Monday, March 7, 2022

The Greco cultivar and Greco di Tufo wine

Irpinia, the ancient name of Campania's Avellino Province, is home to three of the four regional DOCG production zones: Taurasi (red), Fiano di Avellino, and Greco di Tufo (the latter two both white wines). I treat the Greco variety, and its wines, in this post.

The Greco group of grapes, according to Ian D'Agata (Native Wine Grapes of Italy), "along with the Malvasias, may be the most confusing of all grapes." While the grapes, for the most part, are Greek imports, "many other grapes that never graced Greek soils were named 'greco' too because they were used to make wine in the 'Greek style' ... Rather than a family, the Grecos are a group of grapes sharing the same name and very little else."

"The most famous and best-known of all Italian Greco varieties is simply called Greco, and it is the one with which the world famous Greco di Tufo wine is made" (D'Agata). It is this variety that I will be focusing on in this post.

Greco is one of the oldest native white grape varieties in southern Italy, with roots dating back to the Greek colonization of the region. The main characteristics of the variety are detailed in the below chart.


While instances of the variety can be found in Calabria, Puglia, Lazio,, and Tuscany, it is most widely deployed in Campania. The Greco wines authorized in the region are shown in the chart below.


The chart shows, first of all, the versatility of the Greco grape in that it can be used for the production of sparkling (both Charmat and Metodo Classico), still, and dessert wines. Secondly the variety is used in blends in the coastal zones while it is mostly the dominant variety in the inland wines.

While the variety is grown across the region, it is in Tufo, and surrounding municipalities, that the variety expresses itself best. The combination of soils, cooler temperatures, persistent sunshine, and high diurnal temperature variation combine to produce wines of intense aromas and "particular mineral notes." The Campania Greco di Tufo terroirs are illustrated in the chart below.



Feudi di San Gregorio divides the Greco di Tufo zone into three broad regions with the most classic examples of the wine being produced in the central zone on the right bank of the Sabato River. Ian D'Agata focuses in even tighter, classing Tufo and Santa Paolina as Grand Cru growing zones and Montefusco as a Premier Cru, with mineral, refined wines from Tufo and bigger, more structured wines from the remaining two.

This post wraps up my coverage of the Campania DOCGs but no review of Campanian wines would be complete without a discussion of the Falanghina variety and its wines. I will undertake that task in my next post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Fiano: "One of Italy's greatest native wine grapes"

In a recent Wine Spectator article, Robert Camuto posed the question as to whether Fiano was Italy's greatest white wine. Ian D'Agata does not allow himself to be limited by grape type. Instead, he sees the variety as one of Italy's greatest native wine grapes, given its ability to make a wide range of wines: from light- to full-bodied; from dry to sweet; and from easy-drinking to age-worthy (Native Wine Grapes of Italy).

According to D'Agata, Fiano is one of Italy's oldest cultivars. The grape grows in medium-small, winged, pyramidal bunches with medium, oval-shaped berries. The skin is thick, with a yellow-green color that is spotted brown when ripe. This late-ripening variety is sensitive to odium but, due to its thick skin, is resistant to botrytis.

Fiano is thought to be native to Lapio, a small town west of the municipality of Avellino. It had almost disappeared in its native region but was resurrected by Antonio Mastroberardino who produced his first vintage in 1945. In addition to Campania, Fiano can now be found growing in Molise, Basilicata, Puglia, Sicily, the US (California and Oregon), and Australia (Barossa Valley, Margaret River, Adelaide Hills, Heathcote, and Riverland).

The chart following shows the distribution of Fiano terroirs within Campania.


Irpinia, the ancient name of Avellino Province, is home to three of the four Campania DOCG production zones. Irpinia's landscape is characterized by mountains, hills, and plains separated by rivers and streams. The region experiences short, very cold, snowy winters and mild, long summers. Annual rainfall is more than adequate.

There are marked differences in wines from various sites but, in Ian D'Agata's view, Fiano does best on volcanic soils in that they "allow the formation of penetratingly pure mineral and delicately fruity aromas ..." 

