Alternate Wine Grapes for California

UC advisor suggests less common varieties suited for state's climate

by Paul Franson
Source: Glenn McGourty/University of California Cooperative Extension
Napa, Calif.—When Glenn McGourty, the winegrowing and plant science advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Mendocino and Lake counties and Wines & Vines viticulture columnist, took his new post in 1994, someone suggested he conduct some unique research to differentiate himself. He shared some of that research Wednesday at a meeting of the Napa Valley Vineyard Technical Group, an organization of growers who meet regularly to discuss news related to grapegrowing.

His subject, alternate wine grape varieties, might seem an odd one for the Napa Valley, where Cabernet Sauvignon is widely planted, but he started his talk with a lesson—in this case about apples grown in Washington state. He noted that in 1986, red delicious apples represented 75% of the apple crop in that state, a leading apple grower. They were planted in 161,000 acres.

He said that red delicious are beautiful, bright red apples, but they aren’t delicious for long after they are removed from cold storage.

Other countries, notably New Zealand, started growing better tasting and better textured apples. By 2015, red delicious had dropped to 34% of the previous acreage, while the gala variety held 19%, Fuji 13% and granny smith 12%.

The analogy served as a warning to growers not to be complacent, noting that tastes change, as does the climate.

The lure of international varieties
McGourty continued that the “international varieties”—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—became dominant outside Europe because they had a long history of export, were perceived to be high in quality and, of course, were traditional. “Monks optimized them, they didn’t have much else to do but pray,” McGourty noted, adding that the English became very interested in wine hundreds of years ago partly because it was safer to drink than the water they encountered.

But these international varieties weren’t necessarily ideal for the Mediterranean climates of major New World producers, including California.

The popular varieties came from continental climates that experienced more rain and cool weather than California. “For them, vintage years happened when the grapes become fully ripe. That wasn’t typical.”

Grapes are grown from 38th-50th parallel
With that in mind, McGourty noted some reasons to consider planting something different: Other vines might be better adapted to your climate.

Many wine drinkers—and especially sommeliers—like something different. Not everyone likes the opulent, high-alcohol style of typical Napa Cabernets and Chardonnays, either, and with direct-to-consumer sales becoming so important to smaller wineries, offering more options might appeal to wine club members and other buyers.

Unfortunately, McGourty said, “Wine drinkers are more adventurous than wine distributors.” Distributors prefer to pitch a few wines.

He also complained that many people who write about wine don’t understand lesser known varieties. And it’s hard to sell wines with names that consumers can’t pronounce like Viognier, Montepulciano and Ciliegiolo.

Other considerations discourage growing novel varieties: “Not everyone likes what you like, and new wines require a hand sell.”

As a viticulture expert, McGourty also admitted that growers may be on their own for information about how to grow these vines, though he recommends a long visit where the vines do grow to help with that problem.

Our Mediterranean climate
Source: Glenn McGourty/University of California Cooperative Extension
As most grapegrowers know, much of California has a Mediterranean climate, a climate shared with only 2.25% of world’s land mass. Sixteen percent of the world’s plant species originated in this climate.

Mediterranean plants tend to be tough, getting by on little water, which makes them ideal for the California climate.

Mediterranean climate regions have warm to hot, dry summers and cool, moderate winters. Most of their precipitation falls in the winter.

Other Mediterranean regions include Chile, South Africa, southwest Australia and, of course, the Mediterranean Basin.

California viticulturists grow grapes between 33° and 38° N; traditional northern European vineyards are typically at 41°-50° N.

Notably, in California, the climate changes most dramatically west to east, not north to south: The farther from the cool Pacific Ocean, the hotter—until the elevation rises toward the Sierra.

In particular, the climate changes from a Winkler region I in Philo, 14 miles from the ocean in western Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, to a low region IV in High Valley in Lake County, 48 miles from the Pacific.

Grapes grow within sight of Point Arena on the Pacific, but they don’t ripen fully each year. Anderson Valley specializes in cool-climate Pinot Noir and Alsatian varieties, while the Red Hills of Lake County are good for Cabernet Sauvignon.

And Ukiah is close to the northern limit for grapegrowing in California.

The Italian immigrants who were a major part of early Northern California grapegrowing turned to Mediterranean varieties they knew, not northern French cultivars.

Even in 1960, the most-planted wine grape variety i? Napa was Petite Sirah (Durif) from southern France, while in Sonoma it was Zinfandel from southern Italy and Croatia, and in Mendocino, Carignane from Spain.

It was only years later that new vintners emphasized the classic French varieties as they emulated top French producers.

How do they do here?
With that background, McGourty discussed the research he has conducted at UC Hopland Research and Experimental Station in two trials.

From 2000 to 2005, he evaluated 12 Mediterranean red varieties and some whites as well.

Italy is a very diverse area. McGourty tried varieties from Piemonte and Veneto in Northern Italy, commenting that these vineyards are some of the best managed he’s ever seen.

He also noted that many of these Italian grapes produce high yields.

