Friday, September 11, 2009

California Heirlooms? August Briggs, Part Two

Part two is focused on Charbono, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel, varieties that Californians like to claim for themselves. Is that really the case? And what is Charbono anyway. People always talk about it but it's almost never for sale in stores. (Well, we do get a little from August Briggs here at Sigel's!)

According to Carole Meredith, UC Davis' guru of the origins of grape vines, Charbono originates in the Savoie region of France, where is known as Corbeau, Douce Noire or Charbonneau. It is the same grape that is widely planted in Argentina, but there it is known as Bonarda. BUT the Argentine Bonarda is NOT the same as the Bonarda grown in the Piedmont region of Italy. Are you confused yet? If not then you're not reading carefully enough. Most Charbono originally came into California labelled as Barbera, which it is not. Existing California plantings are extremely small, about half being located around Calistoga. Most of the existing vines owe their existence to long-term contracts with the original Inglenook who produced Charbono's for many years.

August Briggs' Charbono comes from the older blocks of the Frediani Vineyard and were planted around 1940. Frediani Charbono is highly sought after and Joe feels very fortunate to be offered the fruit. The wine is inky black with penetrating laser beams of intense black fruit that linger on the palate supported by acids and ripe integrated tannins. It's almost Italian in style except for the ripe black fruits which reveal the signature California sun.

Petite Sirah is a young variety. The cross was discoverd by a Professor Durif of the University in Montpellier in vineyards in the Languedoc. DNA analysis shows the cross was made when Pelousin flowers were pollinated by Syrah. The new grapes saw an initial wave of popularity due to its resistance to powery mildew, but soon fell out of favor and is now almost non-existent in France. It proved popular first in California as a blending grape and is now found in Australia and Israel.

August Briggs Petite Sirah comes from the obsidian filled, red volcanic soil of the Black Rock Ranch vineyards in Lake County. The shiny black glass rocks both absorb and reflect the heat which ripens the fruit. The tiny berries develop thick skins which give the legendary tannins. Rich, soft blue and black fruits initially puts smiles on the faces of the uninitiated which scrunch when they encounter the astringent tannins on the finish. I tell them to imagine a well-marbled ribeye fresh from the grill. The fat protects the mouth from the tannins, while simultaneously the tannins cut through the fat. Which gives the most pleasure? Have a glass of old vine Petite Sirah with a great steak and let me know!

Zinfandel was long regarded as America's grape until the resemblance to Italy's Primitivo began to be noticed. It was debated for some time until Carole Meredith's DNA anaysis confirmed that Zinfandel was indeed the same as Primitivo and share common ancestry in the very rare Croatian grape Crtjenak Kastelanski. It is now thought that Zinfandel came in shipments to growers in Long Island in the 1820's and was brought to California in the Gold Rush. There are references to Napa Zinfandel in the late 1850's and by the end of the 19th Century, it was was the most widely planted variety in California.

August Briggs comes from two old vineyards near his winery in Calistoga. The Luvisi Vineyard was planted in 1908 and from the Frediani Vineyard (Note the Briggs winery in the photo to the right). Joe produces a rich silky Zin with lush, smoky black fruits leading to a velvety, spicy finish. The wine is definitely closer to the 'zin as claret' style than 'zin as dry port,' which makes it very drinkable and food friendly. And isn't that really what it's all about?

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