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Monday, September 8, 2008

Expand Your Varietal Horizons

John Haggard is on-hand once more to fill in for Dick Starr during his absence. Dick will be back in the September 2008 issue. We are lucky to have such a knowledgeable wine writer so close at hand and so willing to help.

Expand Your Varietal Horizons

I am the first one to fall into the trap of loving a varietal. Surrounded by some of the best pinot noir in the country, I carry sixty to eighty of them in my store. You may find yourself to be a pinot-file or, perhaps, having a preference for cabernet, but California’s winemakers have so much more to offer.

Barb Gustafson (Matt Gustafson’ wife, the winemaker for Paul Mathew) persuaded me to taste the Paul Mathew Gamay Noir 2007, from Knights Valley (Sonoma County). Matt is known for his pinot noirs, indeed is about to be profiled by Wine Spectator for his expertise in expressing the flavors in the clonal varietals of pinot noir such as Russian River Valley’s Ruxton Vineyard… but I digress, his Gamay Noir is outstanding. Traditionally served lightly chilled (although a red wine), this Gamay Noir needs only be brought to cellar temperature – which can be done by placing in a refrigerator for just fifteen minutes. The Paul Mathew Gamay Noir is a dusty, black stone-fruit filled sipping wine which finishes with flavors of bubblegum (yes, I said bubblegum) and hints of fennel, retail price $16.99.

Once widely found, French Colombard has been ripped out of California’s vineyards for more profitable varietals, thankfully, some has survived. Nikolai Stez, the winemaker for Woodenhead, knew he had something special and wanted to make a dry white wine crafted for another love of his, oysters. He has indeed achieved his goal. The Woodenhead 2007 Russian River Valley French Colombard is a perfect pairing for the Hog Island Oysters found locally in Tomales Bay. With creamy citric lime and lemon flavors, and minerality mid-palate, this French Colombard would also make a great pairing for Pacific Coast Abalone. Woodenhead has a new tasting room at 5700 River Road, though they may be a touch taken-a-back if you say you were drawn there by his French Colombard rather than his more sort-after pinot noirs and zinfandels (I certainly recommend you try everything they let you taste at Woodenhead). Woodenhead’s French Colombard retails at $17.99, but why not go to Mosaic Restaurant in Forestville, now serving lunch and dinner 7 days a week in their beautiful hidden garden oasis where you will find it placed on Tai Olesky’s well-rounded wine menu.

Grenache is certainly not an uncommon varietal to the French – it is the dominant grape used in many Rhône wines, famously Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In California, however, it is much harder to find. Quivira has made an exquisite example of a Rosé of Grenache in 2007 from their estate in Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma. Quivira wins my praise before even tasting their wine because of its organic farming, commitment to solar power and restoration of Wine Creek as a fish-friendly habitat. Their dry Rosé of Grenache has nice tart red fruit flavors of strawberry and cherry, with watermelon and green papaya - a versatile food wine, making a great pairing for caesar salad with either prawns or grilled chicken, retail price $19.99.

Dornfelder was definitely not a varietal on my radar screen until just a month ago when I had the good fortune to taste a 2005 Dornfelder from Huber Estate in Santa Barbara County. While more common in Germany, this distinctive varietal produces a dark, inky red wine in your glass filled with blueberry, not a tannic wine but dry, full-palate, blueberry - a great robust sipping wine, retailing at $25.99.

A favorite of mine for the last two vintages, is Carol Shelton’s Late Harvest Trousseau Gris. The current vintage is 2007 and retails for $15.99 (375ml). A demi-sec (light-sweet) this wine pairs beautifully with aged goat cheeses, such as Redwood Hill Farm’s Bucheret from Sebastopol. The wine is filled with stone fruit flavors of nectarine and white peach with a subtle effervessence. The Trousseau Gris vineyard is off Wood Road in the Russian River Valley. The vineyard is approaching sixty years of age and farmed about as organically as it gets by Peter Fanucchi, testament to this was the hidden bird nest I found amongst the vines on my last visit to the vineyard with Carol Shelton.

John Haggard is owner of Sophie’s Cellars, The Sonoma Wine & Cheese Market in Monte Rio, California. Sophie’s Cellars is open 11am – 7pm, closed only on Wednesdays.