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CALIFORNIA WINES WORTH A DETOUR

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Most folks, when they're traveling by car, like to stay on the interstates -- those nice, thick red lines on the road map that assure you that you will never, ever have to stop at a light as long as you stay on this highway.

It makes a lot of sense actually. Stick to the interstates and you know you'll get where you're going with a minimum of surprises.

Still, there are some of us who prefer to occasionally get off the main highways and to follow those thin gray lines on the map -- to take the road through Orbisonia, Pa., for no better reason than to see if they have a statue of Roy Orbison there.

It's a bit the same with wines. Let's say we're looking at the "road map" of California wine varieties. That thick red line with the interstate highway shield is cabernet sauvignon. The thinner red lines running out from it are merlot, pinot noir and zinfandel.

Then there are those thin gray lines running up into the hills. They represent little-known or less popular grape varieties, and some of the most fascinating "sightseeing" in wine country takes place along these "roads."

Three of these California "rural routes" are petite sirah, cabernet franc and malbec -- red grapes all. Each, for different reasons, is a bit obscure, but each too is worthy of exploration by adventurous wine consumers who don't mind leaving the beaten path.

If cabernet sauvignon is the interstate, petite sirah could be compared to the old two-lane road that used to be an important connector before the new highway went in.

Petit sirah has been one of the mainstays of the California wine industry for more than a century. Back in the days when cabernet sauvignon was a rare curiosity in California vineyards, petit sirah covered thousands of acres. This sturdy red varietal provided the backbone for many of the thick, burly jug "burgundies" that were the lifeblood of the state's wine industry before it went uptown with vintage dates and wineries that called themselves "chateaus."

As the British wine writer Jancis Robinson notes, there is nothing particularly petite about petite sirah -- except, that is, its reputation. Hugh Johnson's wine encyclopedia dismisses it with the curt description: "California's name for a low-grade French grape, duriff. Useful for giving color and tannin to blends."

That's a true enough description of the common run of petite sirahs, but it does an injustice to that handful of producers who regularly make a high-grade wine out of this low-grade grape.

The acknowledged master of petite sirah is Paul Draper, winemaker at Ridge Vineyards. For many years, Ridge has made a monumental petite sirah from ancient, low-yielding vines at its York Creek Vineyard.

These wines are petite sirah at is best -- inky-deep color, concentrated fruit with gobs of blackberry and chocolate flavor, and rigorous tannins that assure (indeed, cry out for) decades of aging. They are imposing, complex wines -- bearing a bit of a resemblance to Chateauneuf-du-Pape -- but you could never really describe them as elegant. Mr. Draper puts his petite sirahs in a tux, and they cut a handsome figure, but there's always something a bit savage about this rustic varietal. Some of us find that refreshing.

Unfortunately, there has been no Ridge petite sirah on the market in recent weeks (a new vintage is expected soon), but recent tastings showed there are a number of other producers who are doing a fine job with this underrated grape.

One of the best petite sirah producers is Stags' Leap Winery (not the better-known Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, which is justly famous for cabernet sauvignon). This Napa Valley winery is capable of making wines that rival the Ridge petite sirah, and in the 1985 vintage Stags' Leap does just that.

The 1985 Stags' Leap Petite Sirah ($15.75) is one of the darkest wines you'll ever see this side of vintage port. The concentration is exceptional, which comes as no surprise, and the texture is silky-smooth, which is a bit of a shock. This wine is indeed reminiscent of a fine Chateauneuf-du-Pape, with a hint of Italian Dolcetto to take off the rough edges.

Some other fine petite sirahs at attractive prices are the 1987 Foppiano ($8), the 1987 Guenoc ($7.69) and the 1986 Roudon-Smith ($9.99). With these wines you have the satisfaction of knowing that not one cent goes to snob appeal, since neither the wineries nor the varietal have any. The Foppiano is the best, but each is a concentrated, flavorful wine with a lot of burly charm. They're excellent pizza wines that also have the guts to stand up to a bowl of chili.

In addition to varietal bottlings, petite sirah does some of its best work in blends. An excellent example is the 1986 Beaulieu Vineyards Burgundy ($7), a ripe, lush, earthy wine that is 58 percent petite sirah.

Distribution of petite sirah is spotty. Some of the best wine stores have virtually none, while occasionally you'll find a decent selection at a simple neighborhood shop. In this case, the more sophisticated dealers are missing the boat.

Unlike the swaggering petite sirah, cabernet franc is a rather bashful variety. It is one of three important red grapes in Bordeaux, but even where it is most widely planted it tends to play second fiddle to merlot. (The notable exception that proves cabernet franc's potential is the famous St. Emilion Chateau Cheval Blanc, where it makes up two-thirds of the blend.)

In a way, you could say cabernet franc is to Bordeaux grapes what George Harrison is to the Beatles. Where merlot and cabernet sauvignon, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, went on to high-profile solo careers, cabernet franc has had only limited success as an individual performer.

In California, many producers have planted cabernet franc to blend it with cabernet sauvignon and merlot, mainly because it can bolster the structure of a wine without adding heavy tannins. Only a few, however, have produced a varietal cabernet franc.

By itself, California cabernet franc tends to be leaner, more herbaceous and far more easy to mistake for Bordeaux than cabernet sauvignon.

Three examples -- 1986 Congress Springs, 1987 Rabbit Ridge and 1986 La Jota -- all topped out at about the same quality level: very good, but not quite great. But where the Congress Springs was attractively priced ($13) and the Rabbit Ridge was fairly priced at $17, the sticker on the La Jota ($32) showed somebody must have delusions of grandeur.

In truth, cabernet franc probably does work best as a supporting actor, but each of these wines has enough complexity and individuality to make you hope their producers keep up the experiment.

If petite sirah and cabernet franc are little gray lines on the California wine map, malbec hardly shows up at all. This minor Bordeaux blending grape hardly ever makes up more than 5 percent of any chateau's blend, and its record on its own (in France's Cahors region and in Argentina) hardly suggests world-class quality.

As far as I know, only one California producer is making a varietal malbec, but that one shows exceptional promise. The 1987 Clos du Bois Alexander Valley Malbec "L'Etranger" ($16) is a deep, rich, complex wine with succulent cherry, blackberry and chocolate flavors and a smooth, refined feel -- like a top-notch zinfandel without the pepperiness. Certainly this is the kind of performance that raises hopes that malbec, like zinfandel, is a grape that performs better in California than in its native soil.

There are other thin gray lines for you to explore on the California wine country map. Enterprising producers are working with such varieties as the sirah, mourvedre and grenache of the Rhone and the sangiovese, nebiolo and aleatico of Italy.

These side-trips down the country roads of California viticulture can bring even the most jaded consumer in touch with the vitality of what is still a young wine region, far from having all the answers. Long may that continue.

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