Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 6: The Vare Vineyard Tasting
George Vare in his Ribolla Gialla Vineyard, July 2012
This post is part of an ongoing series titled “Attending Ribolla Gialla University” that I began last summer as a tracing of the grape in California. The title was originally, to be honest, a sort of joke–there is no such thing as R.G. Uni, I made it up–while simultaneously meant to take seriously the work started here in California by George Vare. He studied the potentials of the grape through on going conversations with winemakers in Slovenia and Friuli, tastings of their wines, and then experimentation with picking times, and winemaking techniques on his own fruit. The name is also a reflection of my own following Ribolla Gialla around, having fallen in love with it (and at least one of its winemakers) in Friuli, later also finding myself within it’s few acres in California.
George Vare examining his Ribolla Gialla clusters, July 2012
I was lucky enough to spend time talking with George about how he fell in love with the grape, as well as what he hoped for it, and to taste multiple examples and vintages of the wine under his own label, Vare. I don’t want to overstate my connection to George, he is someone I was lucky enough to meet and spend time with several times, as well as to email with on occasion. I can only say that, even with this small connection, George was someone that meant a lot to me. His generosity of spirit, and his encouragement to follow one’s own enthusiasm are irreplaceable. Somehow in the midst of everything, George was an ongoing source of encouragement for me. I say this because I know he played such a role for very many people. It is truly a gift.
George Vare and Steve Matthiasson discussing Vare Vineyard fruit, July 2012
The following post is a write-up of a recent tasting held at Arlequin Wine Merchants focused on the wines made from Ribolla Gialla of the Vare Vineyard. Besides a recent barrel sample brought by Forlorn Hope of his 2012 version, the wines I had tasted and enjoyed before. In gratefulness for George’s sense of community, and in recognition of the work these winemakers were able to do, I am happy to have attended. It is a gift to be with friends. Thank you to Arlequin for hosting.
Following are notes on each of the Vare Vineyard wines from the tasting (other wines were also poured. Those notes are not included here). One of the things I understood about George’s love for Ribolla was the range of possible styles it had to offer, its unique history, and its place as a bit of an underdog. With that in mind I have chosen to write up the wines of the Arlequin tasting within a frame considering the grape’s history and various styles. The tasting notes are shown in drawing, with any additional information about vinification in italics following. Each of the vinification comments is also summarized with a comment on when each particular style is most appropriate, or for what sort of palate.
The diversity of styles represented below is something George celebrated about the work done with his vineyard–the wines give example to the great range possible with this noble grape as well as expression of what’s possible with thirsty curiosity.
The Arlequin Tasting of Vare Vineyard
click on comic to enlarge; notes on Arnot-Roberts Ribolla Gialla: Nathan and Duncan have chosen to play with their approach to vinification of RIbolla each year, while maintaining earlier picking times, and thus also up acidity. In the 2010 vintage the wine was made going immediately to press, thus offering a linear ultra clean version of the fruit. The 2011, on the other hand, was kept intentionally on skins, after foot treading, for six hours, gaining a bit of the textural richness, and some slightly medicinal elements typical of the grape with skin contact. Both 2010 and 2011 were fermented in steel, and aged in neutral oak. In 2012 (not tasted at Arlequin), the pair have also chosen to age the Ribolla in tinajas, Spanish clay vessel (aka. anfora, in the Italian). If your interest is in a juicy, linear expression of Ribolla Gialla, both the 2010 and 2011 Arnot-Roberts offers that wine.
Arlequin Wine Merchants hosted a tasting of the wines made from fruit of Vare Vineyard Ribolla Gialla this last week, with six producers present, all in honor of George Vare himself, who died a little over a week ago.
A fellow attendee asked me which wine I thought had “the greatest varietal typicity of the tasting.” It’s a common view to take–that there must be some core of type to any particular grape, and, as such, one of the questions we can or should ask is which wine comes closest to that standard of measure. I believe in the case of Vare Ribolla Gialla, however, such a view is misleading. To put it simply, making a claim of a grape’s typicity based on wines made from only 2.5 acres in an area on the other side of the planet from the grape’s primary region seems out of place. But further, even in its homeland Ribolla Gialla has never been a grape with only one style.
