“America’ Grape” from Croatia

Zinfandel is often called “America’s Grape” because it formed the basis for our first true commercial wine industry and isn’t found (at least under this name) as an important wine grape anywhere else in the world. It’s of the family vitis vinifera (which all wine grapes belong to), so it had to have originated somewhere in Europe. But where?

bedrock zin old vinesIt’s taken years of research and some trips down blind alleys, but over the past three decades, Zinfandel’s story has finally been definitively unraveled. The grape arrived in the US in the late 1820s from the Imperial Nursery of Austria. By the 1830s, it was widely grown in greenhouses around Boston and New England as a popular table grape. When unsuccessful prospectors in California’s 1849 gold rush turned to farming instead, they quickly realized that wine would make a fine cash crop. And so they ordered a wide range of grapes from nurseries back East – and got Zinfandel in the mix.

Pushed Out, but Now Back Again
The vine’s hearty constitution, high yields, and quality wine – a visiting French winemaker compared it to “good French claret” – quickly established Zin as a favorite varietal. As more prestigious French varietals – we’re looking at you, Cabernet Sauvignon – arrived in the later 1800s, Zinfandel was increasingly seen as a “common” grape and was pushed out of prime vineyard sites in Napa and Sonoma.

But Zin’s hearty constitution and relegation to stony and sandy soiled sites where Cabernet doesn’t thrive saved it. The phylloxera mite doesn’t like these impoverished soils, so Zin avoided the plague that struck California in the 1890s and early 1900s. And when Prohibition devastated California’s grape growing and wine making industry, abandoned Zin vines just kept on growing even while left untended. Leaving them ready to be rediscovered and rehabilitated as attention returned to premium red Zinfandel in the 1990s.

’23 and Me’ – for Grapes!
But if the grape got to California from New England and to New England from Austria, where did it come from originally? UC Davis researcher Carol Meredith used DNA profiling to prove that an obscure southern Italian grape called Primitivo was genetically identical to Zinfandel, but that just raised the question: If Zinfandel originated in Puglia, how did it get to Austria?

A clue emerged when researchers discovered that Zinfandel was one of two parents of a Croatian vine called Plavac Mali. The other parent turned out to be an even more obscure Croatian grape, suggesting that Zin had been growing in Croatia long enough for a crossing to occur. Finally, Dr. Meredith discovered a very old, nearly extinct, vine on the island of Kastela called Crljenak Kaštelanski that looked promising. DNA testing proved that this vine was identical to Zin and that this slice of what had been the Austro-Hungarian empire was the original birthplace of Zin.

So an unsophisticated immigrant from an obscure Balkan backwater made its way to the USA, struggled in harsh conditions with limited attention and support, and emerged as an American classic. Inspiring, I think.

Try this Old Vines Zinfandel from Bedrock Wine Co.

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AiAiAi! Garage Wines from Rugged Priorat

silvia puig in storeSilvia Puig was pretty much born into the wine business – her father, Joseph Puig, is a longtime restaurateur, export manager for Spain’s Miguel Torres and founder of Torres’s operation in Chile. Silvia followed Joseph into the trade, learning winemaking at school and while working at properties in Bordeaux and Spain (including Vega Sicilia’s Alion winery).

Eventually, she and Joseph founded their own estate called Vinedos de Ithaca in the rugged Gratallops region of Priorat, in the province of Tarragona southwest of Barcelona.

Priorat llicorella soils.pngRugged Priorat
Priorat is an unbelievably rugged wine region in Catalonia, a couple of hours inland an up-country from Barcelona. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot sunshine partially moderated by altitude and wind. The vines grow on steeply sloped hillsides of fractured slate – often you have to dig through a foot or more of broken rock just to get to the shallow soils where young vines are planted.

If the notion of soil hidden by stones brings to mind Chateauneuf du Pape, you’re on the right track. Except the rock if splintered granite instead of rounded off river stones. The main grapes overlap with Chateauneuf’s – Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan predominate – and ripen to the same big, bold, levels you find in the Southern Rhone.

But Carignan – or Careinyena as it’s called here – plays a much bigger role (about 40% of AiAiAi’s blend). So you can think of Priorat as CdP but with more blue/black fruit character. And a more firm and powerful spine. And with an utterly unique and captivating sense of dusty slate on the nose, palate and finish.

No, Really – It’s a Garage!
Silvia and Joseph’s Vinedos de Ithaca was successful from the start, but like so many talented winemakers, Silvia wanted to do something completely on her own. So, in 2008 she began the project now called En Numeros Vermells. The name, “Numbers in the Red” and clever label design by local graffiti artist Adria Batet, evoked the rain of bad news showing down on Spain and the world during the late 2000’s financial meltdown.

Silvia created ENV to let her intimately nurture small amounts of wine from grape to bottle on a barrel by barrel basis. The small scale let her largely ignore the normal time and financial pressures of winemaking – with a total production of just a few hundred cases, she was free to let each wine find its own way to maturity and use only the barrels that actually fit in her final blends.

We throw around the terms “garage wine” and “handcrafted” quite a bit, but that’s truly the best way to describe everything about these wines. The En Numerous Vermells “cellar” is the garage of Silvia’s house in the Priorat village of Poboleda, a building that also serves as Silvia’s home and her husband – Belgian chef Pieter Truyts – Brots Restaurant.

In this tiny space, Silvia is literally doing virtually everything by hand. She tends the small number of barrels stacked in the space carefully, tasting and re-tasting to learn how each is developing and gaining a deep understanding of each cask’s unique character, strengths, and weaknesses. Multiple blending trials allow Silvia to explore how her charges work together (or don’t), and create an ideal marriage that lets each site and varietal shine without fighting or overwhelming each other.

We’ve been blown away by Silvia’s top wines – the flagship Priorat Negre and the ultra-small production alternate blends – since importer Jonas Gustafsson brought us the first vintages to land in the USA last year. The quality has been nothing short of extraordinary and they’ve all flown off our shelves.

AiAiAi Indeed!
With increasing success with her ENV wines, more and more active children and her husband’s thriving restaurant, Silvia has now decided to focus 100% of her winemaking energies on En Numeros Vermells. The extra time allowed her to purchase a little more fruit and turn her attentions and talents to making a softer, more accessible, wine that we can enjoy now while letting the top bottlings develop in cellar.

The name comes from Silvia’s experience making wine while tending young children playing in the cellar. “AiAiAi, get off those barrels.” “AiAiAi, don’t fall in the vat!” But the name is as apt as a description of your reaction when you taste this stunning 2017.

AiAiAi! That’s delicious!”