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Perhaps the only benefit of waking up at 3:30am to catch the 5:00am train northbound for the 9-to-5 hustle is having some quiet time to catch up on my much neglected reading pile.

I don’t devote much time to reading wine blogs these days but when I do it usually includes the latest postings at Vinography, Richard Jennings’ RJonWine, Fredric Koeppel’s  Bigger Than Your Head, The Wine Economist, and Elaine Brown’s Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews.  This morning’s train reading included catching up on a backlog of posts at Hawk Wakawaka and a piece Elaine wrote for the online edition of Wine & Spirits Magazine about the ‘Seven % Solution‘ — a tasting held in Healdsburg, CA that showcased some of California’s lesser known varieties.

The idea for the Seven % Solution originated with Sam Bilbro of Idlewild Wines who recruited other notable vintners — like Duncan Arnot and Nathan Roberts of Arnot-Roberts, Abe Schoener of Scholium Project and Steve Matthiasson — that have also embraced obscure, or lesser known, varieties.  In all there were 17 labels representing some of California’s more obscure varieties.

A fantastic idea and great way to educate consumers about lesser known varieties that are often overshadowed by more notable – or, noble – grapes.  Seven % Solution attendees are fortunate to have thoughtful vintners like Bilbro, Matthiasson, et. al. who take chances and color outside the lines to provide a diverse viticulture experience.

According to the Seven % Solution website, ‘roughly 93% of Northern California Vineyard acreage is planted to eight major grape varietals [varieties]‘ — Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Zinfandel. ‘The remaining 7% acreage is home to numerous lesser known varietals [varieties]… and these ‘seven percent’ varietals [varieties] are finding anchor with a small but growing number of winemakers.’

In contrast to California, Virginia’s top eight varieties (as of December 31, 2012) — Chardonnay (434 acres planted), Cabernet Franc (344), Merlot (309), Cabernet Sauvignon (263), Viognier (224), Vidal Blanc (176), Petit Verdot (168) and Chambourcin (135) —  account for roughly 70% of Virginia’s acreage (2,053 of 2,974 total bearing acres).

Perhaps Virginia needs a ‘Thirty % Solution‘ tasting to bring more attention to our lesser known varieties?

The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reports in the 2012 Grape Crush Report that nearly 120 different wine grape varieties are planted in California — 45 white and 74 red, not including table or raisin grapes.

Though Virginia may be best know for Viognier (the state’s official Signature Grape) and red Bordeaux-style blends, the Commonwealth boasts a diverse viticulture scene with over 60 different grape varieties now being cultivated for wine.  Much like California, many lesser know varieties are finding anchor with a growing number of winemakers in Virginia.

Virginia wine fans are fortunate to have ready access to such a diverse range of varieties grown throughout the Commonwealth including: Barbera, Carmenere, Catawba, Cayuga, Chancelor, Chardonel, Chenin Blanc, Delaware, Dornfelder, Fer Servadou,  Grenache, Gruner Veltliner, Lemberger, Malbec, Malvasia, Marsanne, Montepulciano, Mourvedre, Muscat, Nebbiolo, Petit Sirah, Pinotage, Refosco, Rkatsiteli, Roussanne, Sangiovese, Saperavi, Semillion, Steuben, Syrah, Tempranillo, Tinta Cao, Touriga, Verdejo, Vermentino, Vignoles, Villard Blanc, and even some Zinfandel.

Picture courtesy of Keswick Vineyards.

Picture courtesy of Keswick Vineyards.

A number of these varieties are thriving in Virginia and showing great promise.  A few of my favorite Virginia wines made from this group of lesser known grapes include Verdejo, Nebbiolo, Refosco, Vermentino, and Rkatsiteli.

Indigenous to the Rueda region of Spain, the Verdejo grape is thriving at Keswick Vineyards (on Twitter: @KeswickVineyard) in Virginia’s Monticello AVA.  Virginia wine pioneer Dennis Horton of Horton Vineyards, has a number of lesser known varieties planted in his vineyards including Rkatsiteli, an ancient grape from the Eastern European country of Georgia.  Another Virginia wine trailblazer, Gabriele Rausse produces a varietal Refosco as well as a Malbec worth seeking out.

Nebbiolo, indigenous to the Piedmont region of Italy, is gaining traction and growing in popularity here in Virginia.  Breaux Vineyards (on Twitter: @BreauxVineyards) in Loudoun County is producing an excellent, award-winning Nebbiolo from estate fruit.

Barboursville Vineyards in the central part of the state also produces a notable Nebbiolo as well as a delicious white wine made from the late-ripening Italian grape, Vermentino.

Other Virginia wineries are also finding success by providing consumers options beyond BreauxNebbiolo05more recognized varieties like Viognier, Cab Franc, and Chardonnay.  Otium Cellars in Northern Virginia is finding success with German varieties like Dornfelder and Lemberger.  White Hall Vineyards in Crozet has long produced an excellent Gewurztraminer, and Jordan Harris at Tarara Winery (on Twitter: @TararaWinery) is growing Rhone varieties like Syrah.

Another interesting lesser known grape to watch is the new Crimson Cabernet, a blend of hybrid of Norton and Cabernet Sauvignon. Created by Davis Viticultural Research, Crimson Cabernet is allegedly disease resistant and cold hardy like Norton with the flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon. Desert Rose Winery in Hume is reportedly the first winery east of the Kansas to plant Crimson Cabernet (though I’m not able to verify this).  Dean Gruenburg of Castle Gruen Winery also has a small amount planted.

One grape missing from the list of lesser known varieties that I hope one day will be planted here in Virginia is Gamay.  I’m a huge fan of this oft-dismissed and underestimated grape from Beaujolais and, as a consumer, would like to see a Virginia Gamay at some point.  This of course is easy to say for the guy sitting behind the keyboard with no farming experience and or capital invested.  Not many vineyard sites here in Virginia would be suitable for Gamay but the vineyard at Ankida Ridge — sitting at 1,800 feet elevation — comes to mind as a potential hospitable location to grow Gamay.

I concede that just because many different grapes can be planted here doesn’t mean they should be.  Some varieties — Riesling comes to mind — clearly will not thrive and produce world-class wines in Virginia.  However, I applaud the risk takers, the crazy ones… the rebels, who are pushing boundaries by experimenting with new varieties.

During your next visit to one of Virginia’s tasting rooms, take advantage of Virginia’s viticulture diversity and seek out wines made from these lesser known grapes.

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