Friday, October 23, 2009

Dornfelder: Summer Blockbuster or German Grape Varietal?

If you have never heard of Dornfelder, you would think the Governor of California was in negotiations with a major Hollywood studio to start filming a new movie where a barbarian king conquers Europe. Fortunately for us, no such movie is set to hit the silver screen anytime soon. So what is Dornfelder, and how did this German red grape varietal hit the shores of the United States and land in a vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills?

I stumbled upon Dornfelder one afternoon in Century City (part of Los Angeles) during the First Annual Wine House and Winehound Santa Barbara Wine Fest and Futures Tasting. Near the entrance of the sprawling tent in front of the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, stood a tall man (everyone is taller than me) with a trademark cowboy hat and a Danish accent. With only a couple wines in hand, this captivating winemaker poured for me what can only be described as "earth in a glass." With one swig, my teeth turned inky purple and my tastebuds peaked with excitement due to the earthy aromas and flavors. And who is this gallant winemaker from Santa Barbara County that took the bold step of introducing something so alien to wine tasters? Peter Work, winemaker/owner (along with wife Rebecca) of ampelos cellars, which produces superb Pinot Noir and Syrah wines.

So, you ask, who is planting Dornfelder? Well, German friends of Norman and Traudl Huber sent them four Dornfelder vines some years back, which grew into three acres of vines at their estate vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills. The big, dark and loose clusters of grapes are the last block to be harvested. Huber Vineyards & Cellars not only grows the grapes, but produces its own bottling of the German varietal.

From first glance, its clear this is the darkest, inkiest wine to ever fill my glass. Tilt the glass to the edge and unleash the reddish-purple color tones and notice how it has legs. This is one wine you have to sink your nose into the glass. This heavy-bodied wine unleashes so many uncharacteristic aromas and flavors that remind me of a pine forest or the Koala exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo (fragrance of eucalyptus in case you're wondering where the heck that came from); tobacco and violets are characteristic of this unique grape varietal too. What kinds of food can you pair with this wine? If you said game food, then you would be correct. Remember, every palate is different, therefore, you may pickup other aromas and flavors, especially as this wine ages over the months and years ahead.

Given the fact that there is no widely available information about Dornfelder, I posed a few questions to Rebecca Work of ampelos cellars to get the dish about this grape varietal and how you can get your hands on a bottle:

Give us some background about the grape varietal: Dornfelder is a German red varietal and has become quite popular in Germany since it performs well under viticulture conditions which traditionally were seen as more suitable for white wine production. Traditionally, the red wines of Germany were mostly pale and light-bodied, but new breeds of dark-skinned grapes led by dornfelder have allowed the production of more internationally-styled reds.

Why did you choose this grape to bottle: Peter and I always like to do something different in order to continue to learn. So we had an opportunity to purchase a little bit to play with. We did not really plan on selling it - it was going to be internal for us and friends. What turned out, surprised us how good it is and the fantastic reaction we have received from folks that have tried it so now it is our epsilon.

How do you foresee the wine market reacting to something completely new: I think in general people are usually hesitant to try something new that they know nothing about, however, there are exception. There are folks out there that like to try something new and different. So I think it will be slow on being tried.

When will this wine be available for purchase: We have just released it to our wine club and so it will go out to the public end of the year. Given this is a small lot, we will only sell it through our winery and on the website.

How many cases are you producing for the '07 vintage: About 120 cases.

Stop by either tasting room below to sample the current vintage. Cheers!

ampelos cellars
1633 W. Central Avenue, Lompoc
(805) 736-9957
Open Sat, 11:00 am - 4:00 pm
Twitter: @ampeloscellars

Huber Vineyards & Cellars
4892 Hapgood Road, Lompoc
(805) 736-3854
Open Sat-Sun, 11:00 am - 4:00 pm

Sunday, October 11, 2009

It's Official: TTB Approves Happy Canyon AVA

On October 8, 2009, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) formally established a rule designating the 23,941-acre "Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara" American viticultural area (AVA) in Santa Barbara County, California. The Happy Canyon AVA, which lies within the larger Santa Ynez Valley viticultural area, is effective November 9, 2009.

The Happy Canyon AVA comprises the area east and south of the San Rafael Mountains, west of Lake Cachuma, and north of the Santa Ynez River. TTB received an application from Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Vineyards on behalf of Happy Canyon vintners and grape growers, proposing the establishment of the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara American viticulture area. The proposed AVA encompasses 23,941 acres, 492 acres of which are in commercial viticulture in 6 vineyards, including Happy Canyon, Vogelzang, Star Lane, Three Creek, Grassini and McGinley (formerly Westerly).

TTB's rule allows vintners sourcing fruit from the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA to include the designation on their labels. At least eighty-five percent of the grapes used to produce a wine must come from the newly designated "Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara" AVA in order to qualify for brand name purposes. The label will help vintners distinguish their wines from other vineyards in the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA. Happy Canyon AVA vineyards are known for growing Bordeaux varietals (due to the warm afternoons and cool evenings), including Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

Happy Canyon AVA - Official Website
Santa Maria Times: Happy Canyon earns formal wine designation
Examiner: Santa Barbara County's Happy Canyon approved as a new wine appellation Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara