietal at Monteviña with the 1974 vintage being the first Amador County bottling.
Barbera is adaptable to numerous soils and climates around the world but tends to thrive best in less fertile soils. A vigorous vine capable of producing high yields, it needs to be kept in check by pruning and other techniques. Excessive yields can diminish the quality of the fruit and accentuate Barbera's natural acidity and sharpness.
It is ideally suited to grow in Amador’s Mediterranean climate where the vines like the warm sunny days and cooler nights. The warmer temperatures allow the grapes to ripen completely; producing high sugar levels and full-bodied, spicy wines, while the cool overnight temperatures retain the fruit’s balancing acidity. Barbera has some natural resistance to pests, disease, and mildew. The pyramid shaped bunches are very compact with deep blue oval, medium sized berries that ripen in late September or early October. Barbera often requires extended hang time to lower the varietal’s natural acidity and ripen the fruit’s phenolics. The leaf, which is of medium size, has five-lobes, a very tormentose (hairy) underside, and can be easily recognized in the fall by its characteristic bright red color.
Barbera wines can be made in several different styles. The Foothill varieties can certainly be “La Barbera”, with rich deeply flavored seductive aromas. Reduced yields can achieve better balance between acid and fruit. Young wines have a fruity, floral nose and a distinctive taste of red fruits and black cherries. Lush plum and cherry flavors with hints of spice and black pepper are also common. The juice has a dark ruby color. As it ages, the color turns to garnet then lightens with brownish edges. Barbera is high in anthocyanins, but has only low to moderate tannin content. This makes the wine a perfect candidate for barrel aging where the barrel’s oak tannins help to stabilize the color and add complexity. Most Barbera is made to be enjoyed young: a wine to be appreciated for its distinctive fruit forward flavors and refreshing acidity. However, a good Barbera can age well; adding complexity and acquiring some of the flavor characteristic of Cabernet but with higher acid levels. The wines tend to peak in six to eight years after bottling.
The problem with a lot of fruit-forward wines is their lack of acidity which can make it difficult to match them with the right food pairing. However, Barbera has the perfect acidity to make it a natural and flexible "Grande Amico". It pairs well with almost any food on the table and is considered the everyday drinking wine of Piedmont. This makes the foods of northern Italy a classic match. Meat dishes, pasta in cream or tomato sauces and especially dishes featuring mushrooms or truffles are wonderful. The later is especially true with an aged Barbera. Pizza, grilled meats, and barbecued poultry also make excellent pairings. About the only food that might give pause is seafood and even that depends on the sauce and type of seafood. However, a word of caution: the bright acidity of Barbera will clash with any salad served with a vinegar-based salad dressing. Also, opening and allowing the bottle to breathe for a short timespan before the meal will accentuate the wine’s aromas and flavors, and is well worth the effort.
Cabernet Sauvignon is, arguably, one of the world’s most popular red wine varietals. The ‘king’ of red wine grapes is also one of the most planted grape varietals with over 721,000 acres worldwide. Interestingly, Cabernet Sauvignon is also a relative newcomer to the vineyard. Similar to other famous varietals, Cabernet has its share of myth and misconceptions regarding its origins: we seem to like a good story almost as much as we like a good glass of wine. One popular explanation hinges on the French word ‘sauvignon’ being derived from the French ‘sauvage’ which translates as wild. The implication being that Cabernet is a wild strain of Vitis Vinifera native to France. (Put link about here) There was also some conjecture that Cabernet Sauvignon was an even older varietal; possibly the famed Roman ‘Biturica’ grape described by Pliny the Elder. In fact, throughout much of the 18th Century it was commonly known as Petite Vidure or Bidure which suggested some relationship to the roman Biturica. However, by the end of the 18th century, the grape was more commonly referred to as Cabernet Sauvignon
In 1996, a team led by Carole Meredith at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, surprised the wine world when they used DNA fingerprinting to determine Cabernet Sauvignon’s lineage. Comparing the DNA of 51 different varietals and using 30 distinct microsatellite markers within that DNA, a statistical analysis pointed to a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Ampelographers (experts in grape classification) have long suspected a connection between Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, another distinguished varietal of Bordeaux vineyards. There are similarities between both their physical features and their aromatic profiles; each having blackcurrant and pencil box characteristics. The contribution of the white wine grape Sauvignon Blanc was a complete surprise. The “sauvignon’ name similarity was merely a reference to the resemblance of both grapes to local wild vines rather than a suspected lineage. Prior to the 17th century, there are no records of grape breeders making hybrid varietals, so Cabernet Sauvignon was most likely a natural crossing of two common varietals somewhere in Bordeaux.
One of the earlier possible recorded references to Cabernet Sauvignon comes from the 18th Century and Chateau Brane-Mouton. Baron de Brane ripped up the white varieties on his estate and planted a red variety called Vidure whose name derives from the French words ‘Vigne Dure’ or hardy vine; a reference to the tough nature of Cabernet Sauvignon. That name is still used today in some parts of the Bordeaux region. Unfortunately, in that period there was considerable name confusion among the grapes of Bordeaux, and the name Vidure was also used in reference to Cabernet Franc. An account book written by the Mayor of Libourne in 1763 referred to the grape as Petit Cabernet, and the first modern spelling of Cabernet Sauvignon didn’t appear until 1840. The famous 1855 classification of Bordeaux Châteaux gave Château Mouton a first growth classification while right next door Château d”Armailhac received a fifth growth rating. These two estates are now both owned by the Rothschild’s and were likely the original source for many of the Cabernet vines distributed throughout the Medoc region of Bordeaux, but the exact time and origin of this now famous varietal is still conjecture.
The 1855 classification originated as a marketing vehicle to promote Bordeaux wines at the ‘Exposition Universell de Paris’, a celebration similar to a World’s Fair held today. The classification was based simply on the price of wine from each chateaux and was concerned with only the left bank vineyards of Bordeaux. The ploy was widely successful and the wines of Bordeaux rose to worldwide prominence. At the time, the red wines of the left bank were blends consisting of some combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carmenere, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. It was the Phylloxera epidemic that started in 1869 that help propel Cabernet Sauvignon to its premier position in left bank blends. The solution to dealing with Phylloxera was to replant the local varieties on resistant American rootstock. However. Carmenere, Malbec, and even Petit Verdot did not respond as well as the other Bordeaux varieties to the new rootstock, and a large percentage of those vineyards were replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon. There were two other far reaching consequences of the Phylloxera infestation. The French lowered the vineyard density from 20,000 plus vines per hectare (2.5acres) to between 8,000 and 10,000 vines. They also learned that Cabernet Sauvignon did best in the gravely soil of the left bank while Merlot and Cabernet Franc prospered in the clay and limestone of the right bank. These developments led to an increase in the region’s wine quality and eventually the perception that Cabernet Sauvignon was the world’s premier red wine grape.
t may have been both name recognition and the perception of quality that initially fueled Cabernet’s worldwide distribution as a red wine grape. From its roots in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon has migrated to nearly every major wine producing area in the new world. Cabernet’s vinicultural characteristics were certainly part of the reason. The vines are hardy, and are naturally resistant to numerous insects and diseases. The vines also bud out later than most varietals which helps avoid frosts. Cabernet also tends to produce low yields of small thick skinned grapes that present consistent structure and flavors typical of the varietal.
Spanish colonists planted the first grapes in California before Cabernet had even come into existence. The first vineyards in continuous productivity were those of the California Mission system, but the famed Mission grape was most likely a cross of native vines and Spanish varietals. Even after Cabernet was firmly established in Bordeaux, it was unlikely that much of the varietal made it into the mission system because of the cost of importing vines from France. The first solidly documented record of growing Cabernet Sauvignon in California is attributed to Jean-Louis Vignes, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1831. He was dissatisfied with the wine made from the local Mission grapes and decided to import vines from his home area of Bordeaux France. Eventually his production exceeded demand, and by 1840 he was shipping wine to Northern California. However, the population explosion attributed to the 1849 Gold rush was the real impetus for the growth of the California wine industry. It was Agoston Haraszathy, who arrived in 1858, who put California winemaking on the road to respectability. His initial attempts to grow grapes in the bay area failed because the foggy climate inhibited their ripening fully. He then purchased a small vineyard in Sonoma, renamed it Buena Vista, and hired Charles Krug as his winemaker. Later the State Agriculture Society published his “Report on Grapes and Wine of California”, which was a practical guide for viticulture in the state. In 1861 he embarked on a grand tour of European vineyards and returned to California with over 100,000 cuttings comprising some 350 different varieties. Among them were cuttings from Bordeaux, and Cabernet Sauvignon finally had a firm footing in the State.
