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Beyond Cab and Chardonnay

Tocai Friulano, anyone? Trousseau Gris? If Cabernet Sauvignon is king, Chardonnay queen, Pinot Noir prince, and Zinfandel the wild court jester, what’s to make of the escalating number of esoteric varietals....



Courtesy of Y Rousseau Wines

If Cabernet Sauvignon is king, Chardonnay queen, Pinot Noir prince, and Zinfandel the wild court jester, what’s to make of the escalating number of esoteric varietals coming from Wine Country, such as Grüner Veltliner, Tocai Friulano, Trousseau Gris, Sagrantino, Tannat, and Touriga Nacional?

For one, winemakers and grape growers get bored with the same old thing, and some consumers feel the same way. Sometimes, the same old thing doesn’t pair with what’s for dinner, or doesn’t offer the excitement felt when one takes a first sip of a seemingly oddball varietal abroad, and says, “Hey, this is really good!”

Dan Petroski, associate winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga, decided to make the wines he had loved during trips to northern Italy. Under his Massican label, Petroski produces Annia, a crisp, mineral-y blend of Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano, with a splash of Chardonnay. Where does he get his more obscure grapes? Larkmead grows a bit of tocai friulano, and George Vare supplies ribolla gialla grapes from his Napa vineyard, after becoming the first in California to produce a Ribolla wine (under the Vare label).

Steve Matthiasson assists Vare with his 2.5 acres of ribolla gialla and from them produces a stony, salty, cracking-fresh Matthiasson Ribolla Gialla ($45) to go with his Matthiasson Napa Valley White Wine ($35), a racy mix of Ribolla, Tocai Friulano, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon.

Rudy von Strasser, on Diamond Mountain, was likely the first to plant Grüner Veltliner in the state, as a tribute to his Austrian-born father. The von Strasser Grüner offers pear and citrus notes, and a dash of white pepper—just like a classic Austrian Grüner Veltliner. And there is John Caldwell in Coombsville, who never met an oddball grape he didn’t like or was unwilling to plant. Tannat is such a variety, largely grown in southwest France and Uruguay. Caldwell Vineyards’ Tannat sells for a Cab-like price of $95 and has the dense black fruit, spice, and monster tannins for which Tannat is known.

Across the Mayacamas in Healdsburg, Clay Mauritson of Mauritson Wines dreamed of producing a vintage port-style wine from his family’s grapes. From the Rockpile subregion of Dry Creek Valley, Mauritson uses four traditional port wine grapes—tinta cão, tinta madeira, touriga nacional, and sousão­­—for his Independence Red, bottled under the Rockpile Winery brand. The fortified dessert wine delivers ripe black fruits, dark chocolate, and enough acidity to balance its sweetness.

Yannick Rousseau, a native of France’s Gascony region, found his way to Napa Valley and also to an old French Colombard vineyard in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. Rousseau, raised on Gascony Colombard, makes an aromatic, scintillating white wine under the Y Rousseau label at Saini Vineyard. Leave it to a Frenchman to find charm—and growing consumer interest—in a grape thought to be California’s least courtly.

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