"The number of California wineries working with Spanish varietals is small, but if this impressive trio (Bokisch Albarino, Graciano & Tempranillo) is an example of what's possible, I think we'll see an explosion of Spanish varietals." - Robert Parker
Such high praise from Robert Parker is difficult to come by, but for pioneering Bokisch Vineyards it is confirmation of their special relationship with Spanish varietals and California soils.
Co-founder Mark Bokisch's mother was born in Spain, making him half Spanish by blood (and half German on his father's side), and he spent summers there as a child. He studied plants in college and then worked at the prestigious Cabernet producer, Joseph Phelps, in Napa where he focused on Rhone wines.
Mark and his wife Liz Bokisch lived in Catalonia in the mid 90s, while Mark worked in the Spanish wine industry, before coming back to the U.S. where he was raised and starting a winery together, planting their first vines in 1999.
Today the Bokischs have surrounded themselves with Spanish varietals - bringing Albarino and other cuttings with them from Catalonia - and make both red and white Iberian wines.
Uniquely, some of their wines are (certified) organically grown from their own vineyards, increasing my knowledge of Spanish, organic producers from two (Verdad, which has many, and Bonny Doon which has an Albarino) to now three.
Spanish wine grape growers in the U.S. tend to wax enthusiastically about the climate-appropriateness of Iberian varietals - and no wonder. Looking back it's surprising that the early padres in the missions brought with them the Mission grape and not Tempranillo, Albarino and other wines that might have fared much better in California soils.
IBERIAN VARIETALS - INCLUDING GRACIANO
The Bokisch Vineyards' organically grown wines include albarinos, garnachas, and the rarely grown Graciano (usually a blending grape added to Tempranillos in Spain) which they were the first to bottle on its own.
"We loved it when we tasted it on its own. It does very well as a standalone," says Liz Bokisch. "It's more difficult to grow than other grapes, requiring more passes in the vineyard, so in fact some Spanish producers are ripping it out - but winemakers are protesting - because they love it."
In Spain, Bokisch said, Graciano is referred to as a "spice box wine," which producers add to Tempranillo for its aromatics and dark color. Here the Bokischs have found they love it on its own, pioneering a new, only-in-America wine.
The Bokischs have two certified organic vineyards, from which they make a total of five Spanish varietal wines.
Their original Las Cerezas vineyard, in the Mokelumne River AVA (a subappellation of the Lodi AVA), was the site where they initially did test plantings of Albarino, Garnacha and Graciano - tests that were successful.
That led them to acquire the much larger vineyard in the foothills, in the Clements Hill AVA (also a subappellation of the Lodi AVA) which has more volcanic/clay loam soils. It's also higher in elevation, inspiring them to name it Terra Alta ("higher ground" in Spanish). There they grow 30 acres of grapes, some of which they sell to others.
Of the five wines the Bokischs make from their organic vineyards, three contain only organic grapes - the Las Cerezas Albarino and the Graciano (which comes in two types).
Like many organic vintners, the Bokischs don't bottle label their 100% organically grown wines.
They also make two more wines - their Terra Alta Albarino and their Garnacha - that are 90-95% organically grown grapes.
Bokisch has two Albarinos - one from each vineyard. "We call the Las Cerezas 'the mother block' because those were our first cuttings - from Spain," says Liz Bokisch. "It's very interesting to see what the same clone does in two different vineyards. Since we make the wines the exact same way (fermented in stainless steel), it's interesting how distinctly different they are.
"The Mokelumne River vineyard ("Las Cerezas") has more tropical notes, with tangerine and melon components. The Clement Hills vineyard ("Terra Alta") is to the east, towards the foothills, and there we get more bright apple and pear notes, and more minerality."
Both albarinos retail for $18 a bottle.
• Albarino - Las Cerezas Vineyard
Because this vineyard is so small, quantities are limited, and it is sold only on their web site. The vines were planted in 1999, so these are older vines than their Terra Alta. This is their 100% organically sourced albarino.
• Albarino - Terra Alta Vineyard
The Terra Alta Albarino has 5% of verdelho blended in from a non-organic vineyard, but is still 95% from certified organically grown grapes.
Bokisch offers the aforementioned, rarely grown Graciano, traditionally a blending grape, as a standalone varietal. It's made of fruit from both of their organic vineyards.
• Graciano ($21)
When the English wine magazine Decanter came to town, they named the 2008 Graciano one of Lodi's top 10, rating it a 17 (on their scale, which goes from 1-20 with a 20 as the highest rating).
• Graciano Single Barrel ($23)
This is the "reserve" Graciano. No filtering or fining for this wine - it goes straight from barrel to bottle.
Other red wines include a Garnacha from their Terra Alto vineyard - a blend of 90% Garnacha (certified organic) blended with 10% of non-organically grown Monastrell (more commonly known by its French name, Mourvedre). And Tempranillos (not organically grown).
While the winery is located in Victor, the Bokischs' tasting room is at the Cellar Door in Lodi. The tasting room serves food and also hosts live music and other events. Call ahead to check on the availability of wines you're interested to make sure they are available in the tasting room.
BAY AREA TASTING
The enthusiastic California-based Iberian wine group TAPAS (think ZAP but for Tempranillo) will be hosting a public tasting Sunday, June 23 in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale now.
[TAPAS stands for Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society.]
You can get more info on an ongoing basis from Bokisch by signing up for their emails, or following them on Facebook.