Nebbiolo is the renowned grape used to make Barolo and Barbaresco. It can be tannic and require aging, and isn’t easy to grow or vinify.

makes rather ordinary wine, but is ready to drink quickly.

Corvina is used for Amarone, Bardolino and Valpolicella, the latter two wines relatively moderate in body and color but with good acidity. It is often grown on overhead pergolas called tendone. For Amarone, some of the grapes are dried to increase sugar concentration.

Freisa makes a good wine and maintains acidity even in warm climates.

Arneis is McGourty’s favorite of the whites. “It used to be planted to attract bees away from the Nebbiolo because it ripens earlier, but they discovered it makes a very nice wine.” He added that it’s in bottles four or five months after harvest, and the Italians drink it all by the next harvest.

Admitting that Pinot Grigio is very popular, he noted, “It isn’t very exciting.”

McGourty also tried Sangiovese, Montepulciano and Canaiolo from Tuscany and Abruzzo in central Italy and white Fiano and red Aglianico from Campania, near Naples.

There are many varieties of Sangiovese, and modern clones overcome some of the limitations of earlier versions that had to be blended with other grapes for color and longevity. In California, it often produces 8-9 tons per acre of ordinary wines, but with the right clone farmed at 3-4 tons per acre, it can be excellent.

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is not the grape used to make Montepulciano (a Sangiovese), but it makes a nice red with soft tannins at 10 tons per acre, or an excellent rosé at 15 tons per acre.

Canaiolo was used to augment weak Sangiovese but is ordinary on its own.

McGourty found white Fiano and red Aglianico from Campania “stellar.” At home they grow in very steep vineyards or often in pergolas with other crops under them.

Varieties he evaluated from Southern France included red Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault (Cinsaut), Mourvedre and Alicante Bouchet and white Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne

He noted that Syrah was often planted in the wrong places in California and also suffered Syrah decline disease. “Its early wines in California were not successful…but I think it deserves another chance.”

Grenache and Mourvedre (Mataro) have a long history here, but they were often overcropped. Cinsault (called Black Malvoisie here) is good for rosés blended with Grenache.

Among the whites, Viognier has also been often planted in the wrong place, but it produces an exceptional and expensive wine (Condrieu) in the Rhône Valley.

Marsanne and Roussanne can be very elegant in warm climates

Spain has more acres of grapevines than any other country. Its top grapes include Tempranillo, Garnacha tinta (Grenache) and Monastrel (Mourvedre).

Tempranillo is considered the Spanish red wine grape most likely to grow well in California. “It’s easy to grow and vigorous. It has a good future here,” McGourty said.

Garnacha was originally a table grape, and eventually it was adopted in southern France, too. It has large leaves and can have high yields.

“Monastrel (Mourvedre) is unlike other wine grapes. It has hairy leaves, which discourage Virginia creeper leap hoppers—but protect mites from predators.”

McGourty said that in trials, Pinot Gris/Grigio was the earliest ripening white (in late August and early September), then Viognier and Arneis in mid-late September, followed by Fiano with Marsanne not ripe until mid to late October and Cortese in late October.

Among reds, Dolcetto ripened in late September to early October, with Syrah and Tempranillo in early to mid October, then Sangiovese, Grenache and Freisa in mid to late October.

Corvina ripened in mid-late October and Cinsault, Nebbiolo and Canaiolo in late October. “We couldn’t really ripen Montepulciano, Mourvedre and Aglianico,” he noted. “They were too late (mid-November).”

Second trial
McGourty is conducting a second set of trials of other Mediterranean grapes. It started in 2011 and includes Albariño, Mencia and Graciano from Spain; Teroldego, Sagrantino, Ciliegiolo, Greco di Tufo and Falanghina from Italy; Periquita/Castelão, Tinta Amarela/ Trincadeira, Tinta Francisca and Touriga Naçional from Portugal; and Tannat from France.

Yields varied from 2 tons per acre for Tinta Francisca to 7 for Graciano. Sugars ranged from 21.3° Brix for Albariño to 27.2° for Tannat, a very tannic variety.

McGourty’s quick thoughts:

White Albariño, which comes from wet Galicia in northwest Spain, is often grown in a pergola to increase circulation.

Mencia makes a red with soft tannins.

Teroldego grows where it is wet and not too hot.

Sangratino was formerly identified as clone 23 Sangiovese. It has high tannins, good production and good flavors.

Ciliegiolo has cherry flavors and less tannin.

Falanghina makes a “wonderful” white.

Periquita/Castelão grows in hot southern Portugal. It was used for Lancer’s and Mateus rosés that were once very popular.

Tinta Francisca was disappointing.

Touriga Naçional is the top red grape of the warm Douro. “It’s growing in Modesto and makes a very good wine,” said McGourty.

Sagrantino and Tannat do well in California, he added.

In his summation, McGourty noted that it takes at least a couple of generations for growers to learn how to best grow grapes. “Napa has learned to do Cabernet very well,” he said, but reminded the audience that Aglianico has been cultivated around Naples since 500 B.C.

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