Fiano di Avellino DOCG is the area wherein the highest quality Fiano is produced. Ian is especially partial to the three "subzones," outlined in black on the Fiano di Avellino map in the chart above. Feudi di San Gregorio divides the wines into five classes depending on where they are grown in the DOCG. These zones are highlighted by multi-colored demarcation lines and red arrows in the Fiano di Avellino map above.

The chart below shows the allowed Fiano quality wine production zones.

I have tasted a few of the Fiano wines identified above:
The 2020 Mastroberardino Fiano di Avellino DOCG was elegant with a slightly powdery note, sweet white fruit, spice, and green herbs. On the palate, lemon-lime, minerality, salinity and a toasted bread character.


The 2019 Feudi di San Gregorio Pietracalda Fiano di Avellino DOCG was aged on the lees -- with batonnage -- for between 4 and 5 months post-fermentation. On the nose, intense apple, citrus, genip, and floral aromas. Fresh, rich, and balanced on the palate with a slightly bitter finish.


Tempe di Zoè produces Fiano wines from grapes grown in Cilento under the Paestum Fiano IGT appellation in vineyards "nestled between the mountain and the Tyrrhenian Sea." The grapes are fermented in steel tanks (after a soft pressing) and the resulting wine is aged for 6 months inm steel tanks (75%) and French oak barrels (25%). The wines spend an additional 2 months in bottle before release on the market.

The 2020 version of this wine showed herbs, spice, walnuts, a hint of honey, and minerality on the nose. Bright and fresh on the palate initially, with faded lime, minerality, and a limestone finish. With the passage of time, the wine settled down into a nice, easy-drinking gait.


©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Saturday, February 19, 2022

The Aglianico cultivar, the least-known of the great reds

Two of Campania's four DOCG classifications are based on the Aglianico variety which is itself further deployed, as regards styles, classification, and geography. I examine the characteristics of the variety, its origin and current deployment, and the nature of its wines.

Aglianico, according to Ian D'Agata (Native Wine Grapes of Italy). "is one of the world's great red grapes ... it is generally believed to be one of Italy's three best wine grapes but in my opinion ... it's one of the world's dozen or so best wine grapes." Jancis Robinson is just as fulsome in her praise of the  variety: "There are some grape varieties that, like Cary Grant and Catherine Deneuve, exude class. Aglianico ... is one of these." While my post covered Aglianico in Campania, the praise of these two experts extend beyond that region to include the variety's presence in neighboring Basilicata. Jancis Robinson specifically mentions it as "the signature grape of Taurasi in Campania and Aglianico del Vulture just over the border in the hills of Basilicata." 

What are the characteristics of this grape variety? The chart below shows selected characteristics of the cultivar and illustrates that, while there are a common set of agronomic and environmental aspects, growing-area differences are evident, as shown in the famous biotypes from Taurasi, Taburno, and Vulture, each one, according to D'Agata, "responsible for the unique characteristics of an eponymous wine."


Where are Aglianico's origins? A number of proposals have been advanced but, again, D'Agata, "... the exact origin of Aglianico and of its name remains unclear." He points to the first mention of the variety in a 1520 document attesting to vineyards owned by the Count of Conversano and planted to Aglianiche. Significant DNA study of the cultivar continues.

A total of 9973 ha of Aglianico are planted across Italy, with 69% of that total in Campania, 23% in Basilicata, and the remainder distributed between Molise, Puglia, Calabria, and Sicily. The variety is partial to dry, sunny climes and volcanic soils. The Campania and Basilicata terroirs wherein the cultivar can be found are illustrated in the following chart.


Aglianico has also won converts outside of Italy with vines planted in Australia, the United States (Texas, Arizona, and California) and in Canada's Niagara Peninsula.

The high concentrations of acid, sugar, and flavors in Aglianico lend themselves to versatility and that is exhibited by the cultivar being deployed in every key wine style in its favored lands. As the chart below shows, Aglianico can be vinified as a white (Irpinia DOC), sparkling, still red, or passito wine.


But it is as a still red wine that Aglianico has gained its fame and notoriety. These wines show floral aromatics when young and acquire spice and herbal qualities with age; and they have a remarkable ability to age. The wines are high in acid and tannins and are outstanding markers of the growing region while, at the same time, retaining the grape's definitive personality.

