Ribolla gialla is a grape that the Friulani have grown for at least as far back as the 14th century; the Slovenians and Greeks have worked with it for a lot longer than that. It is a grape that is experiencing a modest comeback, and I really dig it when it is made in a rich, oxidative style. (Most recently at Lou, you might have tasted Marjan Simčič’s ribolla, a Slovenian wine that is aged on the skins of the grapes for six months.)
Dan Petroski, the winemaker for Larkmead, has a new side project in which he is making wine from Napa-grown ribolla gialla. Dan sources his grapes from Luna Vineyards from vines planted in 2004. I have not tried his new wine yet (it was bottled in early March), but he has promised to bring it by later this spring for me to taste, and taste it I will. (He tells me that it fermented to dryness at under 13 percent alcohol—yay!) However, despite the grape’s incontrovertible provenance, Dan got into trouble with the revenoors (cue banjo) with his wine: the TTB refuses to recognize ribolla as a legitimate grape variety and as a result, Dan cannot sell his product as a varietally labeled wine. We’ve got plenty to fret about in California, including overcrowded prisons, underfunded pensions, and crumbling infrastructure (a warning to my customers travelling west on Melrose—beware of the hellish pothole on just before El Centro), and now we can add more worries: what kind of state is this when a man can’t make a livin’ from the honest fruit of his own labor?
It is a fun game, pondering possible grape worlds and the grape varieties we might have planted if latter day Napa and Sonoma, sixty or even twenty years ago, had taken cues not from Bordeaux and Burgundy, but from, let us say, Friuli, or the south of Italy.
The history of wine grape growing in California owes a great deal to southern Italian immigrants, and it is thanks to successive generations of Italian American grape farmers that we have any old vine plots left at all. During the post-Prohibition era, however, we turned our backs on our heritage and now you will hear people disdain Italian-style, promiscuously planted field blends as arising from simple-minded, peasant thinking, “they didn’t know any better, and it is how they always planted.”
In most wine drinking regions, e.g., California, France, Italy, there is an implicit dichotomy between the north (Napa, Bordeaux, Piemonte) and the south (Temecula, Roussillon, Sicily). On our shores, this binary opposition arises in part from the superb Bordelaise-patterned, Cabernet-based wines that Russian-born, French-trained André Tchelistcheff began making with Georges de Latour at BV in the late 40s. It is fair to say that the Napa style, as we now understand it, follows Tchelistcheff’s footsteps, though if you have tasted Tchelistcheff’s wonderful wines from the 60s, you can imagine he’d have a thing or two to say about Parker-driven monster Cabs. Given his training and background, Tchelistcheff probably never tasted a southern Italian wine he liked, and given the underdeveloped state of the southern Italian economy during his lifetime, any nero d’avola he might possibly have tasted would have been quite a rustic specimen.
Today, cabernet, chardonnay, pinot noir, and to a lesser extent, syrah, get all the glory, but here is a question: If we had to replant our vineyards in California, starting from scratch, what should we plant?
I, for one, would like to see more nero d’avola, a grape that thrives in heat, yet is capable of retaining great acidity. It’s not a grape with a very long history of making great wine, but the lesson we are now learning is how interesting and delicious wines may be made from some of the traditional grape varieties we formerly dismissed as rustic. Some of these varieties never had to rise to any level of quality in the past (mencia in Spain, blaufränkisch in Austria are just two examples), and consequently, I do not think we have any idea yet where their upper limit lies. The Italians once (and still do) glugged inexpensive, rustic nero d’avola as a simple, everyday drinking wine; if you located a bottle of nero at your local wine shop here in the US, let’s say twenty years ago, it would have been a four buck wonder to enjoy while eating takeout pizza and watching Twin Peaks. However, taste a contemporary nero from Sicilian growers like COS or Arianna Occhipinti and the scales will fall way from your eyes—they are not aping Napa, but they are revealing something nero has been waiting patiently to tell us all these years.
Dan recently e-mailed me the 2009 California Grape Crush report, which is essentially a lengthy table showing the number tons crushed for each grape variety grown in our fair state. (The category named “other” is for grapes that are either unknown or fall below the threshold of countability.) The table shows 2008 and 2009 data side by side. Here is a quick summary of some interesting things in the table:
Nero d’avola has a long way to go before it catches up with pinot noir, but I am rooting for it. Trousseau at 23.6 tons harvested, is up 55 percent in 2009, enough to make about 1400 cases. And as of yet, there is no ploussard planted—imagine the coolest parts of the Sonoma coast or Marin, planted with Savoyard varieties rather than pinot noir. I have no idea if they would flourish there, but it is fun to fantasize. Meanwhile, hear, hear for ribolla gialla, a grape that might make beautiful music in California, if the TTB will only let it sing.