Mention Mendocino wine these days, and most aficionados will think of pinot noir. That's hardly surprising: Pinot noir still is hot in the wine world, and Mendocino's chilly Anderson Valley produces some outstanding examples.
But Mendocino County encompasses much more than the Anderson Valley. Less than 15 percent of the county's 18,000 acres of grapevines are in the Anderson Valley; the rest are in the warmer, inland valleys and hillsides. And there's more than pinot: Look at the state's annual grape acreage reports, and you'll see that Mendocino County grows a little bit of almost everything, from aglianico to zinfandel. Some of the most interesting wines produced in the inland areas are made from Italian grape varieties.
Winemaker Greg Graziano is the county's leading proponent and producer of these Italianate wines, both red and white. He makes a huge array of wines -- not all of them from Italian varieties -- and has four wine brands. I tasted a number of his wines recently, when I was a judge at the Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition.
Some of his wines showed very well at the competition, which made me wonder why more people aren't using Italian wine grapes in Mendocino County. (I'm not including zinfandel, the fourth most planted grape in the county. Zin probably originated in Croatia, but it has Italian connections; it's genetically identical to primitivo.)
So I asked Graziano about the state of Italian grapes in Mendocino and why these varieties seem to do so well there. Graziano has made a wide range of wines in his nearly 40 years as a winemaker, but the Italian grapes are in his blood. His grandfather, an immigrant from Piedmont, in northwestern Italy, planted barbera and moscato in Mendocino County in 1918.
Graziano lived through the "Cal-Ital" boom of 15-20 years ago, when Italian varieties like sangiovese and barbera were touted as the next big thing. Unfortunately, a lot of people who rushed to plant these grapes discovered that they were surprisingly difficult to grow and vinify. Sangiovese, for example, has a tendency to set a huge crop, which isn't conducive to quality. Aglianico, traditionally grown in southern Italy, ripens very late here, when the weather is iffy. Sangiovese and nebbiolo don't have much color, which is a turnoff for some consumers accustomed to dark wines like cabernet sauvignon.
And the wines can be difficult to sell, especially when they're priced higher than their Italian counterparts. But Graziano has soldiered on. "I don't bail on anything," he says. "I'm so hardheaded, I don't give up."
Graziano notes that the growing conditions in Mendocino are very diverse, even in the inland areas. There are hilly sites with rocky soils, good sun exposure and warm days that are good for red grapes. Cooler spots, like Potter Valley, work well for the whites; that's where he grows his.
Among the reds, I was most impressed by his 2011 Monte Volpe Negroamaro ($28), a full-bodied wine that displays spicy, juicy black fruit, and his 2011 Monte Volpe Aglianico ($28), a peppery, spicy wine with ample dark fruit and good length. Both grape varieties are from southern Italy. Also very good was his 2010 Enotria Dolcetto ($18), which is lively and full-bodied, with red fruit and a tannic finish. With 23 acres, Mendocino has more dolcetto than any other county in California.
I haven't tasted Graziano's sangiovese, but there are some other good examples from the area. The 2012 Barra of Mendocino Sangiovese ($18) is quite Italian in spirit, with lively red cherry fruit, notes of anise and tea, and a drying finish, and the 2012 Rivino Sangiovese ($29), which has a very pale color, offers pretty red cherry flavors, some spice, a hint of vanilla and firm tannins.
Charbono is thought to have originated in the Savoie region of France, where it's known as douce noir. But it's also grown in northwestern Italy and was introduced to California vineyards by Italian immigrants, so it has some Italian cred. The 2011 Testa Charbono ($40), made from vines that are more than 60 years old, is a great example from Mendocino County. This easy-to-drink red has ample juicy cherry and berry fruit, with some spicy notes and fine tannins.
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Graziano also produces some interesting Italian-style whites. For example, the 2012 Monte Volpe Nube Bianco ($9), a blend of fiano, greco di tufo, moscato gialla and vermentino from Potter Valley, is dry and citrusy, with green apple, apple peel and mineral. And it's an excellent bargain. Another blend, the 2012 Monte Volpe Sesso ($18), is a little richer and rounder, with citrus, apple and almond paste notes. It's a blend of roughly equal parts of tocai friulano, pinot bianco and pinot grigio. His 2012 Enotria Arneis ($15) displays citrus and apple fruit and a hint of creaminess.
The Sierra foothills are another good source of wines made from Italian varieties, especially reds, and there are some good bottlings made from elsewhere in the state, including Santa Barbara County and Lodi. But specialists are few and far between these days.
As for the Mendocino competition, there were a few other standouts: The best white was another Greg Graziano wine, the non-vintage Domaine St. Gregory Brut Sparkling Wine ($40). The wine is fresh and a little austere, with citrus and mineral notes. The sparkling category, with entries from St. Gregory, McFadden, Scharffenberger and Roederer Estate, was a good one, with every wine earning a gold or silver medal.
Choosing a winning white in the sweepstakes round was difficult, because so many of the wines were so good. I loved the 2013 Navarro Estate Gewürztraminer ($19.50), which had the textbook flavors and aromas of rose petals, lychee and spice. And there was an outstanding dessert wine, the 2013 Husch Late Harvest Gewürztraminer ($25/375 ml), a lusciously sweet wine with lychee, honey and good balancing acidity.