Having barely survived Prohibition, Cabernet Sauvignon entered the 1960’s with a mere 615 acres of documented vineyards, which was a miniscule portion of the State’s 85,000 total acres of wine grape varietals. In 1976 Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant, sponsored a wine competition between French and American Cabernet’s and Chardonnays. The results, which became known as the “Judgement of Paris”, shocked the wine world. The Californian entries took the top spots with a Stag’s Leap Cabernet and a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. This much publicized event is often given credit for spotlighting the potential quality of Californian wines and being the impetus for Cabernet’s explosive growth in Sonoma and Napa Counties. While the former is certainly true, the acreage planted to Cabernet Sauvignon actually declined following the “Judgement of Paris”, and didn’t reach its previous 1976 acreage totals until 1989. Not surprisingly, it may have been the wealth generated by the dot-com boom of the late 1990’s that was the real impetus for growth. The explosion of Cabernet plantings began its meteoric rise in 1997, and by 2000 there were over 69,000 acres. Last year’s grape acreage report cited over 92,000 acres of Cabernet, which accounted for 30% of all red wine grapes grown in California.
Like all grapes, soil and climate (or what the French call terroir) can have a significant impact on the final profile of the wine. California, with its diverse topography, complicates the matter. While there are only four soil types in Bordeaux, California has over 30, and nearly as many climate variations owing to the influence of elevation on the different vineyards.
Cabernet Sauvignon’s classic expression is as a full-bodied wine with high tannin content and crisp acidity; both of which give this varietal good aging potential. The variations on the classic profile seen in California Cabernets are more a function of the climate than anything else. Cooler climate Cabernets typically have notes of, mint, cedar, and bell pepper. Pyrazine is the compound responsible for that herbaceous bell pepper aroma. It is present in all grapes, but found in higher concentrations from varieties that have originated from Bordeaux. The compound is gradually destroyed by sunlight as a grape ripens, which is why climate is so important with Bordeaux varietals. In under-ripe fruit, the bell pepper dominates and can give the wine an undesirable herbaceous quality
Vineyards with moderate climate and coastal stratus clouds can produce grapes with ripe tannins, and fruit that expresses black currant aromas with overtones of black cherry and black olive. Where the climate is too hot, or if the fruit is left too long on the vine, Cabernet’s aromas veer towards cooked, jammy or stewed fruit. The key is to find just the right site or microclimate to produce fruit with optimum ripeness. At Bray Vineyards, the cabernet is planted behind the winery buildings on an easterly facing slope that moderates the amount of sun the vines receive. Coupled with the late blooming character of the varietal, these vines receive a relatively shorter exposure to heat and light which counteracts any tendency for over-ripeness.
Vineyard yields can also have a significant impact on the concentration and flavor of the wine. Cabernet is naturally vigorous and on the wrong rootstock will over produce, accentuating green or herbaceous flavors. Careful suckering, and attention to the fruit leaf ratio is also important. Bray’s Cabernet yields a modest 2½ tons per acre, which concentrates the fruit of our small number of vines.
Cabernet is a varietal that can reflect the style of the individual winemaker while still adhering to the recognized aromas and characteristics of the grape: in short many of us would recognize it in a blind tasting as Cabernet. These core attributes allow the winemaker considerable latitude to express the winery’s style. The grape’s small size and thick skin have a lot of phenolic compounds and tannins available. How much extraction is used is up to the winemaker. Early Bordeaux wines were often left on the skins for three weeks while the winery staff took a hunting holiday after the harvest. This resulted in intense, but extremely tannic wines that required years of aging. Winemakers also have the option of using fining agents to soften the tannins for earlier release. Fermentation temperature is also critical with more fruit expressed at lower temperatures, and more flavor components at higher ones. The final piece of the puzzle revolves around oak, which Cabernet loves. How much and what type are certainly a style statement. Oak has a softening effect on the grape’s tannins and adds another array of wood flavors to complement the grape’s already complex bouquet. The degree of toasting the barrel receives has a substantial impact on the wine, but in broad terms, American oak offers stronger wood flavors and notes of vanilla, while French oak contributes more tannins and has subtle notes of spicefont.
We get to enjoy Petite Sirah thanks to Francois Durif, a botanist and grape breeder at the University of Montpellier in Southern France. Discovering a naturally propagated vine that was resistance to powdery mildew, he propagated it for commercial use and named it after himself. Unfortunately, while resistant to mildew, the grape’s small tight clusters made it susceptible to bunch rot in humid conditions (not typically a problem in CA) and the grape fell out of favor with local growers. Fortunately for us, in 1884, Charles McIver, founder of the Linda Vista Winery near San Jose, imported a number of French varietals for his vineyard. Among them were Durif’s newly propagated grapevines whose name he changed to "Petite Sirah." No one knows why McIver changed the name. It may have been an attempt to make the Rhone connection for commercial purposes, or since McIver already grew true Syrah, he may have confused Durif for the smaller berried version of a true Syrah. Or perhaps he just didn’t think Durif was a very marketable name. Whatever the reason, the new name stuck and the name confusion with Syrah has been with us ever since.
Adding to the confusion, most older vineyards labeled Petite Sirah are actually field blends. At the time it was standard practice to interplant several different varietals in the same vineyard to increase the complexity of the wine. This resulted in vineyard blocks which in addition to Durif, also contained Peloursin, Syrah, Alicante Bouschet, Carignan, Grenache, Mourvedre or Zinfandel. While some of these are distinct and recognizable varietals, others have confusingly similar characteristics. It took some painstaking detective work, and some DNA fingerprinting by researchers, led by Dr. Carole Meredith at UC Davis, to unravel the mystery. In addition to establishing Durif as the primary varietal in 90% of the vineyards labeled Petite Sirah, The UC Davis scientists also established Syrah and Peloursin as the two parent vines.
Growers liked Petite for its fragrance, deep color, and high yield. It soon became a vineyard favorite and was historically used as a blending grape to add body to inferior wines. By the beginning of the 20th century, Petite Sirah was one of the three most widely planted grape varietals in California, along with Zinfandel and Mourvedre. The advent of national Prohibition increased its esteem even more. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors. However, the Volstead Act which was the law enacted to carry out Prohibition, allowed for 200 gallons of homemade wine. The grapes of choice quickly became Alicante Bouschet and Petite Sirah because their tough skins made them less susceptible to damage and rot on the long train journey back East. Additionally, their naturally dark pigmentation allowed for a second batch of wine to be made by merely adding water and additional sugar to the already pressed grape skins. After Repeal in 1933, Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet together accounted for more than two-thirds of all vineyard plantings in Napa Valley. Most plantings of Petite Sirah were made before the 1960s, when vintners were mainly concerned with producing copious amounts of flavorful blends of generic "Burgundy." Wines that showed sensory characteristics of specific varietal identity were of little consequence. In 1961, Concannon Vineyards of Livermore Valley produced California's first varietally labeled Petite Sirah. Other wineries soon followed and Petite Sirah enjoyed modest success as a varietal wine, attaining almost cult status. As recently as 1970, Petite Sirah was the dominant grape variety in the Napa Valley and over 13,000 acres were planted statewide. However, after the Judgment of Paris in 1976 (the movie “Bottle Shock”) and the onset of “Cabernet Fever”, Petite Sirah’s acreage began dwindling. By the early 1990s there was less than 1,600 acres statewide. The new millennium has seen a resurgence of interest in Petite Sirah, and plantings have increased to over 5000 acres with 190 wineries marketing the varietal. It is also an important blending grape, bringing deep color and intense tannins to the blending table. It is the variety most often chosen to blend into zinfandel for added complexity, structure, and to tone down the tendency of zins toward "jammy" fruit.
