california & the mediterranean
California is most famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, but the wines I often find most exciting are those made from Mediterranean varieties, such as Carignan, Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Syrah.
It makes complete sense that these varieties work, because, after all, California has a Mediterranean climate in common with southern France and eastern Spain. These varieties have been planted since the nineteenth century, but went by the wayside when the trend for Bordeaux and Burgundy varieties made California so successful internationally.
Due to the price of land and of varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, producers are returning to these overlooked Mediterranean varieties and are making fantastic wine. Given their suitability to California and that the climate is warming, they may actually represent the future more than Cabernet Sauvignon itself ... .
These varieties are often referred to as Rhône varieties, because they're grown in the southern Rhône in France where they are most famously found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But I prefer the term Mediterranean because that describes the growing conditions of most Californian wine regions, and because many of the varieties originate from Spain rather than France.
Grenache is the basis of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and other southern Rhône regions, but it originally comes from Spain, where it's called Garnacha. It's often found in Rioja blends to give body and alcohol, but dynamic producers across Spain are making some pretty stunning single-varietal Garnacha. In the eighteenth century, it was first planted in France in Roussillon and then traveled to the Rhône and Provence; it's now the second most planted grape variety in France after Merlot.
In California, it was introduced in the 1850s and became widely planted, although after Prohibition it was mainly used for rosé and sweet wines. As in Spain, producers in California are taking it much more seriously and the range of styles is astonishing: from light, fruity, pale-colored youthful reds to more intense, ageworthy wines, as well as being used in full-bodied blends.
One of my favorite varieties, which is also often known by its French name despite originating in eastern, Mediterranean Spain (similar to the Grenache story). It's an historic variety, first mentioned in the 1380s, and the name Monastrell comes from the fact it was grown by monks—a sure sign of quality. It was probably first planted in France in the sixteenth century; in Roussillon, it became known as Mataró, a name which partially stuck in California and Australia when it was transported to those two countries.
It's historically been used in blends with Grenache and Syrah, providing black fruits and a tannic structure, but producers across the world, including here in California, are making fantastic single-varietal wines from the grape.
In the early 1970s, Carignan was the most planted variety in France; likewise in California. Growers loved the grape because of its high yields; good winemakers and discerning drinkers disliked Carignan because those high yields encourage insipid flavors and astringent tannins.
But—and this is the big but—old-vine Carignan is fantastic because when yields are limited the tannins are firm, the acidity is high, and there's a wonderful floral freshness to the wines. Carignan (historically spelt Carignane in California) has been planted in the state since the nineteenth century, and there are a number of vineyards with vines over a hundred years' old where some of California's most intriguing wines come from.
Of these four varieties, Syrah is the only one not originally from Spain. It's from the northern Rhône and is a natural crossing of two rather obscure varieties, Mondeuse Blanche and Dureza. It prefers a more moderate climate than the other Mediterranean varieties, which is why I think Santa Barbara County has exciting potential. Again, it's been in California since the nineteenth century, although it wasn't until the 1970s that it was bottled as a single-varietal wine. On the right sites, California Syrah can be both peppery and voluptuous.
so what's in blackpoolmatt's wine club?
Petrichor "Carma" Grenache Yorkville Highlands 2019
Although Petrichor is located in Sonoma County, the fruit for "Carma" is sourced from an organically farmed vineyard called "Wild Ruth," which is situated on a rugged hillside in Yorkville Highlands, Mendocino. As the name suggests, the Yorkville Highlands AVA is all about altitude and aspect. The days can get hot, so the coolness that elevation brings, especially at night, helps create conditions for fruity but structured wines.
This is a wonderfully delicious Grenache, light, gentle, and summery. "Carma" is made with carbonic maceration to emphasize the fruitiness and soften the tannins. Fantastic label too—artwork is part of a series by Michael Rios called Petrichor Water Goddess.
Land of Saints Grenache/Syrah Santa Barbara County 2018
Land of Saints is a collaboration between three Santa Barbara winemakers: Angela and Jason Osborne of A Tribute to Grace and Manuel Cuevas of C2 Cellars. Angela originates from New Zealand and Andrew from Cornwall, also known as the Land of Saints, while Manuel is of Mexican-American origin. They met in 2013 and found that their eclectic backgrounds actually gave them a lot in common and they decided to collaborate on this fun project.
This Grenache/Syrah blend comes from different sites across Santa Barbara County: Los Alamos, Los Olivos, Happy Canyon, and Santa Ynez—offering different flavor profiles to add complexity. All the sites are fermented and aged separately for 11 months in used barrels before blending a month before bottling.
Darling Wines McEvoy Ranch Syrah Petaluma Gap 2018
One of the things I love about living in wine country is that I can taste wines made literally up the road from me—from my house it takes less than ten minutes to get to McEvoy Ranch, from which some really good olive oil is also made.
It's in the Petaluma Gap AVA, a recently created zone which is heavily influenced by winds coming in from the Pacific and trapped by the hills. The potential for Syrah here is really exciting, as the days are warm but the nights cool down significantly.
That climate is evidenced in this Syrah, made by Tom and Ashley Darling, a young couple establishing a reputation for low-intervention, site-focused wines. The Syrah, made with whole-cluster fermentation, is peppery and bright; as with all these wines, it's a reminder of how varieties such as Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, and Mourvèdre can express the varied terroirs of the state.
Want to understand California? Then think Mediterranean.