Among the many excellent reasons to do some daytripping in the Anderson Valley is to refresh one’s sense of hope that the stranglehold of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon on California’s oenophilic imagination isn’t necessarily eternal. Oh yes, a number of the winemakers along the blissfully unbusy Highway 128 offer versions of these pedigreed old French warhorses along with versions of pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, which are only marginally less familiar and probably no less pedigreed.
But perhaps because land values in the area aren’t quite as insane as in Napa Valley and the better-known parts of Sonoma County, winemakers seem to feel a greater freedom in experimenting with varieties of grapes that are either not well known or not well regarded in this country. Brutocao, for instance, is now offering bottlings of dolcetto (a bright, midweight Italian red) and primitivo, the big red bruiser — and zinfandel sibling — from the south of Italy. Brutocao also offers a zin, and it’s pleasantly smoky, but I preferred the primitivo and its fresh-cherry kiss.
Just up the road, a pair of wineries are quietly working a revolution in white wines. A major theme here is the making of dry wines from German grapes — mainly gewürztraminer and Riesling — better known for Old World wines of considerable fruitiness and sweetness. The gewürzes at both Husch and Navarro retain the grape’s distinctive spicy-floral perfume, along with some fruit, but have a sunny tartness. Navarro’s Riesling, meanwhile, compares favorably, in my view, to many of the great Loire whites made from sauvignon blanc; it is light but solid, not as thick in the nose as the gewürzes but with a wonderful balance of acid, fruit, and a suggestion of minerality.
It is the Husch chenin blanc, though, that most captures my heart. Here we have a grape most of us would associate with one of those Paul Masson orgy wines from a jug, circa 1973. Yet the French have long known that chenin is noble, and if treated right — if not encouraged to proliferate promiscuously, if grown with concentration in mind — it can produce such splendid wines as Savennières. I am not sure Husch is quite at that level yet, but one goal of the winemakers surely is redemption for this undervalued grape, and that much at least they have already achieved.