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2009 Uvaggio Vermentino

Conventional wisdom. Rules of thumb. Best practices. They simplify decision-making and lead to safe choices. But they are the antithesis of innovation and can also lead to boredom and mediocrity.

Imagination, experimentation and risk-taking drive progress. Courage and creative thinking led us from candle-lit agrarian lives on a flat earth. It also delivered us from bad wine made by the accidental fermentation of grapes in big clay pots. Now we cultivate wine grapes, manage fermentations and barrel age. Such techniques can make splendid wine.

But these modern techniques can, if used out of habit or simply because others do, lead to average, even unattractive, wine. And making assumptions based on common perception can also lead wine consumers astray. For example, many wine enthusiasts see Lodi as a source for only two types of wine: inexpensive, big brand quaffers and high-alcohol, uber-ripe Zinfandel. However, there are Lodi wineries which are defying these stereotypes. They make very fine wines with distinct personalities and food-friendly demeanors, some from grapes you may never have heard of.

Uvaggio is a prime example. Winemaker Jim Moore is crafting Lodi wines that taste good, but are also food-friendly, very moderate in alcohol and reflect terroir clearly and positively. Some Uvaggio wines employ varieties you know well, such as Zinfandel and Sangiovese, in a very understated, yet delicious, fashion. Others, like the Uvaggio Vermentino, will be unfamiliar to the majority of American wine drinkers but may become a frequent buy for those who try it.

Vermentino is an Italian grape variety, though it also appears in France. You will find it on the islands of Corsica and Sardinia and on the mainland in Liguria, Piedmont, and Languedoc-Roussillon. It is a variety with a variety of names: Favorita, Pigato, Malvoisie de Corse. Many people believe it is also identical to the Provencal grape called Rolle. But, wherever you find it and by whichever name, you won’t find much. Total acreage between the two countries is about 18,000 acres. That’s less vineyard land than is devoted to Syrah in California1.

Vermentino is a grape that can reflect both terroir and the weather of a vintage dramatically. It ripens slowly and needs a long growing season with a lot of sunlight. Depending on where it is grown and how much sun-bathing it does, Vermentino can be pale, light in body and strongly mineral with citrus overtones or richly colored, full-bodied with riper fruit and floral or nutty accents. Alcohol levels vary accordingly.

Last night, I tried a bottle made by Terenzuola from Italy’s Colli di Luni DOC (southern Liguria). It was pale gold with reserved aromas of lime pith and dry stony minerality. On the palate it had an oily weight and texture with flavors of austere stonefruit and bitter minerality. It was a good wine but not cuddly, well-suited to Vermentino’s frequent role as an apertif or accompaniment for fresh Mediterranean seafood.

But that’s just one example and I mention it to provide additional perspective, not to suggest that it is broadly reflective of Italian Vermentino, nor that it should set our expectations for those made in California. By and large, California wines achieve ripe fruit flavors, even at low levels of alcohol, that Italian wines cannot. This was the case with the two vintages of Uvaggio Vermentino I tried. And, due to differences in the weather between 2008 and 2009, the Uvaggio’s had very different personalities from each other as well.

The 2008 Uvaggio Vermentino — sorry, it’s sold out — reflects a warm, sunny year. It is lemon-green in color with friendly aromas of white flowers, wax, canned stone fruit, pistachio and mineral. The wine has the body of whole milk but mouth-watering acidity. The flavor is a blend of stone fruit and yellow apple with floral nuances and a finish of bitter, powdery mineral. The alcohol is just 12%, quite a bit lower than one would expect for a white wine from just about anywhere in California, let alone Lodi. It is a very good wine which I’d recommend, were there any available.

It seems that 2009 held fewer sunny hours for Uvaggio’s Vermentino grapes. The wine is more reserved and less ripe than the 2008. It is pale gold with a nose of briny mineral, lime pith, peach pit and green tea. Supple on the palate with juicy freshness it tastes of chalk, lime pith and peach pit. Astoundingly, the alcohol percentage is just 11%. Highly Recommended. At $14, it’s a Value Pick too.

Uvaggio Vermentino are not typical California white wines. They are not what you would expect. Nobody in my blind tasting panel identified their appellation or variety. I gave sample tastes of the 2009 to a sommelier and a winemaker. Neither of them could identify the wine either. But that is because we are so accustomed to “the usual suspects.” Once I told him what the variety and appellation were, the winemaker said, “Oh. That’s makes perfect sense.”

Both of these wines are good, varietally correct representations of Vermentino. Italians, with their love for flavors with some bitterness — espresso, radicchio, Campari, etc. — would, I’m sure, enjoy them very much. And so should we. They fit in well with a healthful Mediterranean diet of fresh seafood, light pasta, olive oil, grilled vegetables and moderate alcohol consumption.

Because of it’s food-friendly nature, some excellent Bay Area restaurants are on board with this wine. You might find it at Rivoli, Aperto and Jardiniere. You can drink it with oysters at Hog Island or with veggies at Greens. Berkeley Bowl has it too.

There is a lot more to say about wineries that are defying the conventional wisdom on what California wine is — too much to jam into this article. Stay tuned for more articles on the topic, including reviews of wines from Grassi, Forlorn Hope and Matthiasson, a profile of Uvaggio’s Jim Moore and thoughts from wine experts, such as Oz Clarke, who are encouraging this civil disobedience.

2009-Uvaggio-Vermentino

2009 Uvaggio Vermentino
Rating: Highly Recommended

Drink: Now through 2012
Retail Price: $14.00
Blend: 100% Vermentino
Origin: Lodi

Alcohol: 11%
Closure: Cork

Uvaggio doesn’t have it’s own online shopping system but, if you’re from out of town, you can try Bounty Hunter Wines or The San Francisco Wine Trading Company.

The wine above was provided for review. It was tasted blind in a flight of six white wines from California and Italy.

Sources: 1 2009 USDA report.

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This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.