One of the beautiful aspects of the wines made from Vare Vineyard Ribolla Gialla is that they represent a true expression of range for the grape, moving from ultra clear, vibrantly acidic examples on the one hand, all the way through to darkly colored, textural tannin-focused versions on the other, with a full arc of picking variation, and oak influence in between. This fan of expression–Arbe Garbe, and Vare himself previously as well–celebrates the variety’s true typicity–the ability to offer a wide band of possible structural expressions.
click on comic to enlarge; notes on Grassi 2011 Ribolla Gialla: to keep the lightness of a white wine while gaining some of the aromatic and textural advantages of Ribolla Gialla, the Grassi is whole cluster pressed, then the juice is poured back over the skins. George Vare said that in blind trials he and Grassi winemaker, Robbie Meyer, agreed that such a practice gave a similar effect as leaving the juice to soak on skins for 48 hours before pressing. The juice is then put into neutral barrels for aging. Mark Grassi explained that they choose to pick when the fruit has reached a full yellow color, giving a richer weight and presentation of flavors in the final wine, without heaviness. Grassi’s 2011 offers richer flavor with a deft touch. This is the wine when you want a full palate presentation without heaviness.
Ribolla Gialla grows almost exclusively along the borderland of Friuli and Slovenia, with only very small plantings found outside this zone. Though its origins reach back to Greece, documentation of the grape in Friuli begins as early as the 13th century with it quickly found almost exclusively in Fruili-Slovenia’s intersection zone. History shows it as the definitive white of Friuli for centuries, with royal decree demanding payment through Ribolla during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and laws established prohibiting the blending of Ribolla with wines from outside the region in the 15th century. The grape, then, has a long narrative of respect and adoration. With the timing of phylloxera, however, many growers chose to ignore Indigenous varieties in their replantings, turning instead to established International red grapes with the hope of economic boon. The noble grape of Friuli, then, suffered a massive decrease in attention, and acreage in the last hundred plus years.
The historical reality of white grapes through Northeast Italy, and the Balkans is rooted in a technique now thought of as fringe–skin contact fermentations. Technology until the last several decades simply did not allow for the cleaner straight-to-press style seen as typical for white wines today. Part of what this means, then, is that the Ribolla wine celebrated in historical texts would often be closer to the murky, textural style of what we now call orange wines, than it would be to the beautifully clear straight-to-press examples also made with the grape.
Considering Recent Origins
click on comic to enlarge; notes on Forlorn Hope’s Sihaya Ribolla Gialla: Forlorn Hope’s Sihaya offers a balance of heightened aromatics and texture generated by skin contact, coupled with a lighter body achieved through shorter maceration duration (14 days). While the 2011 was filtered, giving a lighter, cleaner presentation compared to the 2012, both offer a pleasing touch of funk that comes alongside the nuttier aspects of the wine smoothly. The 2011 vintage is also a more focused linear year compared to the breadth of 2012. The tannin on both wines is still young and textural, and will continue smoothing out in bottle. Forlorn Hopes Sihaya brings prettiness and dance-y feet to the orange wine style, a choice for an introduction to skin contact wines, or when you simply want a lighter version.
In Friuli and Slovenia today, a current of interest in Indigenous varieties helps ground a wine industry still also focused on International grapes. The quality of land through the area, with its unique soil type, known there as ponca, along with the high acidity driving climate, gives even non-native grapes a form of expression unusual for their type.
In a recent interview with Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey he explained his view of the terroir of the region. As he describes it, whether macerated ferments, or straight to press wines, “The wines of Friuli have their own vibe.” As he puts it, they have an edge to them that differs from wines in other parts of Italy. “You can taste the ponca. It has a little more bitterness, a little more edge to it.” The wines of Alto Adige, as a counter example, also give the linear focus of the region’s cooler climate, but do not show the slightly bitter-saline bite of the calcareous marl characteristic to Friuli. Stuckey also emphasizes Friuli’s climate, however, pointing out that thanks to the cool nights their wines can marry both ripeness of flavors, and still high acidity.
One of the unique gifts of Ribolla Gialla is what Talia Baiocchi describes as its ability “to transport the minerality of its ground.” The grape acts as a direct conduit between the flavors of the soil in which it’s grown and your palate, as though all the mineral ions of the earth are pouring over your tongue in the wine (whether that is ever literally true or not, as is so oft argued over these days).
