Adventures with Weird Wine Grapes

There are 1,368 varieties covered in Master of Wine Jancis Robinson's Wine Grapes. Bet you can't try them all.

Ribolla Gialla: The Rest of A Rare Grape's Story

Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Wine Grapes by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. Bet you can't try them all.

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Winemaker Robbie Meyer of Grassi Wines shares the 2012 Grassi Ribolla Gialla with the crowd at Napa's fourth annual Ribolla Fest. [Photograph: Stevie Stacionis]

Remember Paul Harvey's radio program, "The Rest of the Story"? I love Wine Grapes, but it's fairly succinct and straightforward, never quite getting into the juicy bits—to "the rest of the story." Take the entry on Ribolla Gialla, for example. Wine Grapes introduces the grape crisply: "ancient white from the Italy-Slovenia border."

The book goes on to list places you'll find the grape planted, then offers a brief description of its flavor profile:

Light-bodied and high in acidity, sometimes slightly floral. More recently, ambitious and innovative producers have been making more concentrated and characterful versions with a deep yellow colour and rich yellow-fruit, sometimes nutty and mineral flavours."

Finally, the entry ends with a single, concise allowance: "A little is also planted in the Napa Valley, California."

But, you see, there's more to the story of Ribolla Gialla, particularly in the Napa Valley.

We begin with a man named George Vare. George entered the California wine industry in 1972 and worked in a number of prestigious roles, including president of Geyser Peak Winery, president of Henry Wine Group, and cofounder of Luna Vineyards. At Luna, George focused on Italian grape varieties and often traveled to Italy. He was particularly fond of the Friuli region, where he met and befriended local winemaker Josko Gravner.

Wine Grapes calls Gravner a "recommended producer [...] whose distinctive [wine by the name of] Anfora is made in clay amphorae." To sharpen the picture just a little, Gravner is a veritable winemaking icon as well as an iconoclast; collectors and wine geeks clamor after and snap up his fascinating orange wines like rare, precious jewels. One trip to Friuli, George snipped some cuttings of Ribolla Gialla from Gravner's vines and smuggled them back to Napa in a suitcase. There, he grafted them into his own vineyard in Oak Knoll in 1999.

Ribolla Gialla became George's passion project. It wasn't lucrative, and most people didn't know or didn't care much about a small plot of a rare Friulian variety planted in cult Cabernet territory... But slowly, word spread to wine geeks and Gravner fans that George was working with this grape. A little subculture of experimental winemakers began asking George if they, too, could try making small batches of wine from his fruit.

This group of winemakers became like a little family. Once a year, they'd informally gather together to share great food and their wines, to consult with George and swap tasting notes and techniques. Did yours go through malolactic fermentation? What temperature did it ferment at? Did you press or just crush the grapes? And how long did this sit on the skins?

Last week, the extended family and a group of friends met up at the Matthiasson property in Napa Valley to check in for the fourth annual "Ribolla Fest." We sat in the yard, forming an arc around two wine barrels and passing bottles in between discussion.

Robbie Meyer, winemaker from Grassi Wine Company, opened the evening with the 2012 Grassi Ribolla Gialla. The grape, whose name includes a reference to its color (gialla means "yellow" in Italian), confidently introduced itself with apricot, yellow peach and banana skin aromas buffered by white flowers and a surprisingly acidic attack on the palate. The texture was fascinating—similar to Assyrtiko with its tannic grip and acidic core—and I couldn't wait to try more.

Next, Dan Petroski of Massican passed around his 2012 Annia, a mix of Tocai Friulano and Chardonnay with Ribolla Gialla from both George's eponymous Vare vineyard and the Bowland vineyard. There was that gialla nose again: baked yellow fruits and a warm, soft spiciness followed up by a lightning rod of acidity.

Matthew Rorick brought out his 2011 Forlorn Hope Ribolla Gialla with a caveat: "As I'm learning, Ribolla is a wine that needs a little time." His wine sat on its skins for around two weeks, the juice thereby pulling out extra tannins and richer notes of pear skin, peach skin, even slightly bitter almond skins. I'd like to check in on this in a decade or three.

In turn, Duncan Meyers and Nathan Roberts of Arnot-Roberts showed two versions of their 2012 Ribolla Gialla from the Vare vineyard. The first had seen four hours of skin contact: it was all soft yellow melon flavors shot up with that crazy acidity. The second had been left on its skins for two weeks in terra cotta amphora and boasted an uncanny nose of damp clay with yellow apple slices, parsnip, and a rounder, juicy mouthfeel.

Husband and wife team Ryan and Megan Glaab of Ryme Cellars also compared two of their wines: a barrel sample of their 2012 (left on its skins for six months) with their current release of 2010 (one month on the skins). Again, both wines rocked that balance of tannin and acid with a richer, rocky texture. While the first was full of red apple skin, dried apricots and softly spicy cider, the second had a metallic, mineral edge to the dried yellow raisins, apricot skin and even lemon skin notes.

Finally, Steve and Jill Matthiasson passed around their 2011 Ribolla Gialla from the Vare vineyard and compared it to their 2010, which was made from vines they'd grafted from George's vineyard onto ones in their own backyard. Steve explained how he liked his fruit to have 50/50 golden and green components. True to form there was yellow apple and cantaloupe but also honeydew and green pear with an almost minty or anise spiciness. The finish washed in a green-streaked acidity plus a welcome creaminess. Jill reminisced about how the 2010 was picked by their two young sons, who then stomped the grapes by foot and fermented the wine on its skins in their barn out back. It was, as Jill mentioned, an opportunity to "let the hair down."

Normally, I imagine, George would conclude the annual event with a collective pat on the back and a pep talk for the impending harvest. This year was unique, however: It was the first year George wasn't present. Jill's voice cracked a little as she raised her glass and addressed the group with a toast. George passed away in April, survived by his beautiful wife Elsa, a legion of fans and colleagues, and a legacy of Ribolla Gialla.

"To George," Jill announced simply.

"To George," we all nodded as we clinked glasses in the diffused, descending rays of sunlight.

And now you know the rest of the story.

The Grape: Ribolla Gialla
The Region: Napa Valley, California

About the Author: Stevie Stacionis is a wine writer and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. She's currently drinking her way through the 1,368 varieties included in the new Wine Grapes tome. Follow her on Twitter @StevieStacionis and check out her snobbery-free wine videos at A Drinks With Friends TV.

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