The average age of Petite Sirah vines tends to be older than that of most other Californian varietals with the exception of Zinfandel. The leaves are large, with a bright green upper surface and paler green lower surface. The berries form tightly packed clusters that can be susceptible to rotting in rainy environments which is normally not the case in California. Petite Sirah is a vigorous vine and needs a great deal of suckering to keep it in check. The clusters of small berries result in a greater percentage of skin surface relative to the overall berry mass. This high skin-to-juice ratio can result in a very tannic wine if the winemaker does not carefully control skin contact during fermentation.
Petite Sirah produces dark, inky colored wines with typical flavors reminiscent of black fruits, plums, blueberries, and spice. Herbal and black pepper overtones are also quite often present. The wines have a firm texture, full mouth feel, and are rich in tannins with an unexpected degree of acidity. This profile makes them some of California’s longest lived red wines with smoothness and mellowing occurring over 10, 15, or even 20 years of cellaring. Typically, the wine doesn’t even begin to approach its potential until after several years in a bottle. Petite Sirah is also not a cocktail wine. True appreciation requires ideal conditions, which is why some wine lovers may have found their initial introduction to Petite Sirah a disagreeable tasting experience. Proper enjoyment requires decanting, or extended breathing time. This is true whether the wine is young and full of intensity, or older and still sleepy after a long hibernation. Petite Sirah is almost always better when served with foods. Pairings such as roast beef, stews, and full-flavored mature cheeses are all very complimentary.
DNA fingerprinting has established that Zinfandel and Primitivo have a almost identical genetic profile with some small differences owing to their separation by time and distance. For Zinfandel it was a circuitous journey from Croatia through Austria, Long Island, and Boston, and eventually reaching California during the ‘Gold Rush” timeframe. Primitivo, that other sibling of the Croatian varietal, Crljenak Kaštelanski, the one we know today as Primitivo had a more direct journey. It was simply imported to California as a new varietal in 1968
Local legends maintain that Primitivo grapes were first planted in Italy during the 1700’s, but the exact manner in which it was first introduced is still a matter of some speculation. The best scenario is supported by Italian church records which indicate that a priest named Don Francesco Filippo Indellicati spotted and isolated a type of grape that ripened early. He named it Primitivo and began cultivating it in Gioia del Colle near Bari. From central Puglia, it spread south to Manduria and down the heel of the Italian boot. The term “Primitivo” is derived from the Latin “primativus” or “primaticcio,” two words which refer to the early-ripening characteristic of the grape. The first documented use of the term Primitivo appeared in Italian governmental publications in the 1870s. This was 40 years after the first documented use of the term Zinfandel. A fact that was erroneously thought to suggest that Primitivo was first introduced to Italy from across the Atlantic. We now know of course that both grapes have a Croatian origin.
Most Primitivo is grown in Puglia (Apulia), the "heel" of Italy. This tiny region, mostly known for massive production of ordinary wines, produces more red wine than the entire continent of Australia. Primitivo is estimated to be Italy’s 12th most widely planted grape varietal. (Insert link to Website around here) Like Zinfandel, it had a long history as a bulk wine. The wine’s high alcohol and plush fruit made it attractive to wine merchants in Tuscany and Piedmont, who used it to beef up their thinner northerly wines. Now with an established link between Primitivo and Zinfandel and also with New World wine making techniques, things have begun to change. Richly crafted, well structured, and more concentrated Italian Primitivo wines are becoming more common. However, there are still many ordinary mass-produced jug-wine style versions that use new American oak to imitate American-style Zinfandel.
Is there something Italian about Primitivo and something distinctly Californian about Zinfandel, even if they share the same DNA? Since their origins, there has been a small amount of genetic divergence between the grapes of Italy and those of California. As previously noted, Primitivo does have a tendency to mature early. While field test comparisons confirm the similarities between the two varietals, there are differences. Some wine makers believe that the earlier maturation of Primitivo grapes can yield subtly different flavors. As a clone, Primitivo will have many of the same sensory characteristics as Zinfandel, but in my opinion, it tends to be more structured and tightly wound. Think of Primitivo as Zinfandel on steroids, so to speak. Blackberry fruit tends to dominate while the spice and clove accents are more intense, and notes of pepper are more common.
As with Zinfandel, the winemaker has a large degree of latitude in the style of Primitivo that he chooses to craft. The flavor of Primitivo can vary somewhat depending upon growing conditions; wines from cooler locales tend to have a light raspberry predominance, while wines from warmer districts offer a more peppery taste with distinct blackberry and anise highlights. In general, the wines made from Primitivo grapes are robust and hearty, with round mouth feels and typical alcohol contents in the 14-15 percent range.
Grape growers in both Italy (Primitivo) and California (Zinfandel) will fiercely defend their clonal version as being superior, but what happens if both can be labeled as Zinfandel? In 1999, the European Union (EU) recognized Zinfandel as a synonym for Primitivo. This meant Italian Primitivo can be labeled as Zinfandel in the United States and any other country that recognizes EU labeling laws. Italian winemakers took advantage of these rules and began to ship Primitivo wines to the United States labeled as Zinfandels. This was done with the approval of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), who proposed in 2002 that Zinfandel and Primitivo be recognized as synonyms. In 2007, the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) was created after the enforcement functions of the ATF were moved to the Justice Department. The TTB continues to list both Zinfandel and Primitivo as approved grape varietals for American wines, but they are not listed as synonyms. This means that U.S. producers must label a wine according to whether it is Zinfandel or Primitivo which is not the case with Italian producers.
Zinfandel or Primitivo: what’s in a name? Money of course -- the motivation for all commerce. Now while the arguments surrounding specific names involve brand recognition, they also provide the consumer with the wherewithal to locate the desired bottle of wine. The European tradition has been to name the wine after a geographic location and the requirement to be familiar with the local minutia of French or Italian geography can be a daunting prospect. The response of the New World Wine Industry (everywhere but Europe) has been to name the wine after the varietal used with certain allowances for blending (i.e. 80% in California). As previously noted, the Puglia region of Italy currently produces more red wine than all of Australia. This potential to flood the market with cheap Zinfandel is making California vintners extremely nervous. Members of ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers), an industry trade group, have spent considerable effort and millions of dollars raising the perception of Zinfandel in the United States and abroad as a high class, high quality wine. Zinfandel currently accounts for over twelve percent of the total wine sales in the United States each year. Clearly, there is significant monetary potential involved.
Previously, it was the New World that attempted to cash in on the name recognition of Old World locales by naming their wines after Champagne or Burgundy. These attempts drew the ire of the European Union and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Now the shoe is on the other foot as California vintners try to prevent the Italians from flooding the market with inexpensive Primitivo labeled as Zinfandel. Currently, the case seems to be on the back burner. Its future lies in either an acceptance of Italian Primitivo as Zinfandel by American wine producers or an overturning of the ATF ruling which allows Italians the use of the name Zinfandel. The mechanism would most likely be a bilateral agreement between the United States and Italy on name ownership, or perhaps an eventual dispute before the WTO. More than anything, vintners on both sides of the Atlantic seem to be at the mercy of their governments which are using the Zinfandel case as a bargaining chip for other trade issues.
The narratives of the origins of any particular grape varietal are often an intriguing blend of historical facts and romantic myths, designed more to popularize the varietal in the minds of consumers with the end result of more wine sales, than to establish an accurate chronological timeline. Sangiovese is a case in point! There is no dispute that it is an ancient grape originating on the Apennine Peninsula. However, pinpointing exactly where and when depends on the source. Romantics would have you believe it was developed and cultivated from wild strains of vitis vinifera by the Etruscans, an early Italian civilization that dominated Tuscany prior to the emergence of the Roman Empire. Other legends give credit to the Romans. The proof residing on the etymology of the name Sangiovese which is thought to be a derivative of the Latin phrase Sanguis Jovis or “the blood of Jove”. The expression is credited to the Monks of the commune Santarcanelo di Romagna; which by the way is not in Tuscany, but on the Adriatic. The skeptic would ask why a religious order would praise a wine by naming it after Jupiter, a pagan god.
