Embracing the Obscure

This past weekend in Sonoma County, California, 17 vintners gathered for a wine tasting they dubbed “The 7 Percent Solution.”

As the organizers explained, “roughly 93 percent of Northern California vineyard acreage is planted to eight major grape varietals. The remaining 7 percent is home to numerous lesser-known varietals, [which] are finding anchor with a small but growing number of winemakers.”

The event enabled consumers to explore the wines being produced by California’s revolutionary vintners — those willing to embrace the state’s vast and varied climate by avoiding popular grapes and bottling the obscure. Whether they’re producing unusual varietals or exploring unheralded regions, these winemakers are worth celebrating.

That certain regions of California might be better suited to, say, Albarino than Chardonnay makes sense. Across the globe, commercial wine is produced from a whopping 1,368 different grape varieties. It defies logic to assume that grapes native to central France will thrive in all the world’s new vineyards.

This topic was explored at this year’s Drink Local Wine conference by Joseph Fiola, Ph.D., a University of Maryland professor who has spent over 25 years researching and teaching about experimental viticulture.

During his lecture, Fiola spent a great deal of time praising the Old World for its commitment to growing varieties that are adapted to local growing conditions.

“Local varieties have been growing in those areas for hundreds, maybe thousands of years,” he explained. “Year in year out, they get ripe. Year in year out, winemakers can control production. Those areas know how to grow the grapes; they know how to make good wine. And it’s the local grapes that are the best. [Winemakers] aren’t going to grow Cabernet Sauvignon all over Italy because people know the name!”

Fiola went on to compare southern Italy’s climate to southern Maryland’s. Yet he acknowledged the temptation to focus on well-known varieties.

“Trying to convince a Maryland winery that has to worry about marketing to people who can barely pronounce Chardonnay to sell Nero d’Avola, Negroamaro, Sagrantino?” he asked, naming three esoteric varieties from Italy. “That presents a challenge,” he conceded.

Europe has an advantage, of course. The continent has been producing wine for thousands of years, so vintners there understand which grapes do best. In France, for example, winemakers in Burgundy know to focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Just as German vintners recognize that Riesling thrives in the country’s Mosel region, Spanish vintners recognize that Albarino thrives in Galicia.

Wine production in the United States is still in its infancy. But winemakers know that American consumers enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc, so that’s what most produce. Only the most courageous vintners would eschew these varieties.

One of these courageous vintners is Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope, who poured at this weekend’s tasting in Sonoma. Since 2005, he has been producing “rare creatures from appellations unknown and varieties uncommon.”

His “rare creatures” are truly unusual. He produces delightful reds from Sangiovese and Barbera, two Italian grapes that few California winemakers take seriously. He produces a delicious Verdelho, a white wine that’s typically associated with Portugal. He produces the nation’s only 100-percent St. Laurent, a thought-provoking, highly aromatic red that’s almost impossible to find outside Austria and the Czech Republic. Each year, he crafts more than a dozen different wines — and virtually all are produced in lots of fewer than 2,500 bottles.

The fact that 17 vintners like Rorick were able to fill a room this past weekend is a testament to the fact that an increasing number of winemakers are willing to take risks. And, perhaps more importantly, American consumers are growing more comfortable exploring the unknown.

David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine.