San Joaquin Valley wine grape growers and vintners gathered in Fresno recently for a lesson in the ABC’s — “Anything But Chardonnay.”
Not meant to disparage the Chardonnay variety, a mainstay in the industry, it was a chance to sample wines that go well beyond what is commonly found on supermarket shelves or menus in U.S. restaurants.
This was about looking at what the future could hold in terms of new varieties that could be used for blends or could even rival other accepted varietals that include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc.
“We haven’t found that shining star yet,” said Oren Kaye, winemaker with Constellation Brands in Madera, which has made small lots of a couple dozen varieties from the University of California Kearney Ag Center.
But Kaye and others with Constellation are still looking and still growing at eight San Joaquin Valley locations wines whose names are as foreign as their countries of origin – Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Italy and France.
At Mission Bell, the company has 30 acres of Petite Verdot and 30 acres of Durif. Other plantings around the state include 50 acres of a variety called Tannat. About 50 varieties are being studied at UC Kearney.
Participants in the 5th Annual Viticulture and Research Roadshow in Fresno got a chance to sample some of the exotic wines at the event presented by UC Cooperative Extension and the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association.
“Grapefruit” was identified as a characteristic of Fiano, one of the new wines being sampled. “Melon” was Kaye’s description for that variety. “Like a liqueur,” said another in the crowd.
Fiano and Biancu Gentile (“Sauvignon Blanc like,” said Kaye) were two whites that were sampled; reds included Sagrantino and Marselan Noir.
“I like them all,” said Jon Holmquist, manager of grower relations for Constellation.
Kaye emphasized that the winemaker is not looking for something that “tastes like Cabernet or Sirah” or other varieties that are mass marketed.
“It can be a breakthrough; it can be its own signature style,” he said.
The idea of experimenting with new varieties is to test grapes that might be better suited to the Valley’s heat and that might bring other appealing qualities that could include higher yield, lower production costs, low rot potential, better color, less vegetative characteristics and easier mechanical harvesting.
“We have a history of putting the wrong grapes in this place of ours,” Kaye said, referring to a tendency to bring varieties to the valley from places that do not experience the heat common in the Valley.
Reinventing the wheel
One problem, he said, is that flavor and phenolic development (chemical compounds that affect taste, color and mouth feel of wine) can be out of sync with brix (sugar) levels.
Kaye believes that younger buyers in the “Millennial” category could help boost sales of wines unfamiliar to others who may very well struggle with even pronouncing them properly.
“They are accepting of things that are new and different,” he said. “They may look at the wine menu, open up their smart phones and get information on what they had not seen before. Then, if they like it, they will post that immediately [on the Web].”
Kaye cited Viognier as a variety that had not been in vogue as recently as 10 years ago.
He said the winery and others are looking at a mix of data as they evaluate the promise of varieties, including how canopies form and when grapes ripen.
Kaye urged growers to take part in tests of new varieties. “If you’re planting 10 or 12 acres, consider putting in 30 or 40 vines,” he said. “You can always cut the heads off later,” and graft to a different variety.
Sohan Samran, a Madera County grower, of Cabernet, Sauvignon, Rubireds, French Colombard and White Zinfandel, said he found the presentation interesting but was not ready to experiment just yet.
“It’s good to have open mind,” he said. “But why reinvent the wheel? When the planting contracts are available I’ll plant them.”
Matthew Fidelibus, UC viticulture specialist, opened the discussion on new wine grape varieties. He explained that planting of the vines at Kearney started in 2006.
Fidelibus said fewer than 10 wine grape varieties account for 80 percent of the varietal wine grapes grown in the United States. The challenges for new varieties include difficulty in mass marketing.
“And growers need information to make informed planting decisions,” he said.
Fidelibus said that research has shown a wide range in bud break for the varieties that UC is testing. Yield and harvest dates also differ widely, along with variability in acid levels.
He cited yields for three of the varieties sampled, an estimated 16 tons an acre for the Marselan Noir, 15 tons per acre for the Sagrantino and 12.7 tons per acre for the Biancu Gentile.
Mealybugs and nitrogen inputs
Participants in the roadshow also heard a discussion of the threats posed by mealybugs that carry grape leafroll disease. Kent Daane, UC biological control specialist, said the problem is less pronounced in the San Joaquin Valley than it is to the north in the Napa-Sonoma region.
One reason for that, he said, is the warmer temperatures and longer season to the south. “The cooler regions are of greater concern,” he said.
The major culprit in the mealybug gang when it comes to spread of leafroll disease, is the vine mealybug because of its many generations, Daane said. “It’s a numbers game,” he said.
Daane said crawlers can acquire the virus that produces leafroll within an hour, and they can be spread by wind, by getting on wings of birds or clothes of workers.
Different strains of the mealybug can cause different levels of damage.
Insecticides that can control the pest include Movento, Clutch, Applaud and Assail.
Participants in the roadshow also heard discussions of threats posed by nitrates to the region’s drinking water, talk of how viticulture research is funded and a discussion of weed management in organic vineyards.
Thomas Harter, Cooperative Extension specialist for groundwater hydrology, had some good news: Vineyards are among crops with the lowest nitrogen inputs.
Jean-Mari Peltier, president of the National Grape and Wine Institute, said the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, a major source of funding for the grape industry, could expire after 2012 without congressional action.
Anil Shrestha, associate professor in weed science with Fresno State University, said mechanical devices — the French plow or Bezzerides — are best for weed control. But he recommended using varying approaches of control to avoid “a change in species, a shift from broadleaf to grasses.”