The consumption of wine played a central role in Roman social life, and was considered a democratic beverage enjoyed by all, from slave to Consul. The Roman winemaking culture was constantly influenced and improved by the techniques and skills imported from the different conquered regions. This process resulted in major contributions to viticulture including the classification of grape varieties and colors, observing and charting ripening characteristics, identifying diseases and recognizing soil-type preferences. They also became skilled at pruning and increasing yields through irrigation and fertilization techniques. This was all documented by the prolific scribes of Rome who interestingly enough fail to make any mention of Sangiovese. So much for myth!
It was not until 1590 that an Italian writer named Giovanvettorio Soderini referred to a Tuscan grape called Sangiogheto that made excellent wine. While not conclusive, this written reference is given some credence by historians. By the eighteenth century the varietal was firmly established in Tuscany and described as a first-rate wine, but one that needed blending with other grapes to modify its bracing acidity. In the late nineteenth century, Bettino Ricasoli, a politician influential in the early attempts at Italian unification, also formulated one of the early blending profiles for Chianti aimed at taming that acidity.
We turn to science and the developments of the twenty-first century to shed some light on the true origin of Sangiovese. Using DNA profiling in 2004, Italian researchers established Sangiovese as a cross between Ciliegiolo, a grape with a long history in Tuscany, and Calabrese Montenuovo, a grape which originated in the Calabria region (toe of the boot). Fittingly, this makes the genetic heritage of Sangiovese half Tuscan and half southern Italian, but exactly where and when the cross occurred is unknown. Today, the grape is Italy’s most widely planted varietal covering over 235,000 acres of vineyards. Adaptable to a variety of environmental niches, the cultivar has developed a significant variability in characteristics. So much so that many Italian viticulturists regard Sangiovese as a population rather than a specific varietal. Further DNA studies in 2008 established a link between Sangiovese and 10 other widely planted Italian red grape varietals, thus giving Sangiovese a key role in the pedigree of the Italian wine industry. An attempt to bring some semblance of order to a grape with over 70 recognized clones has met with only limited success. Dividing the varietal into large berry clones (Sangiovese Grosso) and small berry clones (Sangiovese Piccolo) does have some ampelographic basis.
Understanding and appreciating a varietal that comprises over 10% of the vines in Italy’s 900,000 registered vineyards can be mindboggling. The underlying constraint vintners face in over 300 separate geographic locations are covered in the regulations promulgated by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. The two primary regulations, Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), dictate the area of production, permissible varieties, yield, minimum alcohol levels, winemaking techniques, aging regimes, and such vineyard practices as pruning and trellising. The unintended effects of such bureaucratic micro-management are best illustrated by looking at two of the primary Sangiovese clones, Brunello and Sangioveto. While Sangiovese is grown in varying degrees throughout Italy, in Tuscany it is King and arguably on the top of that throne is the Brunello clone. This Italian classic had its roots in the mid-nineteenth century, when a local farmer named Clemete Santi began a quest for a wine that would be 100% Sangiovese, and also be capable of extended aging. He started by isolating certain vines and carefully cultivating the more promising ones. He also preferred planting on north facing slopes, which he felt afforded the vines better conditions for optimal ripening. His viticultural techniques, and what would today be referred to as clonal selection, produced wines that were lighter and more elegant than wines made from other clones, or those given southern exposure. In 1888, his grandson Ferruccio Biondi-Santi released the first modern version of Brunello di Montalcino which had been aged for over 10 years in large wooden barrels. By the mid-twentieth century, these bottlings were highly sought after and when the first DOC regulations were promulgated in 1963, wines from that region were required to be 100% Sangiovese Brunello clones.
The Chianti (think Sangioveto) region had a different problem altogether. As previously mentioned, historical records documented early attempts at taming Sangiovese’s bracing acidity and fleshing out perceived gaps in its flavor profile by blending it with other grapes. Early to mid-twentieth century Chiantis were typically of low quality, with vintners liberally employing a virtual laundry list of blending grapes, including some white grape varietals. The implementation of DOC laws in 1963 stipulated that at a minimum, at least 10% of the blend include Trebbiano and Malvasia. These mediocre grapes diluted flavors, and did little to moderate Sangiovese’s high acidity. More importantly, the regulations in place for both clones, failed to account for the evolution in wine making techniques that come with experimentation and innovation.
In 1971, an innovative vintner, Piero Antinori, produced a blend modeled after a wine made by his cousins that was primarily Cabernet Sauvignon with a percentage of Sangiovese added. Although made in Tuscany, it did not conform to DOC regulations, and despite being a premium wine, it could only be labeled as a Vino da Tavola (table wine). Soon other producers, using modern techniques, were blending Sangiovese with other varietals, and a flood of high quality Super Tuscan blends hit the market. Some of the best and most expensive Sangiovese wines in Italy were now being labeled as table wine. In 1980, the regulators responded with the DOCG, but the G, which stood for guarantee, didn’t apply to quality and the situation became even more muddled. A third attempt at revamping occurred in 1992 with the Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT). Intended as a liberalization that allowed Super Tuscans, it also opened the door for a sea of mediocre country wines. Today, Italian wine laws are still evolving. There is no doubt that Italian wines have seen a marked increase in quality, but the official designations are, at best, a general statement as to superior locations rather than to the quality of specific wines.
Sangiovese arrived on the west coast with the flood of immigrants during and immediately following the California Gold Rush. There were probably hundreds of newcomers arriving with suitcases stuffed with clippings from vineyards in the Old World. As was the common practice at that time, a new vineyard would be planted as a field blend with a variety of compatible varietals. Determining who planted the first dedicated Sangiovese vineyard is more problematic. In 1862, Sangiovese is listed among the vines imported by the Hungarian, Agoston Harazsthy, who founded Buena Vista winery and is sometimes referred to as the "Father of California Viticulture”. However, he left no record if he in fact planted a specific vineyard with those vines. Andrea Sbarboro, the founder of Italian Swiss Colony, is given credit by some because of a table wine produced in 1886 called “Tippo Chianti”. However, that concoction was actually a blend comprised of Charbono, Mourvedre and Zinfandel. Edoardo Seghesio is the more likely candidate. Originally an employee of Italian Swiss Colony, by the turn of the century he had established his own vineyards and started the Seghesio Winery. In 1910, he purchased land near a train depot called “Chianti Station” where he planted Sangiovese along with the rest of the typical Chianti blend varietals. The majority of California Sangiovese plantings failed to survive Prohibition and it was not until the international success of the Super Tuscans in the late 1970’s that interest in the variety was revived.
The return of California Sangiovese starts in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley. In the early 1980’s, Montevina Winery ( now Tera d’Oro) had acquired 9 vines that were brought to California by Alceo di Napoli, the proprietor of Castello dei Rampolla, a winery in the Chianti Classico region that dates back to the thirteenth Century. These Brunello cuttings could in turn be traced back to Tenuta il Poggione, who was one of the three original producers of Brunello di Montalcino originating in 1890. Using these 9 vines as a source, Caparone Winery in Paso Robles became the first winery to bottle a varietally labeled Sangiovese. Other vintners soon followed, including Vino Noceto’s Jim Gullett who also imported a number of other different Sangiovese clones. Jim has become something of a Sangiovese specialist focusing primarily on that varietal. Incidentally, the Brunello clone planted by Bray Vineyards was sourced from the Vino Noceto vines.
California acreage planted to Sangiovese increased rapidly from 200 acres in 1991 to over 3000 acres by 2003, but achieving quality wines was more elusive. Sangiovese, perhaps more so than most varietals, is unusually sensitive to its growing conditions. Terroir is extremely important, and the wrong soils, too much heat, insufficient nocturnal/diurnal temperature variations, the wrong clone and heavy handed handling in the vineyard or winery can all seriously compromise quality. Various combinations of these limiting factors inhibited production of wines with the quality of their Tuscan counterparts. However, unhindered by restrictive DOC regulations, a handful of innovative vintners met the challenge, and in the 1995 California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, 5 of the 6 Sangiovese wines entered earned medals with 3 golds and 2 double golds. Today, plantings have decreased to just over 1800 acres as the poorer sites were abandoned or more commonly grafted over to less finicky varietals whose crop yields led to better economic returns.