The Aglianico red wines from Taurasi are full-bodied, with elevated tannins and acidity. The wines show black and red berry fruit flavors and black olive and herbal notes when young and spice and smoke with age. Taburno wines are lighter in color than its Taurasi counterpart with red fruit notes, higher acidity, and lower tannin levels. The wines from Aglianico del Vulture, according to D'Agata, are known for their rich plum notes and mineral nuance.

I have tasted a few examples of Mastroberardino Aglianico wines.

The 2015 Taurasi DOCG was non-turgid in the glass. It showed beeswax, star apple, violet florals, sweet tar, clay, and thyme on the nose. Expands quickly and fully on the palate. Medium weight with good, palate-cleansing acidity and a long, spicy finish. Dark purple fruit on the palate with silky tannins that provide just enough texture. Not an overly complex wine.


The 2015 Taurasi Riserva DOCG showed a balsamic note on the nose along with spice, tar, chocolate, herb, mint, cassis, dark fruits, smoke, charcoal, licorice, and beeswax.. Sour cherry on the palate, red fruits, coal and a smokiness. Ripe tamarind. The acidity rides on a wave that persists into the finish and beyond.

The Mastro Rosso Campania IGT is a blend of Aglianico, Piedirosso, and other varieties grown in different areas of Irpinia and Sannio. The grapes are grown at 350 m in south-facing vineyards sited on predominantly clayey-calcareous soils. The 20-year-old vines -  average density 3000 vines/ha -- are trained Guyot. The grapes are vinified in stainless steel tanks and are refined in bottle for at least month.

The 2018 version of the Mastro Campania IGT is easy-drinking. Vanillin, tar, sage, cassis, and beeswax on the nose. Red fruit and spice on the palate with an abbreviated finish.





©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Mastroberardino: The foremost producer of premium wines in Campania

Mastroberardino, the largest producer of premium wines in Campania, as well as being one of Italy's most highly regarded producers, has roots in Irpinia Province that reach back into the 18th century. It was in 1758 that Pietro di Berardino founded his winery in the town of Artipaldi, the farm eventually being officially registered by Cavalier Angelo in 1875. Post the formation of the initial entity, Pietro was referred to as "Maestro" and that, in combination with the historical family name, is the nomenclature by which the family has been known thenceforth.

The Campanian wine industry was decimated by phylloxera during the 1930s and suffered further declines with the onset of WWII. When Antonio, representing the 9th generation, returned from the war, the family estate was in ruins but he, along with his brother Walter, embarked on a comprehensive restoration and expansion program which would bear fruit for the family fortunes and the Campanian wine industry as a whole. 

In addition to restoring their existing vineyards and cellars, Antonio and Walter bought up all of the best vineyard land in Irpinia and greater Campania. While other producers were ripping out native varieties and replacing them with internationals, Mastroberardino remained focused on the locals and is widely credited with saving Fiano, Greco, and Aglianico from extinction.

In 1996, Walter left Mastroberardino to establish his own estate, which he named Terradora in honor of his wife Dora. According to winetradersuk.co.uk, the split was acrimonious, with Antonio retaining the winery and the name whilst Walter retained the vineyards. Antonio was joined in the venture by his children Paolo, Lucia, and Daniela. In the same timeframe, 1997 to be exact, Antonio passed the reins of the Mastroberardino estate to his son Piero.

Antonio's success led to other Campanian winemakers following his path and a resulting revitalization and refocusing of the industry with the native varieties at the core. Further, the Italian Government recognized the leadership role of the estate by assigning it the task of recreating the vineyards, varieties, and cultivation and wine-production techniques practiced in the Roman era, prior to the eruption of Vesuvius. The first vintage of the resulting wine -- a blend of Piedirosso, Sciascinoso, and Aglianico -- was released in 2001.

The Mastroberardino holdings cover 16 estates and in excess of 254 ha distributed across Campania. The chart below shows the distribution of the estates, the varieties planted at each estate, and the wines produced therefrom.


The bulk of the family's holdings are concentrated in Irpinia, a province that is bordered by the foothills of the Apennines. It is a pre-Alpine zone with a continental climate and high elevations which exhibits the large diurnal shifts that quality grapes love as well as providing protection from rain, frost, and humidity. Irpinia is also home to three of the four Campanian DOCGs and 11 of the 16 Mastroberardino estates are located in those zones.

