Greek grapes take root in California

Grape varieties from Portugal, Germany, Italy, France and Spain flourish in California.
From Greece, not so much. Until now.
Up at Vina in Tehama County, the Trappist monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux are shepherding to the American market what almost surely are the first commercial wines to be made in the United States with Greek grape varieties.


Beyond the abbey itself, the principal point of sale for the wines is the Sacramento market Corti Brothers, which is fitting, given that grocer Darrell Corti was the instigator for the abbey’s cultivation of Greek grape varieties, a project that began nearly a decade ago.

But why Greek grapes, when California already is blanketed with dozens of other varieties?

“Why not?” asks Corti. “They are from warm areas,” he says of the Greek varieties, “and Vina is a warm area. In California, just as with olive varieties, we need to find those (grapes) that are compatible with the climate and weather. Rather than make another continental-climate wine, why not a Mediterranean one?”

Monks began to cultivate wine grapes at the monastery in 2000 and over the past 17 years have developed a following for such varietal wines as tempranillo, albarino and syrah.

In 2011 they planted a quarter-acre each of the Greek varieties assyrtiko and moschofilero, working with cuttings from a UC Davis vineyard. The late UC Davis grape breeder Dr. Harold Olmo had gathered and imported the original cuttings in 1948, but no one apparently had taken much interest in the vines until Corti and New Clairvaux winemaker Aimee Sunseri agreed to give them a try.

Sunseri, a fifth-generation California winemaker, first experimented with the Greek grapes from the 2015 harvest. She liked what she’d made, so increased output with the 2016 vintage, though production still is small – about 40 cases of the assyrtiko and 30 of the moschofilero. She is so hopeful that the varietals will find a place on the American table that she and the monks are to plant an additional acre of each this year.

Assyrtiko – pronounced ah-seer-tee-ko – is a green grape most closely identified with crisp, minerally and high-acid white wines of the Aegean island of Santorini. The New Clairvaux Vineyard 2016 Tehama County Vina St. James Block Assyrtiko ($20) faithfully reflects that reputation. It is dry, lean and high-pitched, with a fleeting complexity that ranges from suggestions of peaches to olives against a citric backdrop.

Moschofilero – pronounced moo-scho-fee-leh-roh – is a grey-hued grape that yields golden, perfumey, muscat-like wines of the Mantinia region on the Peloponnese peninsula. The New Clairvaux Vineyard 2016 Tehama County Vina St. James Block Moschofilero ($20) is a fairly husky dry white wine, forward in aroma, substantial in build and limned with suggestions of honeydew melon, peaches and spice. Both carry relatively low alcohol - 11.7 percent.

In a gutsy move last year, Sunseri and Corti took a few bottles of the two varietals to share with Greek vintners at a tasting of Santorini wines in San Francisco. They were unsure of the reception they would receive, and were gratified at the warm response given the wines. Several Greek winemakers, recalled Sunseri, praised the New Clairvaux wines as equal in character and quality to assyrtiko and moschofilero made in Greece.

In addition, an American retailer at the tasting told her: “You crash a party well.”

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