2 Italian White Wine Blends Born in California (#ItalianFWT)

 

Given that California wine today is so known for varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay, it’s easy to forget that Italian grape varieties actually have a long history in the state. The Gold Rush brought immigrants from different countries, many from European countries with strong winemaking traditions. Those immigrants brought their grapes with them and the wine industry grew in the decades that followed and the grapes planted were as diverse as the people who brought them. There were quite a few Italians in the mix (both during the gold rush and afterward), a fact evidenced by the number of Italian names you still see on some of California’s oldest and most established wineries, names like Gallo and Mondavi.

Unfortunately, California’s wine industry came to a screeching halt just as things were getting going thanks to Prohibition, as well as waves of disease like Pierce’s Disease and Phylloxera. When things finally got up and running again, people tended to plant what was fashionable, and for most of the 20th century that largely meant French grapes (Zinfandel is a bit of an exception). Nonetheless, pockets of Italian grapes remained all along, and always at least a few winemakers interested in working with them, but in recent years (from the 1980’s onwards) there has been renewed and increasing interest in these varieties.

I have to admit that whatever the first examples of Cal-Ital wines (as the category is often referred to) that I tasted were did not impress me. They kind of left thinking that maybe Italian grapes really should stay in Italy since they just didn’t seem to translate well in their California versions. Maybe I was trying the wrong producers. Maybe California winemakers were still working out how best to handle these grapes. Maybe it was my own expectations and inability to allow for the grapes to express themselves differently here. (I’m guessing it was a combo.) Whatever reason though, they just weren’t landing with me for a long time.

At the same time, it seemed to me that the grapes should work here – I mean, our climate is much more similar to parts of Italy like Tuscany than Bordeaux or Burgundy, where Cab and Pinot respectively come from. So I remained curious and kept trying – was also probably exposed to better examples, and slowly my perceptions have shifted and now it’s a category I get pretty excited by. Today, I’m going to share two examples of white wine blends that use Italian varieties that really grabbed my attention in the past year, both of which take their inspiration from Italy’s Friuli region, from winery's specializing in white wine, and both of which I found to be very fairly priced.

Massican Annia Napa Valley 2016

 


Average price: $36  

Massican’s Annia managed to grab both my and Greg’s attention separately. I think I tried it first while I was working at Bay Grape. It’s both friendly and interesting right away. It doesn’t hurt that I also find the price reasonable (usually mid- $30’s) and I have to admit that I tend to find it more beguiling than some of Massican’s pricier wines, which are nonetheless very good. Greg first tried it at a fundraiser gala some friends had invited us to. This particular party offered tastings from various wineries and restaurants, and in a room full of excellent options this wine brought a “hey, you gotta come try this” from Greg.

Dan Petroski is the man behind Massican. He left the magazine publishing world, having worked at Time Inc. for ten years, headed to business school at NYU, then shortly afterward changed course and made his way to California to pursue winemaking. He’s also the winemaker for Larkmead Vineyards, and a major voice in the wine industry addressing climate change. (You can read some of his op-eds for Sevenfifty Daily here.)

He chose to do something unusual with Massican, opting to create a white-wine-only label in Napa. They harvest six grape varieties in and around Napa Valley and Sonoma County – three northeastern Italian white varieties (Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, and Pinot Grigio), one southern Italian variety (Greco), and two international varieties (Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc). They make four different wines using these grapes.

The label itself is an homage to Petroski’s Italian heritage. The name Massican is taken from the Monte Massico mountain range in Campania in southern Italy. Both of his grandparents were born nearby. Annia was their granddaughter, his mother, and he named his flagship wine for her. (Annia also happens to be the name of a DOC in Friuli.) 



Annia is always a blend of Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, and Chardonnay. (In the case of the 2016, the percentages were 60/31/9.) I couldn’t find a tech sheet for the 2016 vintage, but the wines are low-intervention, typically are aged in neutral oak, and use very little sulfur. You can find details for the 2019 here

On the night we opened this bottle, I picked up notes of peaches, lemon, gold apple, pineapples, a bouquet of gold flowers and honeysuckle, with hints of ginger. It was round with a beeswaxy, creamy mouthfeel, and the fruit notes were bouncy and bright. Just delightful.

We had it baked mac and cheese with crab and bacon, and it was such a good match. The roundness of the wine matched the creamy texture of the food perfectly, while still being super refreshing.



As an aside, I also recommend checking out Massican’s Instagram account. In what has to be one of the most creative uses of the platform I’ve seen, Petroski decided to create a magazine via the feed. It looks at all kinds of different topics (not wine specific at all) and it’s absolutely beautiful.