In Friuli, then, Ribolla carries the edge Stuckey refers to, ushering in the seabed salinity and freshness of sedimentary rock. At Vare Vineyard, however, the plants rest at the base of Mt Veeder, in a cool zone of Napa Valley, giving vines root within gravelly loam full of volcanic soils. Where the fruit at harvest in Friuli tastes briny and bright off the vine, at Vare it gives a fresh slurry of wet rocks followed by hot wet concrete and steel. Aspects of these flavors follow from fruit through fermentation.
The Choice of Harvest Differences
click on comic to enlarge; notes on the Ryme 2010 Ribolla Gialla: Ryme offers a full quality example of Ribolla Gialla from a macerated ferment, leaving the fruit on skins a full month, thus extending skin contact beyond fermentation. Such a practice demands giving the wine time for the tannin to resolve. Ribolla is a highly tannic white, but is also known to offer smooth polished tannin when given time to barrel and bottle age. The 2010 Ryme wine has arrived at these polished tannin and well integrated flavors. It also shows the positive aspect of a medicinal note that Ribolla carries from skin contact, with it integrated into the overall presentation as a refreshing light spearmint lift. The tannin, acid balance here is also well struck, making this a wine to pair with food (I want brown rice and salmon here). For the full orange wine presentation, Ryme is the wine.
Winemakers of Vare Ribolla also represent a wide span of picking decisions, with two weeks to a month separating harvest dates between the earliest and latest of picks depending on vintage.
Vare preferred to judge his pick based on the grape color, as in his view the grape’s best arrived when the fruit was a full round yellow (as reflected by its name “Gialla” meaning “yellow”). Mark Grassi, of Grassi wine chooses his picking times in a way that resembles George’s practice. George claimed to have learned this from his friends in Italy and Slovenia. Stuckey too explains that Stanko Radikon, a friend of Vare’s and someone he relied on for insights into the grape, also gives the fruit longer hang time, allowing it to fully ripen before picking. In Stuckey’s view, the longer hang time is partially possible thanks to the cooler nights of the region (which keep acidity up even with sugar gains), and are also more desirable for the macerated ferments Radikon is now known for. The location of Vare Vineyard rests in a cooler zone of Napa Valley, supporting the fruit with cooler nights as well. To play with the advantages of the developed skin, Vare explained that once harvested he preferred at least 48 hours of skin contact on his Ribolla, even as he also played with making the grape in a wealth of other styles.
Dan Petroski, winemaker of Massican, on the other hand, selects his picking time for Ribolla based on aromatics, wanting to find a balance point on the earlier side of the ripeness window when aromatics are perfumed and lifted and acidity is higher, while still reaching physiological readiness for harvest. Along with Petroski, Steve Matthaisson, manager of the Vare Vineyard, and winemaker of Matthiasson Wines, as well as Nathan Roberts, and Duncan Arnot Meyers of Arnot-Roberts, have traditionally picked earliest of the winemakers drawing from Vare Ribolla. The result in their wines is a focus on acidity drive that brings freshness and verve to a wine.
The Election of Vinification
click on comic to enlarge; notes from the Massican Annia white blend: Inspired by the textural, aromatic white blends of Friuli and Campania, Massican plays with the ideal blend of Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, and Chardonnay from each vintage. The 2012 brings 46% Ribolla Gialla with fruit from both the Vare Vineyard, and the Bowland Vineyard. Bowland Vineyard is a younger, virus free planting of Ribolla that gives ultra clean juice, and a lighter wash of flavors. The 2011 Annia relies on only Vare Ribolla, though a smaller portion, also showing a bit more texture when compared to the 2012. 2012 is also simply a rounder palate vintage than 2011, giving more open flavors, and a slightly softer structure in general. The Massican Annia is the wine to choose for textural focus, and perfumed aromatics, with refreshing acidity.
Ribolla Gialla is known as one of the most tannic of white grape varieties, offering unique opportunities for shifts in mouthfeel, and food pairing as a result. By playing with skin contact techniques, the tannin influence shifts in the wine. Robbie Meyer, winemaker of Grassi, and George both utilized a technique of pressing the fruit, then pouring the juice back through the skins to draw more tannin into the wine without having to let it sit directly on skins. Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope Wines brings up the tannin elements of the grape by giving it some extended skin contact time–two weeks in both 2011 and 2012 (about the duration of his Sihaya’s (the name of his Ribolla bottling) fermentation). Megan and Ryan Glaab, of Ryme Cellars, on the other hand commit to not only macerated fermentation, but also extended maceration keeping their Ribolla on skins for a month followed by two years in barrel to allow the tannins to resolve.
Other attentions brought to the grape through vessel selection show through previous and not yet released vintages, not presented at the Arlequin tasting. In the two harvests that Enrico Bertoz of Arbe Garbe worked with Vare Ribolla (2009 and 2010), he brought some small oak influence, a practice known in Friuli and that those wines plus Bertoz’s has shown the fruit can readily carry by offering greater breadth of body and some spiced flavor. Incorporating an entirely new direction for California, Arnot-Roberts vinified their Ribolla Gialla in tinjas, a Spanish clay vessel for the 2012 vintage, not yet released.
George had tasted me too on a macerated ferment project of his in which he’d left the Ribolla for an entire year on skins, a design he’d taken from some early experiments by Josko Gravner the winemaker showed George during a visit in Italy. On George’s version, the tannin when we tasted it was both wonderfully present and utterly smooth–giving the wine a polished textural weight. He also played with a less discussed approach of making sparkling wine with the grape. In Friuli, it is more common to blend Ribolla with Chardonnay, while in Slovenia winemakers do a straight Ribolla sparkling, so George bottled it both ways.
Ribolla Gialla is more commonly seen as a blending grape through its home region. It gives a sense of body to a wine without overly impacting the blend’s flavor. Such examples from Friuli celebrate white wine with a sense of freshness and lift. From Vare fruit both Massican and Matthaisson offer the fresh white blend expression. In 2011, Petroski offered his white blend with 33% Vare Ribolla, shifting in 2012 to a higher portion of Ribolla also including juice from the newer Ribolla planting at Chris Bowland’s Tanya Vineyard in Russian River Valley.
click on comic to enlarge; notes on the Matthiasson white blend: Inspired by the fresh juiciness of white blends from Friuli, Matthiasson focuses on making clean, light, almost delicate ferments consistently bringing together Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, Semillon, and Friulano for the white blend. Both vintages offer light aromatics, pleasing lightly-viscous palate presence, with juicy flavors, and a long finish. The 2010 shows lightly deepened character with a slightly more open presentation to the 2011, which also gives a very light tang in the finish. Matthiasson white blend is the wine to choose for freshness and refreshing-ness.
What is common through the wines of Vare Ribolla is a kind of flavoral family resemblence, and liveliness. They each show themselves as RIbolla Gialla but the range of styles present expresses what I believe to be the grape’s true type–it is not a vine that reduces to one single best expression, but instead gives itself in generosity to the curiosity of the winemaker.
With thanks, most especially, to George.
Thank you to Steve Matthiasson, Matthew Rorick, Duncan Meyers and Nathan Roberts, Mark Grassi, Robbie Meyers, Dan Petroski, Ryan and Megan Glaab.
Thank you to the good folks of Arlequin Wine Merchants.
For previous posts in this series:
Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 1: Meeting George Vare: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/07/19/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-1-meeting-george-vare/
Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 2: (A Life in Wine) George Vare, Friuli and Slovenia: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/07/19/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-2-a-life-in-wine-george-vare-friuli-and-slovenia/
Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 3: Friuli Fest 2012, Ribolla Gialla Tasting and Discussion: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/07/19/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-3-friuli-fest-2012-ribolla-gialla-tasting-and-discussion/
Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 4: Harvest of the George Vare Vineyard with Steve Matthiasson: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/09/14/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-4-harvest-of-the-george-vare-vineyard-with-steve-matthiasson/
Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 5: Russian River Valley Ribolla Gialla, The Bowland’s Tanya Vineyard: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/09/29/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-5-russian-river-valley-ribolla-gialla/
Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 7: The Matthiasson Vineyard, Napa: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/05/01/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-7-the-matthiasson-vineyard-napa/
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