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Getting Up to Speed with Spanish Varieties in the USA
By Norm Roby
Jul 3, 2024
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“Godello” recently caught my attention as I was browsing through a list of “current releases” at a tasting room in downtown Arroyo Grande.  Being a curious type and admittedly being unfamiliar with Godello wines, I had to try it.  

The wine was, in a word, “fantastic.”  It has the depth and texture of a Semillon and the exotic aroma of a Viognier, but it has much more to offer, a highly distinct personality.  The opportunity for this breakthrough experience was the 2022 Verdad Wines Godello.  The Verdad label is the creation of winemaker Louisa Sawyer who set out in 2000 to focus on Spanish varieties.  

As I soon learned, Louisa is a fountain of information about Spanish varieties and her achievements are remarkable in many ways.  Verdad is not only among the first to work with Godello in the USA, but Louisa was also an early champion of Albariño.  In the mid-'90s she planted the first commercial block of the Albariño grape in the Ibarra-Young Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley, but Havens Wine Cellar is said to have produced the first Albariño bottling – a '99 made from a two year old Carneros/Napa Valley planting.  The first vintage of her Verdad Albariño was a 2000.  Her 2022 Albariño from the Martian Ranch Vineyard is vibrant, balanced and beautiful.

As for her work with Godello, she says, “It’s a lovely wine for sure and Godello is a world class grape.”  Everyone familiar with Spanish wines seems to share the same high opinion.  Godello is, in the words of Karen MacNeil, “one of the top white varieties in Spain,” and in the eastern portion of Galicia, she calls it “a star” and mentions the Godello made by Alvaredo-Hobbs.  Yes, the Hobbs interested in Godello is indeed Paul Hobbs.

Back in the USA, there’s very little of it made.  Michael Havens produced the first U.S. Godello in 2012, under the Abrente label.  A little digging on my part revealed that Marimar Torres is just now becoming interested in this variety.

The more I researched, the more I realized that Louisa is onto something and clearly leading the way.  She explains how things began: “We got the Godello cuttings from Birdland Vineyard outside of Glen Ellen.  They were grafted onto Chardonnay (Wente Clone on their own roots) approximately 20-25 years old at Rancho Ontiveros [a.k.a. Tunnel Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley] in 2021.  2022 was the first vintage off the vineyard and my first vintage making Godello.”

As mentioned earlier, tasting that wine was an eye-opener.  Here’s a more detailed review:

Verdad Wines (Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara) Godello 2022 ($35):  The wine was barrel fermented in 50% one year old and 50% neutral barrels.  It went through malolactic fermentation and was aged for 1 year on the lees with no stirring.  In the glass it is a vibrant light yellow with aromas of honeysuckle, lemon rind, lychee and even a hint of almond.  Big and round on the palate, it is richly flavored with lots of citrus notes, orange rind and even beeswax.  It finishes long and fruit-filled with a chalky finale.  It is big, but shows no evidence of being high in alcohol.  Quite an achievement.  94

When talking about planting that vineyard, she mentioned a “we.”  She is married to Bob Lindquist, best known as one of the original Rhône Rangers who started Qupe Cellars in 1982.  He partnered with Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat and Pinot Noir fame.  In 1989 they established Clendenen Lindquist Vintners’ (CLV) at the Bien Nacido Vineyard.  That facility remains the home production site for three labels today: his, hers, and theirs.  Or more specifically, Lindquist Wines, Verdad Wines, and Sawyer Lindquist Wines.  And together they consult for the Vara Winery in New Mexico, and its wines were recently reviewed by Rebecca Murphy.

To keep up with all they do, click on their website, which is verdadandlindquistfamilywines.com

Together, Louisa and Bob have established vineyards and explored vineyards throughout Santa Barbara, Edna Valley and Paso Robles.  She noted that “Bob and I planted the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard (40 acres) in 2005.  We started using biodynamic practices a year before we planted it.  We had Albariño, Tempranillo, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Marsanne and Grenache planted.”  They made their last wine from that Edna Valley vineyard in 2021, and she adds, “We now have a lease on a 4-acre vineyard in Edna Valley called Reeve’s Vineyard.  We are happy working with that as well as with long term contracts.”