Sangiovese is a vigorous vine that buds early and ripens slowly. Excessive heat can be a problem, and yield and canopy control must be carefully managed to produce quality grapes. In the Shenandoah Valley, the less fertile soils help restrain vigor and yield, while the summer temperatures are kept in check by the delta breeze. The lack of summer rainfall is also beneficial for the thin-skinned grape that is susceptible to bunch rot in moister climates. Overall, Amador County may be one of the best locations in California for this finicky Tuscan import.
In general, Sangiovese, though recognizable, may be somewhat less aromatic than other varietals. Lower Brix (sugar content) grapes possess a distinctive fresh red fruit profile often with tart cherry and strawberry, while riper grapes trend towards dark cherry and black stone fruits. Secondary aromas of violets, pepper, spice, tomato and black tea are also common. Sangiovese needs careful handling to extract color and takes well to secondary malolactic fermentation and careful oak treatment. Naturally acidic, it is a wonderfully food friendly wine as anyone who has enjoyed a bottle with some rich Italian cuisine will attest to! The better versions are medium bodied, round and mildly tannic with lingering finishes. Quality Sangiovese will improve with bottle aging for 4 to 7 years with those made from the Brunello clone easily going twice that timeframe. When enjoying your next glass of Sangiovese, let it sit and breath for awhile, then sniff and enjoy those complex aromas from one of the world’s great grape varietals.
This month’s Trivia section will delve into the history of Syrah whose origins offer a prime example for comparing fact and fable. The past of nearly every varietal of “Old World” fame is difficult to trace, not only due to the paucity of written documentation but because as a general rule, we don’t like the facts to get in the way of a good story. These myths are fun to tell, and the mystic allure of some fabled past can add to our enjoyment of the wine. Syrah is a case in point. Like most varietals in Europe, Syrah goes by different names in different regions with at least fourteen different variations. Two of these variations Shiraz and Hermitage give rise to the most common legend based on homonyms.
In 9th Century Iran, the Capitol City was named Shiraz, which among other claims to fame, was also renowned for the finest wines in the Middle East. As late as the 17th Century, European travelers would extoll the virtues of these wines, and it was an easy extrapolation to conclude that Shiraz was the original source of Syrah. The person given credit for bringing the varietal to France was the Crusader Gaspard de Sterimberg who is thought to have built the chapel at Hermitage on the northern Rhone. However, there are significant problems with this story. The wines of Shiraz were white and Syrah is obviously a dark- skinned red grape. The descriptions of Iranian Shiraz wine bear little resemblance to those of Syrah. It is also highly unlikely that a Crusader could have successfully travelled as far east from the Holy Land as Persia, and returned alive in that time frame.
Another myth with even less documentation gives credit to the Phocaeans who were thought to have brought the grape from the Middle East to their colony near Marseilles in the 6th Century. Syrah would have then migrated to the Rhone Valley and later vanished from the Marseilles region without leaving any evidence of its cultivation. The plausibility of these stories collapses when you factor in DNA profiling. Scientific data conclusively establishes Syrah as the offspring of two obscure grapes from southeast France, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. There are no historical records that imply these two ancient varietals were ever cultivated anywhere but in the Rhone Valley. The obvious conclusion is that Syrah is a grape varietal indigenous to that area.
However, the DNA evidence does not tell us when this random cross (insert link here) between a red and white grape occurred, and myth quickly reasserts itself. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that winemaking in France dates to antiquity. There is ample archeological evidence that wine was being made by native Celtic tribes in the Montpellier region on the Mediterranean coast as early as 525 B.C.E. These indigenous Celts traded with Etruscan merchants, who were members of a pre-Roman civilization centered in Tuscany. Recovered clay amphorae from the excavated ruins of a collapsed Etruscan warehouse near Montpellier provided the clues. The later influx of Roman Conquerors, who brought with them established viticultural practices, simply built on an already entrenched wine culture. Then, with the Roman Empire as a trading partner, French vineyards spread throughout the Rhone River valley. In 77 A. D., Pliny the Elder wrote in his “Naturalis Historia” about the wines in the geographic area we would identify today as the Cote-Rotie of the Northern section of the Rhone Valley. He praised a wine named Allobrogica made from a dark skin grape, and while some are inclined to credit Syrah, the truth is that there are a number of ancient varietals that could have matched his descriptions. Regardless of exactly when Syrah started its rise to pre-eminence, by the 13th century it was well established and gaining in importance.
In France, Syrah is grown throughout the Rhone valley, but the wines it produces vary, and often significantly, due to small differences in soil and the slope of the valley terrain. Also of significance is the climate; Mediterranean in the south and Continental in the north. As a result, throughout the southern Rhone, Syrah is but one of several important varietals that are used in that region’s blends, where it brings both structure and color to the wines. However, it is in the northern Rhone that Syrah is king, and where it comes into its full potential. So much so, that under modern French wine laws (Appellation d’Origine Controlee or AOC) Syrah is the only varietal that is allowed to be grown in the north. The best known Syrahs of the northern Rhone are from the Hermitage appellation, the one where Gaspard de Sterimberg was thought to have settled. In the 18th century these wines were quite famous and even attracted the interest of Thomas Jefferson who wrote about them in his diary. In the early 1800’s, wines from the northern Rhone were the most expensive in the world. The Nicolas wine merchants, who established their first store in Paris in 1822, listed their Hermitage wines at prices higher than any Burgundy or Bordeaux. Hermitage would also be used to beef up Bordeaux wines for selective clients with the blend referred to as Bordeaux plus. All that changed in 1935 with the enactment of the AOC laws which controlled just about everything from what could be grown where, to vineyard and winemaking practices.
Limited to the Rhone Valley, the acreage for Syrah gradually started to decline, and by the late 1950’s there were only about 3300 acres planted. The quality of the Syrah wines had not declined, but the focus of influential writers and merchants was directed elsewhere. The trend began to reverse itself in the 1970’s, when the great wines of Hermitage, Cote-Rotie, and Cornas were rediscovered. Then in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the influential American critic, Robert Parker, bestowed a number of 100 point awards to Rhone producers, and the growth of new acreage exploded. Today, the French have planted over 172,000 acres of Syrah with the majority of that new acreage being planted in the southern Rhone due to limited site availability in the north. The popularity of the grape in France was mirrored worldwide, and in 2014 Syrah had traveled from relative obscurity to become the 6th most widely planted grape in the world.
France has the most worldwide acreage planted in Syrah, but Australia with over 100,000 acres, comes in second with Syrah being their most widely planted red grape. James Busby, the father of Australian viticulture, introduced the varietal in 1832 with some plantings in the Sydney Botanical Gardens and others in the Hunter region. The original documentation listed the varietal as “Scyras”, but that terminology was gradually replaced by either Shiraz or Hermitage, names popular in England during this time frame. In the late 1980’s, under European Union regulations, the French designated “Hermitage” as a protected designation of origin. The Australians complied, and the varietal is now known as Shiraz with an occasional producer making it in a more “old world” style and labeling it Syrah.
Australian Shiraz followed a path similar to French Syrah with a decline in the early 1970’s and many unprofitable “old vine” plantings being ripped out and replaced with more commercially viable grapes. However, like France, the perception of Shiraz’s quality changed in the late 1980’s. Both acreage and exports increased, and the proliferation of ripe, fruity, and inexpensive Shirazes mushroomed. Those inexpensive exports, with cute little “critters’ on the label, were probably influential in the varietal’s increasing popularity in California. Today an Australian bottled labeled Shiraz is typically what we might categorize as a rich, ripe, fruit forward wine with elevated levels of alcohol. One labeled Syrah on the other hand, would tend to be made in a leaner French style, with more complexity and aging potential.
