Expanding tasting horizons beyond the 93 percent prime grape varieties 

click to enlarge Mourvedre
  • Ann Johansson/Corbis/AP
  • Mourvedre grapes are among the lesser-known varietals gaining popularity in California.
When I first moved to California in the early 1990s, I used to go on treasure hunts for wines such as Clos du Val semillon, Rubissow-Sargent’s pinotage and Kent Rasmussen’s dolcetto. None of these specific bottlings is made anymore, but now, 20-plus years later, there are a host of new and veteran producers who are working with wine grapes that do not make up the 93 percent — the eight varieties that dominate all but 7 percent of California’s vineyard land (in order from largest to smallest share, the eight varieties are chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, merlot, pinot noir, French colombard, syrah and sauvignon blanc).

Since the start of the millennium, there have been more grape varieties, including mourvedre, carignan, chenin blanc and even pinot gris -— the ninth-most widely planted grape in California — available on Bay Area wine lists. In the past, they often found a home in the “Interesting Wines” category, a term that makes me roll my eyes, as it tells you absolutely nothing other than the wines do not fit into any of the other sections.

Today, many sommeliers seem to have moved beyond that banal vocabulary and opened their eyes to myriad wine grapes, thanks to the producers, who are doing a great job.

“We’re seeing more and more winemakers working with different varietals,” says Kevin Wardell of Bergamot Alley, a wine and beer bar in Healdsburg. “The potential is something we haven’t even scratched the surface on.”

While many restaurants are still stacked with California chardonnay, an increasing number have just as many wines made from other grapes. In a few wine shops, it seems as if the token cab is no longer cab franc, but cabernet sauvignon.

On May 8 in San Francisco and May 10 in Healdsburg, Bergamot Alley is shining the spotlight on arneis, cinsault and company in the second annual Seven % Solution tasting.

Wardell says the idea for the event came about over the course of numerous late-night conversations with winemakers. He said after realizing the different discussions they were hearing about the changing dynamics of winemaking in California never seemed to involve working with less fashionable grape varietals, the idea for a tasting was devised.

I don’t think chardonnay and merlot are going away, but as grapes such as carignan, semillon and others become more recognizable to wine consumers, especially younger ones, California’s wine landscape is sure to change. Maybe in five years, it will become the 10 % Solution event? The 20 producers taking part in the tasting are making high-quality and complex wines that have individuality.

Ultimately, variety is the spice of life, and that is what’s making California so exciting right now. If you are remotely curious, I encourage you to check out this tasting and look for the more unusual suspects when you are choosing a bottle at a restaurant, bar or shop, for it might just change the way you perceive California wines.

Tickets may be purchased at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/629065.

Pamela S. Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched TheVinguard.com, a blog covering a variety of wine-related topics.

About The Author

Pamela S. Busch

Pamela Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched TheVinguard.com.
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