With vineyards, the key for them is organically farming at a minimum and better yet biodynamic farming.  Louisa simply says, “I love biodynamic farming…I do my best to grow and source grapes that have been farmed using these principles, as well as vineyards farmed organically.”

In 2023, she made two Grenache Rosé wines.  One from Reeves Vineyard in the Edna Valley is organically farmed, and the other is biodynamic from the Martian Ranch Vineyard.  I only tasted the latter one, and it was crisp and delicious.

Tempranillo is another favorite and she has been making one since 2001.  To return to my tasting experience, a 2022 Sawyer Lindquist Tempranillo-Syrah blend followed on the heels of the Godello and well, again, it was excellent.  Grown in the Ibarra-Young Vineyard in the Los Olivos District of the Santa Ynez Valley, the Tempranillo is from a Rioja clone she and Bob planted, but the clone from that initial planting, she explains, “turned out to be extremely tannic.  To tame these tannins I blended it with a small amount of Syrah to give it a juicy mid-palate and sometimes Grenache to lift the aromatics.”

The 2022 Sawyer Lindquist is a blend of 69% Tempranillo and 31% Syrah, and is the current release.  In the first pass, I noted it was at least a 94 point wine, vibrant, rich, and layered.  With a little airing, it evolved into a complete wine with a long finish.  It was aged for 16 months in neutral French oak.

Her Tempranillo under the Verdad label is from their vineyard in the cooler Edna Valley.  In 2005 they planted the Pesquera clone at Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard.  She explains, “The cooler vineyard site with its close proximity to the ocean produced fresher, more balanced Tempranillo in terms of pH and acidity.  I loved working with this clone, especially in Edna Valley.  No doubt some of the best wines I’ve made are of this variety and vineyard site.  I started using 30% new French puncheons almost exclusively for this wine.”

Bring on the Clones

In my experience, it is unusual to talk to a California winemaker who is genuinely excited to work with Tempranillo.  The name “Verdad” is a play on the Spanish word for truth, and she doesn’t hold back anything.  While admitting it is a tough sell, she nonetheless continues to explore sites and clones.  Sometimes, it is a one-time thing, as in 2015 when she made Tempranillo from Oak Savannah Vineyard in Los Olivos for Vara.  “This is one of the oldest vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley (once owned by the actor James Garner), and it produced some lovely wine.  I only worked with it for one vintage.  Unfortunately, since then the vineyard has been grafted over to other varieties.”

So, she has been looking elsewhere.  “In 2020 I started to work with Martian Vineyard Tempranillo (Clone 3) for Verdad.  I really like the results.  I had worked with Martian previously and made two vintages for Vara Winery.  I like the round, velvety fruit, there’s not a lot of tannins, and it’s very different from other clones I’ve worked with.  I am now thinking of blending some Graciano or Cabernet Sauvignon with it for structure if I can get the grapes.”

She continues: “In 2022 I contracted with Whale Rock Vineyard for a small amount of Tempranillo.  This vineyard is in the Templeton Gap and the vines are head trained.  I’m not sure of the clone.  The resulting wine was really interesting with lots of elevated aromas of wild herbs and spicy wild cherries.  I just released this wine and really like it.  I aged that in barrel with about 20% new French oak.”

The Martian Tempranillo Clone 3 is on top and the Pesquera clone is bottom. Taken in 2019.  This photo convinces me that clones are dramatically different.  Before leaving the discussion of Tempranillo behind, here’s a review of a currently available Tempranillo:

Verdad Wines (Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley, Central Coast) Tempranillo 2019 ($35):  Now a Demeter Certified, biodynamic vineyard planted to the Pesquera clone, the vineyard has been renamed Slide Hill.  Deep dark in color, it needs no time to reveal a powerful aroma of ripe black fruit with some anise and even tobacco leaf.  Medium full bodied, it is plush in its mouthfeel, yet concentrated with flavors of plums, mocha, dried herbs and subtle oak.  It finishes on a long, ripe fruit, earthy and juicy note, all nicely integrated.  Overall, it combines vitality and concentration which bodes well for cellaring.  Probably will be at its peak in 2-3 years and should drink well through 2029.  94