Discover off-the-beaten-path red grapes 

click to enlarge L’Aventure winery produces a Cote a Cote blend that takes its inspiration from the Rhone Valley. - COURTESY PASO ROBLES WINE COUNTRY ALLIANCE
  • L’Aventure winery produces a Cote a Cote blend that takes its inspiration from the Rhone Valley.
California has long been producing stellar cabernet sauvignons and food-friendly pinot noirs. Even the merlots — despite being subjected to unjustified cinematic criticism — are pretty delicious. However, there are so many ancient grapes with California-style out there just waiting to be explored.

The incredibly diverse growing conditions and microclimates in our state have created fertile ground for a wide range of classic Old-World reds with New World style. These venerable grapes have hopscotched their way around the globe leaving besotted drinkers in their wake. Here’s a little tour of some of the best reds of Italy, Portugal, France and Spain on California turf.

Some of my favorite grapes are the classic reds used in the Douro region of Portugal to make port. Top producers of this time-honored, after-dinner drink starting setting aside some of their production several decades ago to make unfortified — read dry — red grapes and the results have been impressive. California wine producers — everywhere from Lodi to the Central Coast — have been catching onto the balanced acidity and great fruit structure that these great grapes can produce.

Ripken Vineyards and Harmony Wynelands in Lodi — an overall diverse region not far from San Francisco — are great examples. As with many unusual and limited-production wines, you may not find them easily in your neighborhood wine shop but can certainly order them from the winery, or pay them a visit. Pierce Ranch Vineyards in Monterey also makes a stellar Portuguese red blend called Cosecheiro. It’s a great example of what these luscious touriga nacional grapes produce.

French, with California style

Cabernet franc has long been a key grape in Bordeaux, as well as the anchor grape in the elegant red wines of the Loire Valley in Central France. While it is rarely used on its own in California, a few producers such as the Napa-based Lang & Reed Wine Co., have excelled in showing its lean and earthy style in a beautiful way.

Syrah has also been producing some great wines in many California regions, both on its own and by adding spice to blends. Some of the brightest — and most enduring — single-varietal versions are made in Paso Robles, including Clavo and Adelaida Cellars. Probably only a Frenchman could make a syrah-based blend as rich and indulgent as L’Aventure’s Cote a Cote blend made in Paso Robles, which takes inspiration from the Rhone Valley by adding grenache and mourvèdre.

On the Italian and Spanish trail

You may have fallen in love with barbera in foggy Piedmont in the northwest corner of Italy, however California is producing wines based on this grape that show considerable respect for its origins with a generally more fruit-forward style. Regions like Amador Country, are putting out some fine examples that are much higher in alcohol and tend to have more rugged tannins than their Italian siblings.

The Spanish and French grape

Grenache is also at the base of many great wines in California. Its lush fruit flavors have long played a role in the classic wines of the Northern and Southern Rhône. Lodi’s Bokisch Vineyards makes a great Grenache — as well as wines from many Iberian varietals — as does Pierce Ranch with its blend of Grenache and Syrah called Tourbillon.

Liza B. Zimmerman has been writing, educating and consulting about wine, cocktails and food for two decades. She has also worked almost every angle of the wine and food business: from server and consultant to positions in distribution, education and sales.

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Liza B. Zimmerman

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