Arbe Garbe Sonoma Valley V. 2017


Average price: $36

In the Before Times, my all-women tasting group would have a holiday party every year, during which we always have a white elephant wine gift exchange – It’s always super fun with lots of screeching, cursing, and laughs. I scored this bottle of Arbe Garbe a couple of years ago. To be honest, I didn’t know much about it other than that I’d heard good things about the winery and that I really liked the label. (Let’s be honest.)

The winery’s story is as pretty as the label – and so is the wine for that matter. Husband and wife team, Letizia Pauletto and Enrico Maria Bertoz, were sweethearts in their native Friuli and eventually decided to move to California to pursue their dreams. I love this description of their journey together from their website:

Born and raised in this beautifully mystical scenario, we met at the waning of a torrid Friulian summer. Two philosophy students working harvest in the vineyards nearby to earn some money and follow their dreams. It was the late nineties and nothing seemed to make much sense with Kurt Cobain gone and a generational sense of vague displacement. Quickly our visions fused, our imagery fueled by the same fascination with Beat literature and old American folk and rock music. We packed up a guitar, a few books and little else and crossed the ocean. America was as big and wild as we had pictured it and so beautiful, we knew at once we were destined to stay.


After moving to California, Bertoz worked at several wineries, and the couple ultimately decided to start Arbe Garbe as a way to connect to and pay homage to their roots. The name Arbe Garbe means  “bad weeds” in the Friulian dialect and is a reference to the plants that are often used as cover crops (these are also depicted on the labels, which also change from year to year.)

Every year the blend for their wine is a little bit different. The breakdown for the 2017 was 55% Malvasia Bianca, 30% Ribolla Gialla, and 15% Tocai Friulano. The Malvasia saw 24 hours of skin contact, while the Tocai and the Ribolla saw 12 hours of skin contact each, followed by light pressing and native fermentation. (You can find additional details here.)

This wine was also had beautiful aromatics, was rich, layered, and complex. It had lots of golden fruit notes – baked yellow apples, pineapple, tangerine, Meyer lemons, and peaches — along with dried flowers, beeswax, and hints of dried herbs on the finish. 

 


I opened this one to go with lobster rolls I made as part of a week-long celebration of Greg’s birthday last year. Well, by lobster rolls I mean that I cooked some lobster tails sous vide in lemon butter and put them on buns with a little mayo – so they were like lobsters on rolls. This was another delicious match in which the wine’s texture and flavors matched those of the food beautifully.


I have to say, I’ve made myself hungry while writing this post! I’d love to revisit both of these meals.

*****

If you're interested in more Cal-Ital wines, here are a few other wineries that make wines in this category that I've really liked (this is by no means an exhaustive list): 

  • Ryme Cellars and their second line Uphold WinesI've previously featured wines from Uphold, which donates profits from the wines to charitable causes, here and here
  • Lepiane Wines - This is a one woman show, very small production. We'll be taking a look at some of the wines later in the year, but Lepaine's Barbera is a particular fave!
  • Matthiasson, as well as their second line Tendu .
  • Unti Vineyards . You can find their rosé mentioned in this post.

*****

This month the rest of the Italian Food, Wine, Travel blogging group is taking a look at Italian grapes grown outside of Italy. Linda of My Full Wine Glass is hosting and you can read her invitation here. What a fun topic! If you see this early enough, feel free to join our chat on Twitter at 8 am PT/11 am ET on Saturday, March 6th  by following #ItalianFWT.

Be sure to check out the rest of the group's posts: 


Additional reading and sources used for this post:


This post contains affiliate links, including these Amazon Associate links, from which I might receive a commission at no cost to you.

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12 comments

  1. What interesting sounding blends! Those really sound like they're worth hunting down. And I love your take on the "lobster roll", sign me up for some of that!

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  2. The wines sound lovely and the pairings amazing. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Your lobster rolls look amazing! I had never heard the term Cal-Ital until Martin's article...and now yours. It's definitely a thing. I just was unfamiliar. I can't wait to track down some of these bottles. Cheers, Nicole.

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    1. Thanks Camilla -- and these two are definitely worth looking for!

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  4. Enjoying all the Cal-Ital wines that bloggers selected for this topic - especially the Cali writers. It's like they've looked in their own backyards. Glad you found a few to love.

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  5. The beginning of your article makes me think of the book, Hidden History of Napa Valley, have you read it? You dug up some winners... haven't had either of the wines you feature here but am intrigued by them both with Ribolla Gialla. More for the to buy list.

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    1. I didn't not know that particular book, but have added it to my to-read list! They're both excellent -- definitely worth seeking out. Thanks Lynn.

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  6. Two great picks Nicole! I especially like that they both included Ribolla Gialla, and Tocai Friulano. And that Lobster on a roll;-)though! And now I'm hungry!

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Thanks so much for leaving your comments and questions. I always love to hear from you!