All of the estates are farmed sustainably.

The winemaking process is fairly similar across the holdings: manual harvests followed by fermentation in stainless steel tanks. The red wines are subjected to lengthy macerations in the tanks and are then aged for up to 30 months in barriques, or a mix of barriques and Slavonian casks, and are then aged in bottle for as much as 36 months.

The estate has introduced a line called Stilèma which seeks to produce wines as they did in pre-War Irpinia. In practice this means making Taurasi wines as they did in the 1960s and Greco and Fiano as they did in the 1970s and 1980s.

I have tasted a few examples of Mastroberardino wines as part of this exercise and will continue to do so and add to this report in the future.

The 2020 Fiano di Avellino DOCG was elegant with a slightly powdery note, sweet white fruit, spice, and green herbs. On the palate lemom-lime, minerality, salinity and a toasted bread character.


The 2015 Taurasi DOCG was non-turgid in the glass. It showed beeswax, star apple, violet florals, sweet tar, clay, and thyme on the nose. Expands quickly and fully on the palate. Medium weight with good, palate-cleansing acidity and a long, spicy finish. Dark purple fruit on the palate with silky tannins that provide just enough texture. Not an overly complex wine.


The 2015 Taurasi Riserva DOCG showed a balsamic note on the nose along with spice, tar, chocolate, herb, mint, cassis, dark fruits, smoke, charcoal, licorice, and beeswax.. Sour cherry on the palate, red fruits, coal and a smokiness. Ripe tamarind. The acidity rides on a wave that persists into the finish and beyond.

The Mastro Rosso Campania IGT is a blend of Aglianico, Piedirosso, and other varieties grown in different areas of Irpinia and Sannio. The grapes are grown at 350 m in south-facing vineyards sited on predominantly clayey-calcareous soils. The 20-year-old vines -  average density 3000 vines/ha -- are trained Guyot. The grapes are vinified in stainless steel tanks and are refined in bottle for at least month.

The 2018 version of the Mastro Campania IGT is easy-drinking. Vanillin, tar, sage, cassis, and beeswax on the nose. Red fruit and spice on the palate with an abbreviated finish.




©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Saturday, February 5, 2022

The wines of Italy's Campania region

Campania, the shin of the boot that is Italy, is its third most populous region. And with its 5.8 million people resident in an area covering 13,590 sq. km, it is the country's most densely populated region. But it is famed for factors beyond population. "The region is home to 10 of the 55 UNESCO sites in Italy ..." and its "... rich natural beauty ... makes it highly important in the tourism industry, with the city of Naples, the Amalfi Coast, Mount Vesuvius and the islands of Capri and Ischia continuing to be major attractions" (Wikipedia).

Campania is well-suited to the production of high quality wine. Its abundant sunshine, dry and hot summers (with coastal Mediterranean breezes tempering the heat), mild winters, mountainous terrain (allows planting at higher elevations), volcanic soil, lengthy growing season, and own-rooted vines add up to a growing environment that is a winemakers dream.

And the suitability of the region for wine making is enshrined in history. According to thegrandwindow.com, Campania viticulture is one of the best documented in Italy because the region was "the garden of the Romans," the so-called Felix Campania, the favorite holiday place for nobles of the Res Publica, and "the drink that was most talked about in Rome was Campanian wine ..." 

The roots of Campanian wine run even deeper, though, stretching back to around 730 BC when Greeks from Euboea established a colony in Cuma and, based on the Greek-origin varieties that populate the region, brought their native vines to the peninsula.

The wine industry in Campania was in poor shape at the end of WWII. Using the Mastroberardino estate as a proxy, war, economic depression, phylloxera, and neglect had damaged the industry's prospects significantly. Antonio Mastroberardinio launched a project to revitalize his family estate and vineyards and other producers followed in his footsteps. And the progress continues. According to Vinous' Eric Guido, a more modern outlook on farming and winemaking, driven in large part by smaller, quality-minded producers, is changing the region's profile.

