In search of the perfect grape; Valley has many possibilities

September 3, 2009

 

So, that rich uncle died and left you 40 acres in the San Joaquin Valley, along with enough cash to plant a vineyard.  So, what do you plant?

If this is primarily an investment, you might be better off planting something other than grapes, but since Uncle Felix was a wine connoisseur, it only seems fitting to honor him that way.

But there’s that nagging feeling that you want a return on the land. The safe bet is to look at what sells: the big wineries want cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot. That’s because the California wine industry has trained consumers to look for those wines.

But are they the best wine grapes to plant in the San Joaquin Valley? The premier vineyard areas of California feature hot days, but cool nights, rolling hills and different soils than are found here.

Might a different varietal grape thrive better in the Valley climate and soils? Would some other grape produce better wine?

That’s a complicated question.

Peter Vallis, for one, feels Valley growers can do well with just about any grape.  It’s a matter of knowing how to grow each grape varietal. Vallis says: You can cool off the vines with irrigation, for instance, to make up for those hot nights.

Vallis is the executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Wine Growers Association, so he has an incentive to defend his members who grow chardonnay, cabernet and merlot.

But Vallis is backed up by Paul Verdegaal, a UC Cooperative Extension viticulture adviser in San Joaquin County.

Verdegaal has been working with an experimental block of vines for more than 15 years, observing which grapes thrive, which are susceptible to disease, and which develop the most interesting wine flavors.

The 2.5 acre block started with 25 to 30 varietals, and currently has about 60. Some definitely do better than others in the San Joaquin Valley heat, Verdegaal reports – but he adds this caveat:

“Grapes in general are pretty adaptable across a wide range. You can grow just about anything you want here.”

As an example, Verdegaal says he would have bet against planting German varietals or other northern European grapes in the Valley. But a Lodi grower did just that, and is winning medals statewide for his German style wines.

Pinot gris is another example. Verdegaal said it was thought to be better suited to cooler climes in Oregon or Washington, but good pinot gris is being grown in the Valley.

That said, there definitely are grapes that do better in the here and produce very good wines.

Varietals grown in Mediterranean countries, like Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Sicily and Croatia do well in the Valley, said Verdegaal; grapes with names like tempranillo, graciano and teroldego.

The problem is that those names aren’t what consumers ask for when they shop for wine. Viognier is a good example, Verdegaal said – it makes a very nice wine, but consumers are confused as to how to even pronounce it.  It’s much easier to say chardonnay.

And that means the big wineries aren’t too interested in the more obscure varieties. The Gallos and Constellations of the world deal in large volume batches of the wines with which consumers already are familiar.

But a small grower might be able to focus on a less well-known grape, and develop a niche, Verdegaal said. While that strategy is riskier, for sure, it can be more personally rewarding than just selling the crop in the bulk market.

So, how to choose a variety?

Well, Verdegaal said there probably are 8,000 to 10,000 varietals available, so that task can be daunting. Field trials like Verdegaal’s are under way, but as he noted, the Europeans have a couple of hundred years head start in understanding the interaction of climate and soil with vines.

Verdegaal’s Liberty Gallo trial finds that some familiar varietals that have gained consumer acceptance do well in the Valley – zinfandel, syrah and petite syrah, for instance. And other, lesser known grapes have significant potential, even if only for niche market. Grapes like barbera, mourvedre, verdelho and dolcetto.

Another California wine trend may boost some of those lesser-known grapes. After a couple of decades of teaching consumers to look for varietal wines, producers are looking at blended wines.

So, a grape that might not catch attention as a stand-alone varietal might be perfect for adding a deeper color or a more complex flavor to a blended wine.

Ironically, as California winemakers look at blends, European producers, who have traditionally made blended wines under regional names like Burgundy and Bordeaux, are beginning to market varietal wines.

“Maybe,” said Verdegaal, “we will meet somewhere in the middle.”

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