Wine lovers often speak of the greatness of Napa (Cabernet), Russian River (Pinot Noir), and at least a dozen other “world-class” California wines from exalted regions.
Some regions, of course, rarely get such accolades.
About 80 percent of the wine made in the state comes from the vast Central Valley that runs hundreds of miles from Bakersfield to Sacramento’s suburbs, and from hot-climate vines that rarely produce anything approaching greatness.
Low-lying hills running north-south just west of the valley separate the hot interior valley from the cooler, more quality-oriented coastal zone – a barrier that keeps the regions far apart in terms of quality. The coastal cooler strip can produce literally dozens of different grapes that make fine wine.
There are extremely few places in between the valley and the coast where a combination of hot days and cold nights provides a chance to strategically harvest and make exceptional Euro-styled wines with distinctive flavors.
So it was a shock to my belief system last week when I evaluated several wines from an area that most people could still think is part of the Central Valley. But there is a twist.
Each of the wines I tried was an exemplary representation of cooler-climate vine-growing, even though the area, near the town of Winters, has daytime high temperatures that are often searingly hot.
Much of Yolo County has these conditions, but it takes a visionary to divine how to maximize them.
The wines in question all were made at Berryessa Gap Vineyards, and might have turned out to be ordinary had the winemaker not been carefully schooled (a stint in New Zealand did it) in the a vital importance of acid-retention in warm-climate grape growing.
Although much of Yolo County has hot summer days, it also has diurnal swings that drop vineyard temperatures absurdly cold almost every night, which retains acidity.
Nicole Salengo, not yet a familiar name in wine-making, is part of the puzzle that has created for Yolo a potentially bright future. She made the wines I tried and part of my surprise may simply have come from my prejudice: I couldn’t believe Yolo County could make such balanced and structured whites and reds.
“We do get hot days,” Salengo said. “With our cold nights, we have the natural acidity to make balanced wines. But you have to pick early.”
By harvesting earlier in the ripening cycle, at sugar levels that are moderate, Salengo makes lower-alcohol whites, reds and a stylish rosé that are a dramatic testament that can destroy myths.
Indeed, several other vineyards in Yolo County make attractive wines of balance too that don’t have that “Central Valley-itis” aroma, the warm-climate smell of grapey-ness that replaces varietal-ness.
The wines at Berryessa Gap truly make a statement for the symbiotic connection between this land and Salengo’s earlier-harvesting vision, which leads to some truly fine wines.
The property started out decades ago as a grapevine rootstock nursery, and owner Dan Martinez has recently coordinated with Salengo to find grapes not yet widely planted in Yolo soils.
One example is a beautiful blend of Barbera (the high-acid Italian grape) and Grenache that she makes into a stylish and very dry rosé. The 2018 will be released in a few weeks, and probably will sell out quickly.
Another dramatic wine is a 2018 Sauvignon Blanc that has both floral qualities well as the earthy/minerally notes of a Loire Valley white, with a gorgeous aftertaste of fresh grapefruit! It is to be released in a month or so.
Among the various red wines Nicole crafted in 2016, all are distinctively nuanced, and may be described as bracing because of terrific acid balance and extremely careful barrel aging.
A Tempranillo ($26) is more red fruit than black, and reminds me a bit of Sangiovese because of its bright acidity. A Malbec ($25) has a slightly rustic aroma with hints of citrus and minerals, and a superb Zinfandel ($22) that’s more like claret with racy raspberry fruit and balance is aimed at serving with steak au poivre.
The Zin is particularly interesting because so many such wines have hints of later-harvested fruit.
“I don’t want any raisins,” said Salengo. So instead of using true Zinfandel grapes, she planted Primitivo, which genetically is a nearly identical match, but produces fewer raisins.
Berryessa Gap is a project to watch.
Discovery of the Week: 2015 Banfi Chianti Superiore ($12) – This large producer of numerous fabulous Italian wines has made this entry-level Chianti for decades. The excellent 2015 vintage gave us a stunning example of why Sangiovese is such a superb grape. There is moderate tannin here, a classic Chianti aroma with a hint of leather adding interest to red cherries. Tastes like it should be $20 or more.