The rise, decline and eventual redemption of Syrah in California was even more dramatic than elsewhere, and that story is intrinsically linked between the phylloxera root louse and French terminology. Phylloxera is an almost microscopic sap-sucking insect related to the aphid. The wing stage feeds on grape leaves, and the larvae phase attacks the roots where a secondary fungal infection will often girdle the root cutting off water and eventually killing the vine. The louse was indigenous to North America, and as a result, many Native American grapevines evolved a resistance to the disease. This was not the case with the European wine grape Vitis Vinifera, and when the two met, the results were devastating. Introduced to Europe by infected vines imported for various English Botanical Gardens, the louse was first discovered in 1863 in a greenhouse in the London suburb of Hammersmith. By 1865 it had infected vineyards in Provence France, and from there it spread like wildfire. Within a mere two decades it had spread throughout the most famous vineyards in Europe destroying 80% to 90% of the vines. Eventually Jules-Emile Planchon discovered the cause of the blight, and another Frenchman proposed that European Vitis Vinifera vines be grafted onto resistant American Vitis Riparia rootstock not susceptible to phylloxera. Fortunately, Thomas Munson, a horticulturist in Texas, had worked on the development of phylloxera resistant rootstock, and his ground work eventually led to a solution for the problem. However, replanting took time and Europe’s woes were America’s opportunity, and the California wine industry boomed.
In the late 1800’s, the French were making a clear distinction between different clones of Syrah. The smaller berried version, which the French called petite Syrah, was deemed superior to the larger berried variety, which was referred to as grosse Syrah. In 1878, the smaller berry version was imported by J.H. Drummond and slowly spread to other wineries in the state. By 1890, quality wines made from Syrah were being bottled and labeled as Hermitage. Phylloxera, which was native to the eastern United States, was unknown in California in the 1880’s. However, sourcing vines from Europe during that timeframe, particularly before the real cause of the European blight was identified, made it all but certain that phylloxera would eventually find its way west. The inevitable occurred, and by 1892 over 15,000 acres in Napa alone were destroyed. Most of the true Syrah was gone by the mid 1890’s and a major replanting and expansion was initiated in 1897. The clone sought by growers for this effort was the superior smaller berried version of Syrah referred to by the French as petite Syrah. However, there was another variety in the Rhone at that time being called Petite Sirah, but it was in truth, the grape Durif. While both versions of the small berried grape were imported, the majority were Durif, and true Syrah was effectively replaced by its offspring. It was difficult to distinguish between the two “petites”, and some old vineyards originally thought to be only Petite Sirah (Durif) are actually mixed plantings, with some of the vines being true petite Syrah.
There is no other mention of Syrah in California until 4 acres were planted by the Christian Brothers winery in 1959 despite a UC Davis advisory against planting the varietal. Joseph Phelps purchased the fruit, and liked the resulting wine enough to plant his own 6 acres. Word spread and the acreage of Syrah gradually increased; slowly at first but accelerating with time. The State data showed less than 100 acres in 1984 but 19,000 acres by 2010. Ironically, the phylloxera louse that was the root cause (no pun intended) of Syrah’s initial demise in California was also partly responsible for its return. In the late 1980’s, AxR#1, a phylloxera resistant rootstock, was turning out to be not so resistant and by the 90’s a major replanting effort was needed. Many producers viewed this necessity as an opportunity to reduce a glut of Merlot and Chardonnay plantings and reintroduce Syrah. Today, with over 23,000 acres, the United States ranks sixth on the list of worldwide producers of Syrah, trailing France (169,000 acres), Australia (105,00 acres), Spain (49,0000), Argentina (32,000 acres), and South Africa (25,000 acres).
Syrah has proven adaptable to a number of different locales in California, but like many grape varietals, the terroir exerts a strong influence on the style and quality of the wine produced. A vigorous variety where excessive growth can lower quality, Syrah requires extra attention to canopy management and crop thinning. Trellising is also necessary, because unlike most other varietals, Syrah’s canes extend down towards the ground rather than up towards the sun. It also tends to ripen earlier than other red Rhône varietals.
In hotter regions, Syrah tends to produce a full bodied, jammier wine with softer tannins and hints of pepper. Consequently, like the Syrahs of the lower Rhone, they often do better as a team players in a blend. However, in warm but not too hot climates, with less fertile soils, and just the right amount of stress, California Syrah’s can produce wines that rival any in the world: full bodied, firm tannins and lots of dark fruit with smoky undertones. These wines are also capable of longer bottle aging where they can develop savory, leathery, and earthy complexities.
Similar to all big reds, Syrah pairs well with all your classic roasted, grilled or smoked meat dishes as the fat in the meat will tone down the tannins in the wine. Syrah also makes a great match for rich braised dishes and stews. One trick when cooking on the grill is to use anise, cloves or pepper in your barbeque rub to bring out the subtle nuances in the wine. Or consider using Herbs de Province spice in regular dishes where the lavender, fennel and thyme will have a similar effect. Also, Syrah is often the perfect choice for wild game dishes like venison or duck.
Mention Spanish red wines and Tempranillo immediately springs to mind. This grape is a major cornerstone of Spanish winemaking, and is commonly referred to as Spain’s “Noble Grape”.
The cultivation of Tempranillo grapes goes so far back in Spanish culture, that until recently, historians were unsure of its exact place of origin. It was once thought to be related to Pinot Noir, but Ampelographers believed it to be an indigenous variety with a long presence in the wine making regions of the Iberian Peninsula. The confusion arose in part as a result of the grape being given different names in different locations. This black grape is known as Tinto Fino in the Ribera del Dueor of Northern Spain, but travel South to the La Mancha region, and the name changes to Cencibel. In Portugal it is call Tinto Roriz. In fact, there are at least 68 different synonyms for Tempranillo on the Iberian Peninsula. The origination puzzle was solved by a team of Spanish researchers in Madrid, who set out to identify the parents of this emblematic Spanish variety. The process was complex and involved several disciplines, including genetic, morphological and historical analysis. Their results conclusively established that Tempranillo originated in the Ebro River Valley about 1000 years ago as a cross of a white grape, Albillo Mayor, and Benedicto, a red one.
Spanish grapes have been harvested and made into wine with lineages reaching back to the time of the Phoenician and Roman settlements. The earliest written evidence of this industry dates to 873, in the form of a Monastic document. As was the case in most of Europe during mediaeval times, monks were the main practitioners and advocates of winemaking. The first specific reference to the Tempranillo grape in Spanish literature appears in a 13th century poem praising “las tempraniellas” as superior to other grapes. The Tempranillo moniker originates from the Spanish word “temprano” which means “little early one”. This is a reference to the tendency of Tempranillo to ripen a little earlier than other Spanish varietals. (Insert link about here) By 1765, Spanish vintners were making detailed written references concerning the grape, and by 1905 its ampelographic and oenological aspects had been rigorously defined. Tempranillo travelled widely in the 1900’s. Through trial and error, it was established in most of the world’s major wine regions. This is also the timeframe when Tempranillo first arrived in California bearing the name Valdepeñas. Unfortunately, the selection of inappropriate planting sites coupled with the encroaching era of Prohibition dampened early enthusiasm for the varietal. It was primarily used as a blending grape for jug wine along with those other jug wine mainstays, Barbera and Zinfandel. In1996, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) officially declared that Tempranillo was a synonym for Valdepeñas.
Tempranillo forms compact cylindrical bunches of dark purplish black fruit with a colorless pulp. The fruit is highly susceptible to pests and diseases. It also has a definite tendency to over-crop, which can have desultory affect on quality. The perfect growing climate has hot sunny days and cool nights. The heat produces grapes with high sugar content and thick skins rich in both tannins and complex flavonoids. The cool nights counteract the grapes tendency towards high pH, and preserves somewhat lower acidities with the corresponding sensory subtleties. These growing requirements were why the early planting sites selected in the Central Valley were unsuitable for quality wines. In its country of origin, the finest Tempranillo is arguably produced in the Rioja region, which is located on a 1500 foot plateau along the Ebro River. Similar growing conditions can be replicated by vineyards located in the Sierra Foothills. The move to more favorable sites started in the 1980’s, and the variety began to flourish, producing exceptional wines reminiscent of the grape’s Spanish origins. The 2012 California grape acreage report lists a mere 929 acres of Tempranillo grown statewide and only 91 of those in the Sierra Foothills. Yet with just under 10% of the acreage, the Sierra Foothills typically garner between 40 and 50 percent of all the medals awarded to Tempranillo at the California State Wine Competition. This is irrefutable evidence of the need to select a vineyard location suitable for the grape’s growing requirements.
