California is Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon Country to most, but there are hundreds of other wine grapes grown in the state of California. Many of these varieties have probably never found their way to your tongue – whether to speak them or to drink them. Picpoul? Yea California does that. Valdiguie? Yep, got that one too.
If you are the adventurous type, there are all sorts of interesting and obscure California wines you can get yourself in to. Here are the first five examples, both of grapes and specific wines, to whet your appetite for a little something different.
Albarino: A fragrant white grape with bright acidity, Albarino hails from Spain and is at its best in the Rias Baixas region on the cool, wet Atlantic Coast. It can be light and fresh or a bit fuller and richer but typically retains a noted minerality. The grape is also popular in Portugal where it’s called Alvarinho and appears in the best versions of Vinho Verde. In California, the grape generally exhibits that hallmark acidity with a slightly fuller body.
One to try: The 2013 La Marea Albarino Monterey County ($26.99) benefits from the cool winds off Monterey Bay and the soils of an ancient sea bed. Winemaker Ian Brand gets great texture out of the wine, which has flavors of lemon drop, mineral, and tropical pineapple, all balanced with a juicy acidity.
Carignan(e): This red grape is also said to have originated in Spain (Carinena) and is seen most often in Northern Spain including Rioja and Priorat. The variety is most often used for blending and can be very expressive when grown in warm, dry climates. On its own it is often spicy and savory with dark fruit flavors; it ripens late and can possess considerable alcohol. France and Italy (Carignano) also grow the grape and California is using it more often as a single variety.
One to try: The 2011 Vesper Vineyards Carignan San Diego County ($28.99) displays a noted savory and herbal component along with bright red fruit and a round, light to medium bodied mouthfeel. It’s charming, silky, and easy to enjoy as it does not have a high alcohol content, coming in around 12.5%.
Mourvedre: Spain strikes again as the origin of the red grape they call Monastrell. Primarily a blending grape but increasingly being bottled on its own, the variety is prevalent in France (Chateauneuf-du-Pape; Bandol), Australia, and California, where it is also called Mataro. The tiny berries and thick skin give the wine gripping tannins and the variety has a characteristic meatiness. Single variety wines range in terms of fruitiness and richness but are almost always powerful.
One to try: The 2012 Dirty & Rowdy Mourvedre Shake Ridge Ranch Amador County ($44.99) is hard to come by (95 cases were released) but it’s worth hunting down a bottle or two. The tannins are prominent along with blue and black berries, dark plums, and herbal notes. This is a complex, structured bottle of wine to decant and enjoy or sock away in your cellar for future gratification.
Malvasia: Thought to have originated in Greece, Malvasia can be found in many European and Slavic countries as well as the United States. It’s a white grape and the styles are wide ranging; from a component in the white ports of Portugal, to sweet wines from Sicily, Vin Santo in Tuscany, and the mineral-laden, perfumed wines of Italy’s Friuli region. There are only a handful of California producers working with the grape today but the grape loves the sun so a west coast future may be bright.
One to try: The Arbe Garbe Malvasia Russian River Valley ($37.99) is, no surprise, made by natives of Friuli, Letizia and Enrico Maria Bertoz. It is all at once heady and bright, with flavors of lemons and ripe pears with a touch of nuttiness and a saline note. Small amounts of 2012 are on the way.
Picpoul: This French white grape is best known in the Languedoc-Roussillon region and as one of the thirteen varieties allowed in Chateauneuf du Pape; it can also be found in Spain and Portugal and, most recently, California and Washington State. Picpoul is often blended with Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Roussanne. If you are an acid freak then look no further than this variety which translates literally as, “stings the lip”.
One to try: The small production 2012 Skinner Picpoul Blanc El Dorado ($24.99) is made from grapes grown in one of the wineries’ estate vineyards. The wine has an impressive balance of mouthwatering acidity and luscious citrus and spice flavors. Winemaker Chris Pittenger turns this little known grape in to one tasty glass of vino.