Landscape and Terroir
According to Italyguides.it, "The region of Campania stretches over a wonderfully varied area of Italy, covering coastal areas as well as fertile and beautiful plains further inland ... The plains, towns and mountains further inland with their agricultural resources, temperate climate and idyllic pastoral countryside have made Campania a valuable asset to invaders over the years.

According to Eric Guido, "Throughout the hills and up onto the lower slopes of both volcanos and mountains, we find the vineyards ... from 400 too 600 meters and up ... and the soils that we generalize as 'volcanic' are a diverse mix of rocks, ash, sands, clays and minerals that have been deposited here over the course of many millenia."

The chart below shows the distribution of DOC and DOCG level grape-growing areas in Campania along with selected characteristics of the more "important" ones.


The chart shows a patchwork of growing regions along the eastern seaboard and on the islands (with the larger Cilento DOC in the southeast) and two significant growing regions (Benevento and Avellino provinces) in the center and Northwest of the region. The growing areas along the coast manifest volcanic soils while the inland growing regions have, in addition, calcareous and limestone soils.

Campania White Wines
Campania's mix of calcareous, limestone-rich soils, high elevation, and significant diurnal temperature variation provide an environment that is well suited to the growth of high-quality white varieties. This environment supports a number of high-quality white wines (Tom Hyland):
  • Greco di Tufo
    • Very good levels of acidity and excellent aging potential
    • Less aromatic but with a bigger structure
    • Minerality and concentration
    • Does well in the volcanic soil in the mountainous terrain of Avellino
  • Fiano di Avellino
    • One of the most complex and elegant white wines of Italy
    • Aging potential of 10 or more years
    • Does well in the volcanic soil in the mountainous terrain of Avellino
  • Fiano di Salerno
    • More clay and limestone soil; fruit-driven, with less minerality
  • Falanghina and Asprinio
    • Both high-acid wines. 
The chart below shows the characteristics of the most important Campanian white varieties and illustrates the requirements for white wine production within the region.

The chart illustrates the two white DOCGs (Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino) in Irpina DOC and the ubiquity of Falanghina acros the region. Less-well-known varieties such as Biancolella, Forestra, and Caprettone can be found in the easterly growing regions.

Red Wines
Aglianico is the dominant certified red variety in the region, as shown in the chart below. This grape, known as The Barolo of the South, produces high-tannin, high-acid wines with notes of plum, cassis, and chocolate. The DOCG zones for this grape are Aglianico del Taburno and Taurasi, the former included in Sannio DOC, the latter in Irpinia DOC.


Sparkling Wines
Grapes that produce high-acid white wines are good candidates for sparkling wines. The chart below shows the appellations which allow sparkling wine within their borders and the grape varieties (and their proportions) utilized in their production. The chart directly following shows the sparkling wines produced in the region, in many cases, utilizing the described grapes grown in the highlighted regions.


Some observations:
  • One of the four DOCGs and nine of the 15 DOCs allow for the production of sparkling wines
  • Most of the Campania appellations are bunched in the upper part of the region as is the allowed sparkling wines
  • With one exception -- Costa d'Amalfi DOC -- no international varieties are used in the production of the region's sparkling wines. Both Chardonnay and Pinot Nero are approved for use in the Costa d'Amalfi Spumante
  • A total of 38 labels are approved over the 10 appellations shown above making for an average of 3.8 labels per appellation. Of course, the bulk of the labels are distributed between Sannio DOC and Vesuvio DOC
  • 15 of the approved labels are Metodo Classico specifications
  • Thirty-one of the approved labels are for varietal sparkling wines with Falanghina, Fiano, and Greco featuring prominently.
The sparkling wines in Greco di Tufo DOCG are made in the traditional manner and stay on the lees for at least 3 years. According to tasteatlas.com, "These straw yellow wines are intense, herbaceous, floral, and fruity with typical notes of apples, jasmine, thyme, or sage. They are best paired with rich seafood dishes and could go well with lobster or cod ... they are also an excellent aperitif and would be a great match to various appetizers."

Feudi di San Gregorio, one of the leading independent wine producers in Campania, has established a separate label -- DUBL -- under which to market its Spumante wines. This project began in 2004 and was aimed at bringing the classic sparkling wine method to the grapes of the Campanian tradition: Greco, Aglianico, and Falanghina.

