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And Now for Something Completely Different
By Linda Murphy
Nov 5, 2013
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Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon have long made the California wine production world go ’round.  More recently, Syrah and red Rhône-style blends comprised of that grape plus Grenache and Mourvedre have become fashionable, and Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc are the current sweethearts of the white Rhone rodeo.

I wrote here on WRO in May about a group of California winemakers, calling themselves the “Seven % Solution,” who produce wines from unusual grapes such as Trousseau, Albariño, Vermentino, Ribolla Gialla, Montepulciano and Touriga Nacional.  This loose organization’s name comes from the fact that 93 percent of North Coast AVA vineyard acreage is devoted to the more traditional varieties seen in California, including the six mentioned in the first paragraph.  The seven-percenters revel in the notion that the state’s most intriguing wines just might come from non-mainstream (for California) grapes.

Note that I did not write “best” wines, but rather “intriguing.” I love Cabernet Sauvignon as much as anyone, but there are so many Cabernet bottles in my wine writing life that when a great Carignane comes along, I take notice.  And the 2011 Ridge Vineyards Carignane did just that.

Ridge, best known for its Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignons and Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley Zinfandels, also has 100-plus-year-old Carignane vines on its Geyserville property in northern Sonoma County.  The grape usually makes its way into Ridge’s Zinfandel-dominant Geyserville bottling, yet it sometimes becomes a wine of its own, as it did in 2011.

Ridge’s 2011 Triangle Block Carignane is gloriously medium-bodied, spicy and refreshing, putting to rest the idea that old-vine red wines are always intensely flavored and potent.  Considered a bland, second-class grape in California, Carignane has been elevated to supreme status by Ridge and other quality-focused producers, and consumers are advised to seek the wines out for their fruit purity, focus and spice.  If you like Pinot Noir, you also might like Ridge Carignane.     

Ridge honcho Paul Draper, based in the Santa Cruz Mountains, is a relative neighbor of Josh Jensen at Calera Vineyards in San Benito County.  Like Draper, Jensen produces mainstream varietals such as Chardonnay, Viognier and Pinot Noir, as well as the obscure Aligote. 

Jensen is one of California’s most admired winemakers.  His organically farmed vineyards are in the Mt. Harlan AVA in the Gavilan Mountains in San Benito County, 25 miles east of Monterey Bay.  He famously chose this remote site for its rare -- for California -- limestone soils, similar to those found in Burgundy.  At 2,200 feet elevation, Jensen’s Calera vineyards are among the highest and coolest in California, and produce Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs of great character and longevity. 

What isn’t so obvious are the fine Aligotes Jensen produces from Mt. Harlan.  Aligote is the second white wine of Burgundy, behind Chardonnay; it’s a high-acid, high-yielding grape there, planted on sites not suitable for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Few Burgundy Aligotes make it to the U.S., yet Jensen does the variety proud.

Thanks to the calcareous soils and chilly nights on Mt. Harlan during the growing season, Jensen produces a stunningly minerally Aligote from just 330 vines.  The wine is well worth a search, for its earthy mineral character, bracing acidity and exotic white and yellow fruit flavors.

And then there is Pinot Meunier, the background grape in sparkling wines produced in Champagne and so many other parts of the world.  Rarely does Pinot Meunier get to stand alone, yet at La Rochelle, it’s a shining star.

Steven Kent Mirassou is the owner of La Rochelle, and Tom Stutz is his winemaker.  While their focus for the La Rochelle label is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, their small-production 2012 Pinot Meunier from Saralee’s Vineyard in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley ($38) is exceptional.  It’s bright and zesty, with red cherry, raspberry and citrus flavors, with a supple yet crisp finish. 

Wine variety is the spice of my life, and while I will always drink the classics, I look forward to tasting the new, the old, and the revived.