At a major wine competition last week, all of the judges were poured a warm-up wine and asked to identify it.
Since these were theoretically skilled judges, the task sounds like it would have been simple. After all, the different grape varieties do have different aromatics, taste profiles and textures.
For instance, most pinot noirs (at least the very good ones) rarely have as much tannin, color or body as, say, far weightier cabernet sauvignons or syrahs. And gewurztraminer is most decidedly a lot more floral than, say, rousanne.
The white wine we were all poured was slightly floral and had nice texture. It was dry and would have worked nicely with a wide variety of lighter foods.
I guessed it was a pinot gris. So did about a third of all those in the room. Other guesses were vermentino (from four persons), riesling, and sauvignon blanc.
I was wrong, as were more than 20 other guessers. The wine turned out to be a vermentino, a rare grape of Italian heritage. So little vermentino is planted in California that the USDA’s 2012 Grape Acreage Report doesn’t even show any of it planted in California.
I’d guess total acreage in the country to be about 100 acres or so.
No question this is an obscure white grape, though successful versions of it have been made by a handful of California wineries. Among the best are from Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, Mahoney Vineyards in the Napa Carneros, Uvaggio Vineyards in Lodi, and Thornton in Temecula. I have had all four and like them greatly.
That 70-plus professional wine judges couldn’t identify the wine is no surprise. First, it’s not a mainstream variety and as such its aromatic and taste profiles do not return from the recesses of the brain very readily.
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Also, each of the four California vermentinos listed above differ from one another in ways that are easy to see. That’s because the grape apparently displays different characteristics based on the different locales in which it is planted.
The French word “terroir” tries, in part, to explain this phenomenon — that every grape variety displays both varietal as well as regional characteristics, making it a difficult task to simply identify, on aroma and taste alone, what a wine is.
Not that it would have been easier to identify the wine served to the judges last week had we known where it was from. That’s because it was a 2012 vermentino from Duchman Vineyards in Driftwood, Texas!
Finally, vermentino is anything but an assertively aromatic, easily identified variety. One of the grape’s attributes is its minerality. The Duchman wine was delicate, and I detected little minerality.
Interestingly, in researching this story, I came upon evidence that those who thought the wine was pinot gris weren’t really all that wrong.
On the website of the Lodi wine industry association, there was a reference to Uvaggio wine maker Jim Moore, a great proponent of the variety. The site says:
“In Jim Moore’s world, every self-respecting American white wine lover should be drinking vermentino, which he calls the ‘thinking man’s pinot grigio.
“Ironically, in Moore’s previous life — 19 years spent at Robert Mondavi Winery — one of his goals was to convert Americans to California-grown pinot grigio.”
So next time anyone hands you a white wine and asks, “What is this?” your best answer is probably, “Wet.”
Wine of the Week: 2013 MAN Chenin Blanc, Coastal Region. “Free Run Steen” ($8) – A fresh, lively dry white wine that is soft enough to take a chilling and cool the brow on a hot afternoon. Chenin blanc is extremely popular in South Africa (where it’s also called Steen) and this version has hints of melon and tea. Appealing and often discounted to about $6.50. (Incidentally, the name uses the first initials of the three partners’ wives, Marie, Anette and Nicky.)
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at email@example.com.
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