Ongoing research to evaluate the adaptability of selected southern European grape varieties to the San Joaquin Valley promises to open new opportunities for the region’s grape growers, as well as for winemakers throughout the state.

The goal of the work at the University of California’s Kearney Agricultural Center, Parlier, is to identify varieties native to the Mediterranean areas of Portugal, Spain, France and Italy that not only thrive in the Valley’s hot, dry climate, but which can also be blended with standard California wine grapes to develop wines with unique characteristics of aroma, flavor, tannins and color.

This has the potential to expand the market for the state’s standard varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay, while adding value to grapes grown in the San Joaquin Valley, says Jim Wolpert, UC Cooperative Extension viticulture specialist at Davis.

The grapes would represent up to 25 percent of the total blend, he says.

“We’re not trying to change the San Joaquin Valley into another premium wine producing area, like Napa and Sonoma Counties. But, these new blending varieties offer the potential to produce some very nice, value-priced wines from San Joaquin Valley grapes. There’s a lot competition from other countries in this price range. We’re confident that these new grapes can be used to raise the quality bar for wines made from San Joaquin Valley grapes.”

If so, Wolpert reasons, that should help California’s wine industry stay competitive in meeting the ever-increasing expectations of consumers for more interesting wines and maybe even turn a few heads in the process.

The research is being funded by the American Vineyard Foundation, the USDA Viticulture Consortium and the California Competitive Grant Program.

The first trial, which began in 2001, involves all red wine grapes. The agronomic and wine qualities of 17 introduced varieties are being compared to those of such California standards as Cabernet Sauvignon, Ruby cabernet and Syrah. A second trial, involving 55 red and white wine varieties, was planted last year.

This past year, Constellation Wineries made small lots of wine from nine of the most promising varieties from the first trial. “Several of those varieties have made some pretty good wine,” Wolpert says.

The researchers plan to collect several more years of data before making any planting recommendations. Assuming the data continue to hold up, results of the research could be announced in the winter of 2010-2011.