Spain produces a range of wines, from light, savory rosés to age worthy masterpieces. While capable of being made as a stand alone varietal, Spanish Tomatillo’s are usually blended with other varietals to offset the grape’s naturally low acidity. This practice evolved to help maintain the wines body during aging, which in Spain can sometimes last as long as twenty five years in barrels. This practice is only possible because of Tempranillo’s natural resistance to oxidation. In California, Tempranillos can be blended but are more likely to be produced as a stand alone varietal. The wines are a deep ruby red in color with plumy-blackberry flavors, and undertones of herbs, vanilla, leather, with some earthiness. Aromas of cherries, red currants, spice, and tobacco are also possible. Well made wines can have an amazing degree of complexity and structure. They are typically made in a full bodied style and receive at least 18 months of aging in oak. The type and duration of oak is critical. A judicious combination of both new and used barrels allows the oak to impart complexities without overwhelming the fruit and acidity. In general, Tempranillos are an ideal accompaniment to tender cuts of meats and game particularly those prepared with fruity marinades and side dishes. Lamb and duck go particularly well as do the hard cheeses such as Manchego or Edam, and of course, Spanish dishes such as paella and various tapas.
In Portugal, the name Verdelho has historically been used for two distinct grape varietals. The first usage is in connection with a grape varietal that is planted on archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores, but it is not planted on continental Portugal. The other grape varietal previously known as Verdelho, and which is grown on continental Portugal, is now officially known as Gouveio (Godello in Spain). To help alleviate confusion, the Portuguese, by legislation in 2000, discontinued the name Verdelho for the grape varietal that is grown on the mainland.
The vintners of the Iberian Peninsula have long suspected a connection between the varietal Gouveio which is grown in the Portuguese Duro river valley and the Spanish varietal Godello grown in Galacia in northwest Spain. The advances of genetic profiling has established that the DNA of Gouveio is identical to that of Godello. What did come as a surprise was that the DNA of the varietal Verdelho grown in the Dao region of Portugal was also identical to Gouveio while the true Verdelho planted on Madeira has a distinct DNA profile. There are a number of other varietals on the Iberian Peninsula with the same DNA profile, but all with different names. This illustrates the wide distribution of this varietal on the Iberian Peninsula, and just to confuse things some more, Verdelho is also a sibling of another popular Spanish grape called Verdejo.
The origination of the first grape varietal, the one still known as Verdelho, is obscure at best. Some authorities suggest it originated in Crete as early as the 15th century, while others claim that Sicily was its place of origin. Documentation in either case is scarce. Recent DNA analysis also suggest a parentage from Greek grapes that are now thought to be extinct. There are also reasons to believe that it may have been a varietal indigenous to the Island of Madeira with which it has so long been associated.
Madeira is located in the eastern Atlantic about 375 miles west of Casablanca, Morocco. It was discovered in 1418 by a Portuguese Sea Captain called Zarco the Cross-Eyed. The name Madeira is derived from the Portuguese word for wood, and the island was originally covered by lush forested mountains rising precipitously from the sea to over 5700 feet. The early Portuguese settlers set fire to those forests, whose remnant ash combined with the Island’s volcanic soils to produce a rich fertile base perfect for growing grapes. The Island’s geography dictated the development of small terraced vineyards along the steep cliffs with the sunny southern slopes offering the best locations. In 1453, vines were initially imported from Crete which historically dominated early wine making in the Mediterranean. However, some vines were also imported from Portugal which obscured the origin of some of the varietals.
Located at 33o North Latitude, Madeira receives plenty of rainfall, with long hot summers and warm winters. These warm climate conditions favor development of grapes with high sugar content, and it is not surprising that Port became the predominate style of wine produced. Located just north of the South Atlantic Trade Winds, Madeira was ideally situated as the final maritime replenishing stop for vessels sailing to the New World. Subjected to equatorial heat in the ship’s cargo hold during those long sea voyages, the wines of Madeira soon became famous for their rich full flavors and an amazing ability to develop and improve markedly with age. Verdelho was one of four grape varieties traditionally used to make the original Madeira Ports. Unfortunately, the Phylloxera outbreak of the late 19th Century destroyed most of the original Verdelho plantings, and only a fraction of that acreage was replaced on the island. However, beginning in the early 1970’s, there has been a decided effort to increase the plantings of the more traditional varietals associated with Madeira’s history.
Today, Verdelho is both a grape and a style of one of the Island’s fortified wines. Sercial is the lightest and driest style followed by Verdelho which is medium sweet. The other two styles are Bual which is decidedly sweet and Malmsey which offers a rich succulent sweetness.
Verdelho has also found a home in Australia when John Macarthur brought it to his vineyards near Sydney in the early 1820’s. From there it spread to the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, the Langhorne Creek Area, south of Adelaide, and the Swan Valley near Perth. There are also plantings in Queensland with the total Australian production of Verdelho coming in at around 10,000 tons. In contrast, the latest California Crush Report shows a statewide total of only 1990 tons.
While Verdelho may not be a well-known varietal, or even one highly regarded by some critics in the wine world, its popularity is slowly rising as the consumer discovers this grape’s potential. Capable of making an intensely aromatic white wine with hints of stone fruits and honeysuckle, it can also have a full, round, succulent mouth feel balanced by a pleasant, crisp, refreshing acidity. Finally, it is a no-nonsense alternative to Chardonnay that tastes and smells like the grape it came from. Verdelho presents best when served chilled, and it pairs well with a variety of dishes. These include but are not limited to salads, seafood, and light white meats like grilled chicken or pork. It is also delightful when accompanied by dishes like tapas and light appetizers served on a hot summer afternoon.
What about that other grape known as Verdelho? The Verdelho on the mainland which is now officially called Gouveio is, as was previously mentioned, genetically identical to the Spanish grape Godello. So where did Gouveio / Godello originate? The short answer is: we don’t really know. The varietal, under numerous synonyms, is mostly cultivated in northern Portugal and in the autonomous Spanish community of Galacia which is directly north of Portugal. Galicia has an ancient history of grape cultivation going back to Roman times; and although Pliny the Elder makes a vague mention about a grape that could have been Godello, there are no actual Roman records of grape cultivation in Galicia. Like many varietals found on the Iberian Peninsula, experts have concluded that Godello / Gouveio is an indigenous local grape. The best guess has its origination from somewhere along the banks of the Rio Sil in Galcia. It is a well-respected varietal in Portugal and is grown in the north as well as the Douro Valley. It’s earliest historical mention in the Douro dates to 1531. However, Godello has not fared as well in Spain where in the 1970’s it was near extinction and down to only several hundred vines. It has subsequently grown in popularity with nearly 3000 acres now cultivated in Spain and an additional 2400 acres in Portugal.
So which Verdelho is grown at Bray Vineyards? The budwood for our vines came from Bokisch Vineyards in Lodi which specializes in Iberian Peninsula grape varietals. Markus Bokisch got his budwood from Ron Silva’s Silvaspoons Vineyard. Ron personally brought the cuttings in from Pico, the Azores Island where his ancestors are buried. The variety is found both in the Azores as well as Madeira. So Bray’s Verdelho is the real deal. Enjoy!
The history of Zinfandel is really a travel story which traces the route this ubiquitous Californian varietal took to reach the vineyards of Amador County. Of course when delving into the history of Zinfandel, it’s hard not to discuss its sibling, Primitivo. The two varietals were long suspected to be related and were considered to be identical by many Ampelographers (a field of botany concerned with the identification and classification of grapevines). Early evidence revolved around the comparison of the shape and color of the vine leaves and grape berries. Additional support was found in isozyme analysis. A homologous trait is any characteristic in two organisms that are derived from a common ancestor. One type of homologous trait is an isozyme which is a defined as different variants of the same enzyme having identical functions and present in the same individual. Prior to 2005, isozymes were the most widely used molecular markers for the study of genetic variations between populations. Their use has now been largely superseded by more definitive DNA-based approaches (i.e. Direct DNA sequencing).