Feudi San Gregorio felt that they had the high-quality fruit for such an initiative. The internal areas of the region are ideal for growth of grapes destined for sparkling wines:
  • Diurnal temperature differences would allow grape ripening with acid-retention
  • The ventilation and exposure of the vineyards are ideal
  • Rugged terroir 
  • Volcanic soils.
They did not, however, have the requisite skill. To fill that gap they sought the advice and assistance of Anselme Selosse -- of Jacques Selosse grower-Champagne fame. The wines that resulted were a 100% Greco sparkling wine, a 100% Aglianico sparkling Rosata, and a 100% Falanghina as a Double Brut.

In April 2016, DUBL extended its product portfolio with DUBL Esse, a Dossagio Zero line, with a white sparkling made from the best grapes from the most exciting vineyards in the Tufo area and a Rosata which comes from grapes from the most exciting vineyards in the Taurasi area.

Dessert and Specialty Wines
These wines are made mostly in the passito style using white varieties but with a fair sprinkling of red varieties in the mix.


©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Agrovoltaics - A potential approach to mitigating the effects of climate change in the vineyard

The threat of the impacts of climate change on wine quality has sent winemakers scrambling for mitigating solutions to include: moving to higher altitudes; adding more heat tolerant varieties to the mix; adjusting canopy strategies; and agroforestry. But it is not only increased heat that is of concern; we also expect changes in the intensity and frequency of all adverse climatic events.

Agrovoltaics is an emerging approach that may be deployable in this engaged battle against and unleashed and unruly Mother Nature. Otherwise known as solar sharing, agrovoltaics places solar panels on the same land where crops are grown, allowing farmers to harvest the power of the sun twice.

Source: https://www.unitedwind.com/
innovation/sustainable-future-with-agrovoltaics/

Beyond a certain point -- the light saturation point -- light does not increase photosynthesis. Rather, the additional light causes the plant to sweat, increasing its demand for water. Solar panels can be positioned to allow crops just the right amount of sunlight with the excess diverted to electricity production. 

From the solar energy provider's perspective, it is expensive to clear and level land for the deployment of solar arrays. It would be much less expensive to deploy these arrays on land that is already in use.

Plants help to keep the solar panels cool, making them more efficient. It has been shown that solar panels emplaced above crops produce up to 10% more electricity than solar panels without underlying plants.

Large-scale solar arrays produce a so-called "heat island effect where temperatures in the vicinity are elevated as a result of the operation. Attempts have been made to reduce this effect by installing gravel beds below the arrays; the results have been unsatisfactory. Replacing the gravel beds with vegetation, on the other hand, has yielded significant positive effects.

According to an Oregon State University study, converting 1% of American farmland to agrovoltaics would:
  • Allow us to meet national renewable energy targets
  • Save water
  • Create new revenue opportunities for small farmers.
Crops best suited for agrovoltaics are limited to those which are grown and harvested by hand or with the aid of small machinery. These include (NRCC):
  • Shade-loving pollinator crops
  • Bedding plants
  • Small fruit trees and shrubs
  • Vegetables
  • Livestock.
There has been at least one vineyard trial utilizing this approach. The French solar provider Sun'R and its subsidiary Sun'Agri have established and experimental program in southern France in partnership with Environment and Energy Management Agency. The trial involves a 600 sq m dynamic system installed in a 1000 sq m Grenache vineyard. The system is comprised of 280 panels (capable of producing 84 kW of electricity) each placed 4.2 m above the vine rows. Movement of the panels is arbitrated by an AI system such as to optimize sunshine and water access as well as to shield the vines from heavy rain, frost, and heat.

Initial results from the trial show that:
  • The panel structure shelters the vines from stunting during heatwaves
  • The system reduces water demand by 12 - 34% due to a reduction in transpiration through the soil
  • The aromatic profile of the berry has improved, with 13% more anthocyanin and 9 - 14% more acidity evident.
Much more data need to be presented as to the break-even size required for a vineyard to embark on this path, who benefits, who pays the cost, etc., before a more definitive position can be taken as regards this approach. But the promise is clear.


