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.
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.
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.
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.