The genetic evidence has established the two grape varietals as clonal variations of a common ancestor. The parent varietal is Crljenak Kaštelanski or "Kaštela Red", a grape which originated on the Dalmatian Coast and the offshore islands of Croatia. Clones are vegetative or asexual reproduction of the parent vine which results in a genetically identical plant. During the winter, you can simply take a dormant cane of the desired varietal and prune it to four leaf nodes. During the next growing season, simply stick that pruned cane in the ground. The two nodes below the soil will send out roots and the nodes above the soil will develop into leaves and shoots. This ancient system of propagation results in a genetically identical vine and was the standard technique used to select superior characteristics in a varietal over time. (Insert link somewhere around here) Of course modern farming practices now use shoots grafted to specially propagated, disease resistant root stock, but the older method was standard practice for most of the history of wine making. If you separate two identical vines by time and distance, then the older method of propagation will eventually produce notable differences in what are two almost but not quite genetically identical grapes. Such is the case with Zinfandel and Primitivo.
The path to solving the origin of Zinfandel started in the early 1990’s with a group known as ZAP, the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers. Their objective was to promote Zinfandel as a stand alone varietal and part of that mission entailed supporting scientific research on its origins. Conducting research at UC Davis, Professor Carole Meredith used DNA fingerprinting techniques to confirm that Primitivo and Zinfandel are clones of the same variety. Further research established that Zinfandel was one parent of a Croatian grape called Plavac Mali. With that discovery, the search narrowed down to the central Dalmatian coastal strip and its offshore islands. In 2001, a matching DNA fingerprint was found among samples from a vineyard in Kastela in central Dalmatia. The vine called Crljenak Kaštelanski ("Kaštela Red") appears to represent Primitivo and Zinfandel in their original home, although some genetic divergence has occurred since their separation. This Croatian vineyard contained just nine Crljenak Kaštelanski vines mixed with thousands of other vines.
While we now know that Zinfandel originated in Croatia, the story of how it got to Amador County lies on evidence a bit shakier than DNA finger printing. George Gibbs, a horticulturist on Long Island, NY received several shipments of grapes from Europe between 1820 and 1829. Some of these grapes are believed to have originated from the Imperial Nursery in Vienna, Austria. The Hapsburg Monarchy had assumed control of the Croatian and Dalmatian territories from the former Republic of Venice in 1797. The Hapsburgs were noted for maintaining a diverse collection of plants from their far-flung empire. There is a strong likelihood that Zinfandel was transported from Croatia to the Vienna Imperial Nursery to join that collection.
Mr. Gibbs visited Boston in 1830, and a Samuel Perkins of that city began selling "Zenfendal" soon afterward. By 1835, Boston’s leading nurseryman, Charles M. Hovey, was recommending "Zinfindal" as a table grape. It was soon widely grown in heated greenhouses for the production of table grapes ripening as early as June. The first reference to making wine from "Zinfindal" appears in John Fisk Allen's Practical Treatise in the Culture and Treatment of the Grape Vine (1847). Meanwhile the fad of hothouse cultivation faded in the 1850s as attention turned to Concord and other grape varieties that could be grown outdoors and survive the Boston winter. In the 1850’s Robert Prince and other Boston nurserymen joined the California Gold Rush and took Zinfandel with them. When the vine, also known as "Black St. Peters", arrived in California, it was initially regarded as a distinct variety, but by the 1870s it was recognized as the same grape as Zinfandel. Joseph W. Osborne may have made the first wine from Zinfandel in California. He planted Zinfandel at his Oak Knoll vineyard just north of Napa, and his wine was much praised in 1857. Planting of Zinfandel boomed soon after, and by the end of the 19th century it was the most widespread variety in California
These old Zinfandel vines are now treasured for the production of premium red wine, but many were ripped up in the 1920s during the Prohibition years (1920–1933), but not for the obvious reason. During Prohibition, the Volstead Act allowed for 200 gals of legal home winemaking. While Zinfandel grapes remained popular among home winemakers living near the vineyards, it was replaced by the thicker skinned grapes like Alicante Bouschet and Carignan which were less susceptible to damage and rot on the long train journey back East. In 1931, for example, 3000 boxcars of Zinfandel grapes were shipped east compared to 6000 boxcars of Alicante Bouschet. Furthermore, many of the surviving post-prohibition vines had been planted in less optimal areas like the Central Valley. As the quality of Zinfandel deteriorated the varietal drifted into obscurity and its primary use was as blending grape for jug and fortified wines.
In 1972, Bob Trinchero of the Sutter Home Winery attempted to improve the complexity of his Deaver Vineyard Zinfandel by changing the ratio of skins to juice. Using the French Sangee method, he removed part of the liquid and vinified this juice as a dry rose wine and listed it for sale under a French name. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms insisted on an English translation, so he added "White Zinfandel" and sold a mere 220 cases. Then in 1975, Trinchero's wine experienced a stuck fermentation and was left with a higher than desired residual sugar level. He decided to bottle and sell the wine, despite the obvious sensory flaw, stocking it in his tasting room. The rest is history. By 2011, this medium sweet White Zinfandel accounted for 16 million cases or nearly 10% of all U.S. wine sales by volume. For comparison, there were only 5.3 million cases of red Zinfandel sold in the same year./p>
Historically, California Zinfandel vines were planted as a field blend interspersed with Petite Sirah, Carignan, Grenache, Mourvedre, Mission and Muscat. While most vineyards are now fully segregated, California winemakers continue to use other grapes (particularly Petite Sirah) to improve the tannin profile of their Zinfandel wines. The California Crush Report lists Zinfandel producing nearly 448,000 tons of grapes in 2012 up from 73,000 tons acres in 1976. It is the third leading grape varietal behind Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but ahead of Merlot. The majority of the plantings, nearly 80% of the acreage, is located in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Madera Counties, where the grapes are used for white Zinfandel or jug wines.
In 1999, the European Union recognized Zinfandel as a synonym for Primitivo. This means that Italian Primitivo can be labeled as Zinfandel and sold as such in the United States or any other country that recognizes EU labeling laws. However, it’s a different case for US producers. The Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which was created after the enforcement functions of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), were moved to the Justice Department, lists both Zinfandel and Primitivo as approved grape varieties for American wines, but they are not listed as synonyms. U.S. producers, therefore, must label a wine according to whether it is Zinfandel or Primitivo. The problem for US producers is that the Puglia region of Italy (the heel of the boot) where Primitivo is the primary grape currently, produces more red wine than all of Australia. This potential to flood the market with cheap Primitivo labeled as Zinfandel is making California vintners extremely nervous. ZAP members have spent considerable effort and millions of dollars raising the perception of Zinfandel in the United States and abroad as a high class, high quality wine. The issue currently seems to be on the back burner but eventually will be resolved with either the Italian wines being accepted as Zinfandel or being required to use the Primitivo designation. A future bilateral agreement between the United States and Italy on name ownership could be reached or it may be resolved as a trade dispute before the World Trade Organization (WTO). Today it appears that winemakers on both sides of the issue seem to be at the mercy of governments using the Zinfandel case as a bargaining chip for other unrelated trade issues.
It is hard to describe a generic sensory profile for Zinfandels, even those from Amador County. The winemaker has a large degree of latitude in the style of Zinfandel he wants to craft. The choice made in the following areas can have a significant impact on the final product: sugar content at harvest, yeast choice, fermentation temperature, length of maceration with skin contact, and the degree of exposure to oak. With optimal ripeness, Zinfandel expresses notes of strawberry, raspberries, cherry, but predominately blackberry. As the grapes are harvested at higher Brix readings, the aromas tend towards black currant and black cherry and eventually progress towards plums, raisins and a nondescript jamminess at very high Brix numbers. One problem is that Zinfandel ripens unevenly, and the same cluster can have berries of considerable difference in ripeness.
Other popular descriptors may include spicy aromas such as black pepper, clove, and cinnamon. Floral notes such as violets and roses are also possible but usually are only detectable in lighter well balanced Zinfandels. Oak treatment adds flavors of toast, spice and vanilla. Even though Amador Zinfandels can tend towards higher levels of alcohol, with levels over 15% quite common, balance is the key. As a high alcohol unbalanced wine ages, the fruit will start to soften and the wine will begin to taste hot and if combined with some volatile acidity, become unstable and prone to a short life span. A wine with a good balance between fruit, acid and tannins isn’t overwhelmed by alcohol and assures a longer lifespan.