Grenache - A worthy candidate for pursuing balance in California wine.
I’ve always believed Grenache to be a more appropriate grape for California than Pinot Noir, much to the chagrin of those who believe “California is the place Pinot ought to be.” In fact, we have made several Grenache based wines (including this 2015 vintage) that have more in common with Burgundy than many local Pinots. Before you start accusing me of consuming edibles before writing this piece, I’ll try to explain.
Grenache, originally from Spain and most heavily planted in Southern France is undoubtedly a Mediterranean grape- meaning it is only grown in the warm regions of Southern Europe. Most of the wine growing regions in California, even those “cool coastal zones” would be considered Mediterranean. After all, our latitude in Sonoma County is on par with Sicily. This is not the case with Pinot Noir in Europe.
David Lett, whom many consider The founding father of Oregon Pinot Noir planted Pinot Noir vines in the Willamette Valley in 1965. He believed Oregon’s climate to be the most similar to Burgundy after travelling to that part of France. At the time, Lett studied at UC Davis and thought California was not suited for growing Burgundian Pinot Noir wines. Indeed, Oregon’s latitude is closer to Burgundy than the winegrowing regions of California.
Part of the reasoning behind planting Pinot Noir in Oregon applies to growing Grenache in California. Lett and many of his contemporaries in Oregon believed grape varieties show more complexity, aromas and balance when grown in the coolest sector within the climate range of where that grape can ripen. In California, where our latitude is similar to Southern Europe we have many more regions slightly cooler than where Grenache is grown in the Southern Rhone, Spain and Sardinia.
I believe our climate in Dry Creek Valley is one such region because our night-time temperatures are lower than in Southern Europe. Our Grenache can develop ripe flavors while preserving fresh aromas and bright acidity. Additionally, our Alban clone Grenache is so aromatic, that in some vintages it reminds me of old school Burgundy (I know, more edibles).
In 2015, the Alban lots were particularly expressive, and this is very noticeable in both our Cuvee Foudre and our Grenache. While the 2015 Grenache is not as structured as the Foudre (since the wine has a smaller percentage of Mourvedre and Syrah) it is more perfumed, elegant and juicy-many of the reasons I love Burgundy.
The most famous example of this “Burgundian” style of Grenache based red is Chateau Rayas in Chateaunef Du Pape. Unfortunately, Rayas is incredibly difficult to find and frightfully expensive. So for those of you who don’t have a spare $450-$500 for a bottle, there is Chateau de Tours Cotes Du Rhone, which is a property owned by Emille Reynaud, who makes Rayas.
Whether you are a fan of Grenache or Pinot Noir made in an elegant style, this 2015 Grenache is in your ‘happy place.” One of the most intriguing aspects of wine is that in any given vintage it can pleasantly surprise you. This medium to full-bodied Grenache should surprise any of your friends who poo-poo California wine for not being complex. It also should age nicely over the next 4-5 years.
Since we planted it in 2005 and 2007, Montepulciano has probably been our most consistent wine. In the words of the infamous Sammy Sosa, the 2016 MP will “keep it continue.”
Most years our varietal bottling of Montepulciano comes from our Creek-side block planted in 2005 and our 2-acre block planted located near the winery planted in 2007. Both lots have what Jason would describe as a purity of varietal character, along with great structure from tannin and acid. This 2016 is 85% from these two vineyard blocks.
We recently tasted two highly rated Montepulcianos from Abruzzo that represented two ends of the spectrum. One was definitely lighter bodied with some green flavors and tannins. It’s as if the winemaker was trying to make a Burgundian-style wine. The other was dark, ripe, extracted and dominated by not very subtle oak. It was perhaps more prototypical Montepulciano, but overdone, like a California Zinfandel.
What I love about our 2016 Montepulciano is that has fully ripe, intense fruit AND excellent balance from tannin and acidity. Visually the wine looks as if it will be a hedonistic overripe Zinfandel, but our Montepulciano has the structure of a classic European wine. It seems Dry Creek Valley, with its warm summer days and cool nights is an excellent spot for Montepulciano. This 2016 will age easily for 5 to 8 years from the vintage.
Fiano has become one of my favorite white wines. Whenever I see Fiano di Avellino from any of the following wineries Colle di Lapio, Pietracupa, Ciro Picariello or I Favati, I immediately order it. So far, our Fiano grown in Dry Creek Valley has produced similarly exciting results.
Fiano is an amazing grape. Its small berries and thick skins produces a rich texture in the wine simply from the juice, not extended skin contact or barrel fermentation. As you probably know by now, we are not big fans of white wines that are fermented on the skins or barrel fermented because it mutes the fruit of the grape and add tannins from the skins or barrels. Our Fiano is pressed off the skins and fermented in concrete.
The big challenge with Fiano is that it can get overripe quickly. We experienced this in 2013 and 2014. Since then we have opted to harvest on the early side of physiological ripeness in order to have a solid structure from acidity. In 2016 we may have gone overboard with this approach, and the wine was not as true to Fiano character, but a lovely mineral-driven white wine.
We harvested the 2017 Fiano at similarly early stage but decided to let the wine age in concrete for 6 months longer than in 2016. This seemed to really allow the Fiano honey, pineapple, pear and floral character to shine. Make no mistake, this Fiano is still a crisp, mineral-driven wine, that is a tad fruitier than the 2016.
We bottled this 2017 Fiano in December, so in 3 or 4 months the wine will show more of that classic honey/beeswax character. I think we can safely say Fiano is grape with upside here in California.
Getting to know your vineyard blocks can be a challenging endeavor here at Unti. What with 17 different grape varieties planted to several clones on different root- stock, it can take some time. We now have honed in on the vineyard blocks for our
In 1998, my dad planted four clones of Syrah on the winery property: 174, 383, 877 and the clone we had from our Benchland vineyard (from Durell). Three of these clones were just becoming available in California, and were touted as being from the Northern Rhone. This is not surprising since Syrah is native to that part of France.
After several years of making wine from all of these blocks we’ve settled on a combination that highlights the more Northern Rhone side of Syrah- think violets, olive, blueberry and pepper. Additionally, these are the only grapes we employ whole cluster fermentation with. If you have had any of our 2014 or 2015 of this Syrah bottling, you understand why we are so happy with the results.
The 2016 Syrah picks right up where the 2015 left off. As with our 2016 Montepulciano, this Syrah walks that fine line of showing intense fruit in a wine with freshness, and great balance of acidity and ripe tannin. I drink more of this Syrah than most of our wines, probably sooner than I should.
 Solving the Mystery of the Coury clone from Pinot File in May of 2012. This is an excellent piece chronicling the history of Oregon Pinot Noir viticulture. A must read for anyone interested in Oregon wine.
Unti does not have a traditional wine club, rather, we notify you when we have new releases, tastings in your area or events at the winery.