Ribolla Gialla Varietal
Esoteric ribolla gialla finds fans in Napa
After a long day of driving and interviewing in Napa a few months ago, I sat down to dinner at Chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant. The wine list presented an array of options, as good wine lists do, but as always I was drawn to the unfamiliar. The waitress let me sample Chiara Bianco ribolla gialla from the chef’s vineyard: I asked her to pour me a glass. Wonderfully refreshing is what I remember, unwilling to probe my brain for nouns and adjectives to describe the sensory experience. To those in this business a long time, flavors and aromas must pop up unsolicited; I have to summon the olfactory and gustatory.
Ribolla gialla enthusiasts.
After a few google searches, I found a small band of enthusiastic ribolla gialla growers and/or winemakers. All pointed to one person: the late George Vare.
Roughly a decade before his passing, while traveling with his wife in the northeastern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, George happened upon ribolla gialla wine and fell in love. Bringing a few cuttings in his suitcase from the region, one of the 20 in Italy, he grafted them on to rootstock in his vineyards and introduced the grape to his native Napa Valley.
Steve Matthiasson, a viticultural consultant, initially made a business connection with George. In 2007, Steve and Jill Matthiasson grafted ribolla gialla on to their merlot vines. The next year, they celebrated their first vintage. They make a ribolla varietal and also a white wine, a blend of ribolla, sémillon, and friulano. This grape makes a high acid wine that does well as the backbone to a blend. Massican winery also makes a blend with ribolla, tocai friulano, and chardonnay.
The character of the grape is spicy and nutty, said Jill, and in pressing wine the Matthiassons let the grape express itself. They make this varietal like red wine, the traditional method. By letting the juice stay in contact with the skin for about two weeks, they coax color into the wine. They then age it for 20 months in second- or third-year French oak barrels which, by this time, are flavor neutral.
Ribolla gialla is an old grape variety that traces its origins to thirteenth century Greece. It found a home in the Friuli region, where it was held in high regard by wine lovers until phylloxera ravaged it in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Still reeling from the pest that laid waste to their vineyards, wine growers planted French varietals rather than their native Italian. The turn of the twentieth century has seen a renewed interest in ribolla as winemakers everywhere look far and wide for novelty.
“It is an artisanal and esoteric wine, not wildly popular because it comes from a small region in Italy,” said Mark Grassi of Grassi Wines, who makes between 200 and 400 cases of this wine. Beyond the fan following it enjoys among those who were influenced by George, Mark does not see a huge future for the varietal in California.
The climate and soil of the Friuli region are different from those in Napa, but the vine has adapted well to this region. (Don’t we all in this country of immigrants!) In 2015, Mark planted an acre of ribolla to make wine from his own grapes, and next year will be his first vintage.
Oak Knoll, where both he and the Matthiassons plant this grape, is slightly cooler than the rest of Napa, although warmer than Friuli, and the soil is alluvium, not limestone. The wines, then, are denser and richer than the those that come out of Friuli, as the growing season here is longer and sugars are higher.
After his passing, Vare Vineyards were sold to Bengier Family Vineyards that now supply to many of the vintners that produce this wine. But those to whom George introduced ribolla celebrate the new vintage every year.
The event brings out many celebrants, not just those who grow ribolla. This year, however, said Jill, Steve’s biking accident led to the cancellation of the celebration. So just the small group of growers got together. The Matthaissons brought out a barrel of a 12-year-old ribolla from George’s vineyard that had never been bottled. And they tasted it, reminiscing, looking forward, and enjoying old-fashioned camaraderie.