Gift of graft
My experience of Tibouren/Rossese in California has been enormously encouraging and I feel that I’ve experienced still but a glimpse of its immense potential. I was able (amazingly) to persuade a grower friend of mine to initially graft an acre of Tibouren in the El Pomar District of Paso Robles. Rather warm and very dry during the day, cool at night, with beautiful calcareous soils – not so dissimilar to, ahem, other places where Tibouren is grown. We grafted Tibouren/Rossese on some frankly pretty distressed 30-year-old Sangiovese vines, ones that had all sorts of “issues,” leading to somewhat borderline productivity, compromised root system, somewhat uneven ripening (likely non-genetic in origin), etc – in short, a bit of a mess.
And yet despite the numerous challenges of this particular site, the grapes it yielded produced the most stunning pink wine I had ever experienced in California. The color of the fruit – nothing to write home about. Many bunches failed to properly color up at all. But there was a quality to the wine that I can only describe as possessing a kind of life-force, a dramatic savoriness and persistence of flavor as it evolved in the glass. The fragrance, while discreet, was haunting – almond and cherry blossoms in particular. Oh, to be able to sip this wine in Kyoto in springtime.
Under The Language of Yes brand [a collaboration between Randall and Joe C. Gallo, the founder of Maze Row], I’ve now made three commercial vintages and the Tibouren, blended with a lesser volume of Cinsault and occasionally Mourvèdre, has consistently amazed and delighted me. We’ve allowed the wines to go through malolactic fermentation, so that they may be bottled without the need for filtration, preserving their remarkable texture and impressive finish. The scant production comes from two acres of ruinously shy-yielding Tibouren planted at Paso Robles, and those vines are likely not too much longer for this world.
But, entretemps, after numerous and exhaustive Rossese/Tibouren dinners with corporate management, what I mean is, after additional comprehensive, in-depth research, I have been able to persuade my colleagues at The Language of Yes of the unique beauty and potential
of the variety in California, especially in younger, healthier and slightly cooler vineyard sites. We were able to locate such a vineyard, not far from King City and grafted approximately two acres this last spring with an additional 2.5 acres to graft this coming spring. The vines are proving to be remarkably vigorous and healthy. I expect them to produce on the order of 25 tons of fruit when they are fully bearing, which will be just a few short years away.
Why do I imagine that this relatively small planting of Tibouren will be interesting for the wine industry in general? We have in recent years been experiencing the dramatic effects of global climate change everywhere and California has certainly not been spared. Moderate and cool sites on the Central Coast, once suitable for producing elegant varieties like Pinot Noir, are often moderate and cool no more. Put another way, what do you do if you are determined to produce wines of elegance and balance from varieties that were once capable of delivering the goods, but perhaps are no more?
Conversely, Tibouren is a variety, as is perhaps Cinsault, that I believe is capable of producing a particularly haunting and elegant wine in a relatively warm climate. It appears, as does Cinsault, to be relatively drought tolerant as well. Maybe equally germane is the fact that the wine world is getting smaller and consumers everywhere have the new opportunity to try wines made from exotic grapes they’ve never seen before. Yes, there has been a great consolidation of large and mid-size producers and wine distributors and wine shelves and lists are crowded with familiar faces, but I suspect that has created a counter-demand for the less common styles, for the heterodox. At the end of the day, there is always a place for wines of unique personality and distinction.
I’m growing Tibouren at my own Popelouchum vineyard in San Juan Bautista as well, just a modest plantation of a little over an acre but at the same time I’m doing something utterly unique with the variety. I’ve harvested several thousand seeds from self-crossed Tibouren to see if I might not come up with an interesting variant that may well be better to our growing conditions than its parent. At the same time, I’m toying with the hypothesis that genetic variants of a given variety, even if they are in some sense “inferior” to their parent, may enable one to potentially create additional nuance and complexity in a field blend.
The “best” clone of a given variety might well be a composite of many biotypes or variants of that variety. The notion of a heterogeneous planting, which flies in the face of conventional viticulture with its emphasis on uniformity, may afford a unique opportunity for the observation and selection of unique individuals with particularly useful traits – drought or heat tolerance, superior (or complementary) taste profile. But, most significantly, it allows one the opportunity to observe and learn and ultimately select for the future, as not all viticultural knowledge is vouchsafed upon cursory inspection.
It is my hope that Popelouchum can serve as a laboratory for The Language of Yes, exploring not just new varieties (or heterogeneous combinations thereof), but the implementation of new and progressive grape growing and wine-making methodologies – from the use of biochar and inoculated cover-crops (as a means of enhancing the biotic potential of soils) to experimentation with the air-drying of grapes to lignify stems, thus allowing for superior structure in the wine and improved fermentation kinetics.
At Popelouchum, we are in the process of creating/discovering entirely new and unique varieties through the somewhat tedious but time-tested conventional grape breeding process, grapes bred not to solve a particular winemaking or viticultural problem, but rather in the hopes of discovering something strange, new and beautiful. It is my hope that at least one of these varieties might find a home in The Language of Yes. (How could anyone say “no?”)