I first heard about Lodi, California, from Jon Bonné, author of the The New California Wine (2013). Bonné highlights some of the hot winemakers making a “new” restrained version of California wines, such as Tegan Passalacqua from Turley Wines, known for making Lodi Zinfandels from some of the oldest vines in the country. While I did expect to find Zins in the Lodi, I did not expect to find refined Old World varietals, particularly rare grapes from Germany, Spain and Portugal.
Through an a-maz-ing excursion organized by the Lodi Winegrape Commission for the 2016 Wine Blogger Conference, I visited Mokelumne Glen Vineyard in the Mokelumne River AVA, which specializes in 48 (yep, that’s right) varieties of German and Austrian grapes. That includes many grapes hard-to-find outside of Europe, including: Bacchus (in cover photo), Trollinger, St. Laurent, Perle, Forta, and Zweigelt. Bob Koth and his family have been growing German varietals since 1978. His grapes have attracted the attention of several modern winemakers who harvest his fruit to craft California German wine that represent aromatic clean wines with high acid, minerality, and notable mouth feel.
Particularly impressive were the wines by Markus Niggli, Markus Wine Co., a Swiss who found his way to Lodi to make German white varietals. Markus’ wines have classic flavor profiles (see tasting notes for the 2015 Markus Nimmo and 2013 Artist Series Nuvola) for German grapes — an aromatic nose of honeysuckle and apricot, balanced on the palate with crisp acid, green apple, and wet cement. There is a complexity and interesting flavor layer to his wines that are decidedly Lodi. His slim bottles have artwork designed by Swiss students, giving them a young and modern vibe.
As a winemaker, Markus capitalizes on the very best of Lodi – bright, clear sunshine, warm daily temperatures, followed by cooling breezes (from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta) and night time temperatures in the 50s. Such a large diurnal swing and arid environment makes for fantastic expressions of white grapes. The soil is dry sandy loams and loamy sands, perfect for keeping a vine’s energies squarely focused on the fruit instead of vivacious growth. Local wine writer Randy Caparoso notes that it is the unique soil and topographer of Mokelumne River that distinguish it from Lodi’s other six sub-appellations.
I’ve had German/Austrian varietals from California before, but sadly, not enough. The market demands more Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc than Riesling, Kerner, and Bacchus. The German varietals I’ve previously had from California feature a distinct bouquet of floral aromatics, coupled with gorgeous tropical and stone fruit flavors, but rarely do they have the restrained finish of simple stainless steel, no malolactic fermentation, and minimal intervention to garnish such a clean and refreshingly crisp wine. The “naked” fruit and earth jump out of the glass. That’s what Markus has managed to do — and at $18.99 a bottle with around 13.2% alcohol —he does it quite well.
I live in Washington, DC, a city that routinely has 90 plus temperatures with 95% humidity in the summer, screaming for a dry, crisp white wine. I may have to blindfold my friends who worship rosé and serve them these wines along with our usual cheese plate. That would demonstrate that white wines with aromatics aren’t necessarily sweet and oaky, but can be crisp, refreshing and reflect a bit of the earthy texture of where they were grown.