©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Los Angeles was the City of Vines before it became known as the City of Angels

I have been blaming the Spanish clergy for the Judgment of Paris debacle for French wines but further research places more direct responsibility on a ... Frenchman. Yes, a Frenchman. Sixteen years after his fellow countryman Jean David had backed out of a deal with Thomas Jefferson because, in his view, a successful US domestic wine industry could potentially do significant harm to the French wine industry, the aptly named Jean-Louis Vignes launched a US wine industry based on French varieties. Let's explore.

Jean-Louis Vignes
(Source: Balzac Communications)

Vignes surfaced in Monterey,  Alta California, 10 years after the conclusion of the Mexican War of Independence (1810 - 1821). He had been born in a small French village where his family were artisans: they made barrels for the local wine producers; they made their own wine; and they processed wine lees into lees ash for use as a fertilizer.

Jean-Louis left his village and eventually ended up in the Sandwich Islands where he grew sugar cane and distilled rum. The religious leaders were not fans and persuaded the authorities to ban the basis of his business, driving him into insolvency. He left for the US mainland, arriving in Monterey in 1831 and the Pueblo of Los Angeles later in the same year.

When Vignes arrived in LA, Mission grapes were grown by the Franciscans for sacramental purposes and outside the religious structure for the production of aguardiente (a brandy) and wine for local consumption. The primary industry was cattle-rearing but the "free-range" cattle were not suitable for consumption at table. Rather, the 76,000 head of cattle were used for tallow (62 million pounds shipped between 1826 and 1848) and hides (5 million shipped in the first half of the century). Vignes eventually purchased 104 acres of land on the west side of the Los Angeles River and named it El Aliso after the centuries-old tree located in the vicinity of the farm entrance.

Vignes started out with Mission grapes but was not satisfied with the quality of the wines. To address this shortcoming, he imported Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc vines from his native Bordeaux, had them shipped around Cape Horn, and planted them in Los Angeles in 1833. This was the first instance of non-Mission vinifera being imported to the west coast of the US (Mazzei had imported Italian vitis vinifera to the east coast in 1774) and the first instance of Bordeaux varieties planted therein (A momentous event given that Bordeaux varietals would participate in the dethroning of French wines by Napa insurgents 143 years hence.). Vignes grafted the Bordeaux scions onto Mission rootstocks; and the rest is history.

Vignes was the first to grow quality wines in California and the first California producer to age his wines. The wood for the wine barrels was sourced from his holdings in the San Bernadino Mountains. It is likely that his first Bordeaux varietal vintage was in 1837. His wines were highly regarded and even made its way to the table of the then President Martin van Buren.

Buoyed by the prospects in California, Vignes wrote to his relatives in Cadillac, encouraging them to come join him. A nephew, Pierre Sainsevain, was the first to respond to the call, arriving in LA in 1839 and joining his Uncle's enterprise.

By 1840, the estate had made its first shipment north and by 1842, was making regular shipments to Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, commanding prices of $4/gallon for brandy and $2/gallon for wine. By 1845 they were shipping 1000 barrels of wine and brandy north and by 1849, El Aliso was the most extensive vineyard in California with over 40,000 vines and annual production of 150,000 bottles per year.

Pierre's brother arrived in Los Angeles in 1849 and in 1855 Vignes sold El Aliso to the Sainsevain brothers for $42,000, the largest real estate transaction to that date in California. By that time Vignes was largely considered the founder of California's wine industry and would eventually have a street in downtown LA named after him. 

Vignes was instrumental in Los Angeles District becoming the original beating heart of the California wine industry. When gold was first discovered in California in 1848, demand increased for California wine and there were many new market entrants; entrants who sought out Vignes for advice and counsel. A total of 125 vineyards were operative in 1855, hosting 324,234 vines and producing 7000 lbs of fresh grapes and 100,000 gallons of wine and brandy. Seventy-five vineyards operated within the LA city limits, earning it the moniker "City of Vines." The road from Los Angeles to the port of San Pedro was called Vineyard Lane.

Los Angeles remained the center of California wine production until the nexus was shifted north by a number of factors including positives such as the arrival of the railroad and the rise of the citrus industry and negatives such as phylloxera, Pierce's disease, and Prohibition.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme