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In California, where a handful of grapes dominates the industry, explorations with carignan yield potential for wonderful, unpretentious wines.

You can teach an old-vine grape new tricks

Nov 30, 2018 5:50 AM

IN California, a handful of popular grapes accounts for an overwhelming proportion of the state's vineyard acreage. These grapes - cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, zinfandel, merlot, pinot noir, syrah and sauvignon blanc - dominate production and the perception of California wines.

Yet some of the most satisfying California wines today are made by producers working outside this mainstream.

Some gravitated towards lesser-known grapes simply because they were interested in making different sorts of wines. Others did not own vineyards and lacked the means to buy the better-known but more expensive grapes.

Regardless of their motivation, winemakers who have adopted these scorned grapes have provided a necessary counterbalance to what had become a stultifying lack of diversity among California wines.

Market voices on:

Trousseau, picpoul, ribolla gialla, palomino, refosco and counoise are among them. Several less obscure Mediterranean grapes, like mourvèdre, cinsault and carignan, have also gained a toehold.

This is why we spent the last month tasting California carignan here at Wine School.

We have nothing but respect for the grapes that made California's wine fortune. But we have seen the need, particularly among moderately priced bottles, for wines that did not masquerade as something they were not. That is why wines like California carignan, presented straightforwardly without pretence, are so exciting.

As always, I chose three bottles to taste: Lioco Mendocino Sativa 2015, Porter Creek Mendocino Old Vine 2015, and Broc Cellars Alexander Valley Old Vine 2016.

Each represents a modern expression of carignan - immediately accessible, friendly and soulful, delicious and drinkable, yet not simple. Still, the wines clearly differ from one another. While the intents of the three producers were somewhat similar, they achieved their goals through different methods.

The one thing these producers have in common is that they all use grapes from very old vines - 65-plus years for Porter Creek and Lioco, and 100-plus years for Broc - from vineyards that survived or ignored the wholesale purge of grapes considered too proletarian for most California winemakers.

Older vines are less vigorous than younger vines, and so are thought to produce grapes of greater concentration and potential quality. This is an issue with carignan, which, when young, produces very high yields resulting in insipid wines.

Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars was just starting out in 2009 when he learned of old-vine carignan in the Oat Valley Vineyard in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma, which was going to be replaced by cabernet sauvignon. It was suggested that if he was interested in buying the grapes, he might talk the owners out of tearing out the vines. He did, and he is still making the wine today.

Brockway was inspired by some of the lighter-bodied, refreshing carignans coming out of southwestern France, where many of the wines are made using the technique of semicarbonic maceration, which is most closely identified with Beaujolais.

The Broc carignan was easygoing and relaxed, rich but not heavy, with aromas and flavours of red fruits, herbs, spices and flowers, and a savoury, almost salty edge to it, which made the wine deliciously refreshing.

The Lioco had a lot in common with the Broc. Matt and Sara Licklider, the Lioco proprietors, generally make excellent pinot noirs and chardonnays, but they wanted to explore an heirloom variety from old vines. That led them to carignan, which Matt Licklider said in an email allowed them to make the sort of wine they were looking for: "bistro-friendly, food versatile, low cost, authentic." The Lioco is made by a different method. Whole clusters of grapes (stems and all) are stomped - the oldest method of crushing grapes - then put into vats. The skins and stems, which generally float to the top of the grape juice to form a cap, are pushed down by a perforated steel sheet, which Matt Licklider likened to a French-press coffee maker.

Some of the grapes are not crushed by the feet, however, and these grapes do undergo a carbonic-style intracellular fermentation, which perhaps accounts for some of the similarities to the Broc carignan.

I loved the aromas of red fruits laced with herbs, spices, flowers and a savoury touch of tobacco. The wine was lighter-bodied than the Broc, but taut and precise, lively and energetic, and great with a stew of white beans, herbs and sausage.

The Porter Creek stood out from the other two. The winemaker, Alex Davis, has procured his organic carignan grapes from an old vineyard near Hopland in Mendocino since 2008. Like Lioco, Porter Creek is better known for its pinot noirs and chardonnays. So why carignan?

"It allows me to produce a wine with a sense of soul and place that is very different from the pinot noirs that we are mostly known for," Davis said by email.

My takeaway was a reinforced conviction that many grapes like carignan, once scorned or written off, have great potential to make delightful wines. They may not necessarily compete with the best wines in the world, but as the philosophers say, a pursuit of the best should not be the enemy of the good.

Fortified wines are not easy to sell nowadays. Far fewer people drink them than in their heyday, and that goes particularly for port.

Both sherry and Madeira, the other two leading fortified wines, have had some semblance of a revival. But port? Not so much.

I rarely drink it, maybe once a year, far less than sherry or Madeira. One reason is port's lack of versatility. It's very sweet, which makes it primarily an after-dinner drink, a category that likewise has seen much better days.

Nonetheless, port remains one of the great wines, and for that reason alone it's worth investigating.

This month I chose three tawny ports of differing ages, all from the same producer, Taylor Fladgate: Taylor Fladgate Fine Tawny (Kobrand, New York) US$17, Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny Port em (Kobrand, New York) US$30, and Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny Port (Kobrand, New York) US$52.

The idea is to examine both the genre and the effects of ageing, with an effort to eliminate the variables that might surface when tasting ports from multiple producers. My picks should be widely available, but if you find other producers, don't hesitate to drink those instead. The 20-year-old is not cheap, but my guess is that it will go the furthest in conveying the potential pleasures of port.

These ports are not something to serve with a meal in front of the television. Their sweetness and high alcohol (20 per cent) consign them to small servings, often after a meal or occasionally for an aperitif. Blue cheese is a classic with port. Or try a glass chilled as an aperitif, especially the unaged tawny. NYTIMES