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Historical Varietals

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(from Sullivan 1998)

As the history of the grapes and their route to Dry Creek Valley is a story as important as that of the humans, the vineyardists and winemakers who planted the vinifera, a brief history of the most popular 19th century wine grapes grown in the region.

Alicante Bouschet – A French hybrid grape (Petit Bouschet x Grenache), it was developed by Henri Bouschet to supply dark color to poorly colored red wines, but added little to the flavor. The Petit Bouschet entered Northern California vineyards in the 1880s, with the Alicante Bouschet introduced in the 1890s and becoming the most popular dyer grape planted before Prohibition. A few premium producers now bring out a varietal as a table wine.

Burger – A highly productive white wine grape, the Burger may be the Eibling of Germany or the Monbadon of Southern France. It was very popular in Northern  California before Prohibition, used for stretching better varieties in the production of inexpensive hock or Rhine wine. What few grapes remain are located in the Central Valley.

Carignane (Mataro) – The most widely planted red-wine grape in France today, although probably a native of Spain (it is now again popular, using its French name, Mourvedre). It produces a tasty red wine, suitable for blending, and was extensively planted in Northern California in the 1880s as a common component of both Burgundy and Claret blends. During Prohibition, acreage increased from 12,000 to 28,000 acres, half of which were in the Central Valley, and comprised about 10 percent of grapes shipped east to home winemakers.

Golden Chasselas – A name used in California for the Palomino variety of grape. Before Prohibition it was often called Napa Golden Chasselas, no matter where the vine was planted.

Grenache – A red variety of wine grape, probably of Spanish origin, from Aragon and one of Spain’s most widely planted vines as Grenacha. It was probably introduced to California by Charles Lefranc in 1857, and by the 1870s was widely used in the state. Its versatility made it popular in the 1880s planting boom, and by the end of the decade was being used in red blends. Most of it was produced in the Central Valley in the 1930s and 1940s as jug wines and port blends. It is now mostly grown in the coastal counties, where it is comparable to Zinfandel in price.

Malvoise (Black Malvoisie) – This is the name used in California for what is now known to be the Cinsaut (Cinsault) grape of Southern France. There it is considered a good grape for blending, but was imported into California in the 1860s. In the 1870s it became popular as a Claret grape, and was often used to blend with Zinfandel. By the 1890s it was in general disrepute. During Prohibition some old vineyards survived and became popular among a few Italian winegrowers, sold until the 1960s as Malvasia Nera.

Mission – A variety of grape so-named in the United States because it was brought up from Mexico to Baja and Alta California and the American Southwest as part of the establishment of the Spanish missions. It is clearly of vinifera origin, closely related to  the Pais in Chile and the Criollo in Argentina, although no perfect match has been found in the Old World. Some believe it to be a close relative of Sardinia’s Monica grape, but because it was part of the New World culture for about 250 years before being carried to the Alta California missions in the 1770s, it may be the result of one or more crosses or chance hybridizations. By the 1820s the ranchos also had Mission grape vineyards, and, after secularization, the old vines were often used to propagate vineyards around the pueblos and ranchos. A planting boom in California in the 1850s saw most new vineyards planted to the Mission variety, then called the California grape, but diminished the quality of much of the California wine through the 1870s. The planting boom of the 1880s and the devastation of phylloxera ended its popularity, but in recent years, a few small premium wineries have produced a varietal of Mission wine.

Petite Sirah – In 1997 there were about 2,500 acres of California vines known as Petite Sirah. The Syrah came to California from France in 1878. In 1884, Charles McIver from Linda Vista Vineyards imported the Durif, a cross between the Peloursin and Syrah, which he soon called Petite Sirah. In the 1890s all the true Syrah in California was destroyed by the phylloxera, but after 1897, when vast plantings and replantings occurred throughout the state, Petite Sirah became a popular variety. It was not Syrah, but probably Durif, but may also have included two closely related vines: Beclan and Peloursin. In the press, the Petite Sirah was touted for its color, fragrance, and high yield and came to be a part of the red burgundy blend made by many wine houses. With the onset of Prohibition, Petite Sirah in the North Coast was an important one of the grapes shipped east to home winemakers, more than Zinfandel. The grape continued to perform its old role of providing color and richness to standard red table wines, but acreage declined in the 1960s. It then appeared as a premium varietal wine in the 1970s, and  new plantings were made.

White Riesling –A German varietal associated with the best wines of the Rhine and Mosel, the White Riesling came to California in the 1850s, probably imported by Francis Stock of San Jose. Riesling wines were brought to Sonoma in 1859 by Emil Dresel, from Geisenhheim. California White Riesling has been produced in many styles since the earliest days; before Prohibition the most popular were sweet, but has now become popular as a young, fruity slightly sweet wine.

Zinfandel – The most widely planted red-wine grape in California for the past 100 years is a true vinifera of European origin. The vine was imported to the United States by George Gibbs on Long Island, probably in 1829, from the Imperial Nursery in Vienna, Austria. The name Zinfandal was evidently bestowed by Charles M. Hovey, Boston’s leading nurseryman. In New England it became a popular table grape, known as Black St. Peter’s. With the Gold Rush, many of California’s early nurserymen began importing stock in the early 1850s. In the Napa Valley, Joseph Osborne propagated the vines, and, in 1859, sold two wagonloads to the Sonoma Horticultural Society. Of the imported  vines, only Zinfandel survived the winter, and in 1862 the Society secretary, William Boggs, and friends got some grapes and made wine. Some of it was given to Mariano Vallejo’s French winemaker, who pronounced that it tasted like a good Claret. By the late 1860s Zinfandal had become Zinfandel, and was grown all over Northern California, and the most widely planted in the 1880s wine boom.

By the turn of the 19th century, it was no longer the most widely planted, but still one of the most common wine grapes in California, mostly blended with Petite Sirah and Carignane to produce Clarets and Burgundies. During Prohibition it was one of the favorites shipped east, and after repeal was still one of the favorite blending wines.  When the 1960s and 1970s wine revolution occurred, the wine again became popular, only to fall from favor in the late 1970s. In the late 1980s, however, cellar techniques made it possible to produce a light, fruity Zinfandel and it is again back in vogue as a premium red table wine. The history of the grape, lost in stories of Arpad Harazthy, has recently been confirmed as originating in Croatia or Northern Italy, fingerprinted by DNA as the Primitivo grape of Bari, and closely related to the Plavac Mali of Croatia, both on the Adriatic Coast (Sullivan 1998).