Gr?ner Veltliner In California? Kathy Joseph Takes It On

Ever since wine has been made in California, producers have planted French varietals, primarily Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Other French varietals such as Pinot Noir and Syrah have been important in California viticulture as well; clearly these are the most important wines in the Golden State.

Along the way, varietals from other countries, such as Riesling from Germany and Sangiovese and Barbera from Italy have been planted, typically by immigrants from those countries. Over the past few decades, given the never-say-die American spirit, other varietals, especially from Italy, have been planted in various areas in California; these include Arneis, Fiano and Nebbiolo.

Recently, Austria’s signature varietal, Gr?ner Veltliner, has become part of the viticultural scene in California. Credit here goes to Kathy Joseph, winemaker at Fiddlehead Cellars, located in Santa Barbara County. Known for her distinctive examples of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, Joseph, moved from suburban Chicago to established her winery in 1989, and has always sought to craft wines that offer great personality; I knew her from her time in Evanston and have always found her to be independent; you don’t get standard wines when she’s involved.

But why did she choose Gr?ner Veltliner? How did that project come about? “As you well know, Fiddlehead was dedicated to making place driven wines when I started in 1989, I limited my production to Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc to focus for a better result,” Joseph comments. “I believed these varietals had alluring character, balance, and substance. But what made me a better winemaker was my history of making other wines and exploring new varietals. Our well-earned harvest lunches included not only camaraderie and great home-cooked food, but also great wines. This time of relaxation and conversation allowed my team to explore everything in the wine world (essentially to give purpose to our mission).”

Joseph goes on to note that she crossed paths with an import broker from Berkeley named Bill Maher, who represented German and Austrian producers. “In my quest to expand my varietal knowledge, I somehow decided to focus on Gr?ner (probably because it tasted so good!). So many of the wines I shared at our years of lunches, included cases and cases of Gr?ner Veltliner (and some Riesling, as well) at our harvest table. In the end, I was completely intrigued with the range of styles Gr?ner lent itself too. And it was not a very big leap for me to see that as an overlap with Sauvignon Blanc. So while I loved many wines, I was especially taken by the food friendly Gr?ners that stylistically added modest body to the crisp backbone of the wines. I so appreciated the depth of character of Gr?ner in its delicate way, and its versatility in how you could make it.”

Fiddlehead Cellar Gr?ner Veltliner

Photo (C)Tom Hyland

Joseph recalls the work along the way with Gr?ner. “This was a really fun journey for me to explore, as there was really no information on how Gr?ner would behave in our cool climate. I just happened to believe it would work. So what surprised me was that my Gr?ner generally ripened around the same time as the pinot (which of course spanned over a 4-6 week period). Both “Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara” and “Los Olivos District” AVA’s, where my Sauvignon Blanc is grown, are a very different climates from the Sta. Rita Hills. The days are significantly warmer, and of course this is plenty of variation on ripening rates and harvest dates depending on vineyard orientation and farming choices.

“But in general, my Sauvignon Blanc ripened around the same time as by pinot- but again, from a significantly warmer district. So typical harvest dates are the first few weeks of September, but as early as mid to late August. Acidity stayed bright in our cool climate, but not racy, like early harvest Rieslings, for example. In my Gr?ner, I love its unique, yet delicate aromas that I would describe as a m?lange of fresh ginger, lemon grass, honeydew melon, cucumber, green tea and mint, dotted with that hidden white pepper spice.”

Joseph produces three versions of Gr?ner Veltliner: Estate, Reserve (named Bebble) and a Late Harvest, she affectionately has named “Sweetie.” What are the differences? “The Estate is 80% fermented in neutral French Oak barrels, with about 20% stainless fermented wine added to the blend,” she remarks. “The “Bebble” is a barrel select Reserve. More specifically, as barrels were blind tasted throughout vintage, those that stood out for a certain “specialness” were selected for their on-point textural balance and belief that would age more elegantly. Sweetie is picked later, and is all stainless fermented.”

Regarding the Bebble Reserve, Joseph says that the wine “suggests a tasting pleasure that is more perfect, with better balance and more refined substance, and which exudes deliciousness. All of my wines have the opportunity to be reserve, but the specific vintage details partner with the picking details and the aging details to cull out a few barrels that are the best, which changes every vintage.

“In a sense that is the art of my winemaking- to create opportunity where I can taste the best and bottle these wines separately (and which also often lends itself to greater ageability). I do not look for one thing, but rather assess “the package”. It’s an exciting find for me … and well worth the few extra bucks! My approach to making reserve wines certainly gives the consumer more bang for their buck. It takes “the recipe” out of reserve selections and puts “the art” back in!”

I asked Joseph why consumers should drink her examples of Gr?ner Veltiner (and Gr?ner Veltiner in general). She listed five reasons: “Because it’s delicious, it’s very food friendly, it’s an exciting new discovery, it expands the education of your palate, and it’s a great value.” (The Estate is priced at $32 at the winery, while the Bebble is $42.)

What would she pair these wines with? “My Gr?ner seems to love garlic. So I love to pair it with garlicy sauteed shrimp or scallops mounted onto a plate of tender, buttery fettuccini, topped with some fresh thyme. But it also holds its own when paired with rich curries. And lastly, Fiddlehead Gr?ner is really great with a nice charred poultry, fresh off the BBQ, on top of some fragrant rice and a side of (garlicky) wilted greens. YUM!”

Fiddlehead Cellars Gr?ner Veltliner 2017 (Sta. Rita Hills) – Brilliant medium-intense yellow with delicate golden tints. Aromas of dried apricot, smoked seafood, white pepper and hints of basil and bay leaf. Medium-full, there is excellent ripeness and the wine after almost six years still displays impressive freshness, thanks in great part to its naturally high acidity. The fruit-forward finish offers notable complexity and very good length. Enjoy this over the next 3-5 years, I would love this with pork roast, smoked salmon or quiche Lorraine. (91)

Fiddlehead Cellars Gr?ner Veltliner Reserve “Bebble” 2015 (Sta. Rita Hills) – Medium intense yellow; aromas of dried pear, sage, dried yellow flowers and a hint of cr?me caramel. Medium-full with a rich mid-palate; there is good acidity and impressive persistence. This is mature and should be enjoyed over the next 2-3 years, while it still maintains some freshness. Pair this with lighter game or seafood with a cream sauce. (90)