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Stay golden with Terra d’Oro Pinot Grigio

By Celia Strong

When it comes to describing this week’s featured wine, the expression “golden” comes to mind. The taste of this white wine can be described as golden, and its name, Terra d’Oro, means “Land of Gold.” So, let us go step by step, learn about the history of the grapes and the geography of the winery, and then we can appreciate our new, golden wine.

California is our source this week. (Nice, because I was just there last week, actually, close to our wine’s source.)  A fun new tidbit of information? If California was a country, all by itself without the rest of us, it would be the fourth largest wine-producing country in the world. As a state, they produce 90 percent of our country’s wine. There are more than 1,200 wineries in California, including the largest of all in the world — E&J Gallo Winery.

California was the first state to introduce “vitis vinifera” grapes. In the 18th century, the Spanish came north from Mexico and established missions and planted grapes at each mission. Their wines were used for religious sacraments and for daily drinking. The main grape they used came from Mexico, a descendent of the “common black grape,” that had been brought to the New World by Cortés in 1520. This grape was known as the Mission grape, because of all its plantings at all their missions, and was the dominant grape in California vineyards until the 20th century.  The first commercial winery in Napa County was opened in 1859.

Today, over 100 grape varieties are grown in California — French, Italian, Spanish varieties, hybrids, and new “vitis vinifera” grapes developed by the University of California at Davis. The seven leading varieties, in order of most grown to less grown, are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Zinfandel. Until the late 1980’s, the Bordeaux red varieties (mostly Cabernet and Merlot) and Chardonnay dominated in the vineyards. But consumers’ boredom and winemakers with urges to expand their horizons brought all kinds of new grapes and new blends. And, I think, we have tried our best to explore many of them.

Today, we are going to continue our explorations with Pinot Grigio from Santa Barbara, which is one of the most beautiful winemaking regions in California. Santa Barbara is located about 90 miles north of Los Angeles and has wine areas that range from valleys cooled by ocean breezes to stark  mountains. There are unique microclimates (some areas have very warm days and cool nights, others have more moderate temperatures with mild differences between day and night temperatures) and a variety of terrains (soil types vary from ancient beach sands and diatomaceous earth to chirt and limestone based) all of which mean it’s possible to make great wines from a multitude of different varieties. The whole area is still learning which grapes grow best where.

Pinot Grigio, or Pinot Gris as our grape for this week is called in some other growing regions, is one of the most popular white varieties in the world today. It is a member of the “Pinot” family of grapes, so named because their bunches are sort of pine cone shaped and the name “pinot” comes from the French word for “pine cone.”

Pinot Grigio is probably a mutant of the Pinot Noir grape. It has been around since the Middle Ages when it was in Burgundy. Supposedly, it was a favorite of Emperor Charles IV who had cuttings of it brought to Hungary by Cistercian monks. There it was called “Szürkebarát” or “grey monk,” referring to its skin’s color. In 1711, a German merchant, Johann Ruland, discovered a grape growing wild in fields in Palatinate. His wines were called “Ruländer” though his vines were later discovered to be Pinot Gris. Until the 18th and 19th centuries, this variety was popular in Burgundy and Champagne. But, it did not really grow well  there and became less popular. The 20th century, and science, led to research, more clonal development and grapes that produced more consistent and reliable harvests. It was researchers at the University of California at Davis who learned the genetic makeup of Pinot Gris was related to Pinot Noir. Since about 2005, Pinot Gris/Grigio has experienced a huge rise in popularity.

Wines made from this grape have a range of styles, depending on where they are grown and winemaking techniques. From Alsace, France, its wines are medium to full bodied with some floral bouquet and hints of spiciness. German Pinot Gris are more full-bodied with acidity and a touch of sweetness. From Oregon, the white wines are medium-bodied with apple, pear or melon notes. Italian Pinot Grigios are lighter bodied with some hints of spritziness. California Pinot Grigios, finally, are light bodied lean wines with mineral, pepper and green leaf and herb notes. Often, as is the style in California, these wines can be given some oak treatment, either fermenting or aging. There are about 2,000 acres of Pinot Grigios planted in California today.

For our Pinot Grigio, from Santa Barbara, we are going to Terra d’Oro, which means “Land of Gold” in Italian. Terra d’Oro winery is based in Amador County in the Santa Barbara region. It was in this area that during the Gold Rush pioneers found riches in the soil, soil that still gives riches, except this time in the form of wine.

The first Terra d’Oro wines were released in 1973, under the Montevina label. They were the first Amador County winery to produce wine since before Prohibition. They now have 400 acres of estate vineyards from which their get their grapes.

At Terra d’Oro, the winemaking staff feels that this area is really well suited to Pinot Grigio. A combination of well-drained valley vineyards and hillside trellised vineyards that stress the vines bring intense varietal flavors to the grapes. Like other Pinot family grapes, Pinot Grigio needs a long growing season, made possible by the cooling ocean breezes, to ripen properly, to develop its flavors and to maintain a balance between its acidity and fruitiness.

The grapes for our wine are hand-picked, early in the morning to ensure cooler temperatures for their ride to winery. As soon as they get to the winery, the grapes are sent to the presses. They are very gently pressed to avoid any excessive acidities and tartness coming from the skins, and the juice then goes into stainless steel fermenters. Fermentation is done at very low temperatures to maximize the wine’s clean, bright fruit flavors.

The 2012 vintage in Santa Barbara was a long, sunny growing season. There were normal rainfalls during the winter, minimal frost and mild winds during bloom time. Warm temperatures started in the middle of July and lasted until early October. There was a large harvest with very intense flavors in the grapes.

Our 2012 Terra d’Oro Pinot Grigio has a nose of bright pears and clover flowers with full, juicy pear and stone fruit flavors, including peaches and nectarines. The finish is slightly vanilla oaky with more juicy fruits.

This terrific wine is even more terrific for $9.97. Golden! Enjoy.

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