by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
It was with great interest that I read the article on Palate Press “Complexities of Counoise: A Rhône Region Standout”, which can be found at http://palatepress.com/2011/01/wine/complexities-of-counoise-a-rhone-region-standout/
I’ve believed that, in general, the best grapes are those that ripen under a moderate climate. I say “in general” because, like everything when it comes to growing grapes and making wine, there always seems to be the exception that proves the rule (in this case Petite Sirah, which ripens under hot conditions but manages to produce wonderful grapes).
But let’s get back to the idea that most grapes do their best when ripened under moderate heat. Applied to California, this idea would lead you to the conclusion that California should grow more grapes which hail from hotter climates, the Mediterranean in particular. After all, wouldn’t it make sense that grapes that were developed over the centuries in a place such as Sicily, whose climate is much closer to California’s inland valleys, would have greater success than one developed in a much cooler environment, such as Bordeaux or Burgundy?
I’ve tried small plantings of various grapes from these more southerly regions, and have had some wonderful successes. I count Montepulciano and Aglianico (both Italian) as grapes that do very well in my Suisun Valley, whose climate (at least in my part of the valley) trends towards the very warm to outright hot.
If there’s a grape that seemed like it would excel in Suisun Valley, it was Counoise. This Rhone grape has the particularly attractive attribute that it’s a real late ripener. Late ripening translates into ripening under more moderate heat conditions, since the later in the year the cooler the climate.
I first came across Counoise as a student at Napa Valley College, whose vineyard was planted, among many other varieties, with a small amount of Counoise. The College’s experience with Counoise was not, alas, a happy one. Year after year it would fail to fully ripen, reaching Brix levels usually in the high teens, marginal at best for making a decent wine. Even with its relatively unripened output, the resulting wine wasn’t that bad. In the end, however, the Counoise was pulled out, and some other more appropriate varietal planted in its place.
But I figured my location in Suisun Valley was quite a bit hotter than Napa Valley College’s site, which was in a cooler portion of Napa Valley, a valley that, on the whole, is cooler than Suisun Valley to begin with. Suisun Valley seemed like a natural for this variety.
So I planted 15-20 Counoise vines to see what would happen.
“Alas” all over again. Even with the greater heat, the Brix levels never achieved anything much above 20 degrees, if that. What is worse, the variety’s main attraction for me, it’s late ripening, meant that it usually got hit with some early autumn rains prior its being ready to pick. Some varieties are very resistant to the rot that can result from getting hit with rains. Not Counoise. It developed all kinds of rot.
By careful picking, I was able to pick enough of the grapes that had avoided the rot to do a test batch of wine. (In fact, this wasn’t hard to do, as the vine produces a fairly copious yield.) At first, I was pleased with the wine these grapes produced. To be sure, it was light in color, but it definitely had a fruit-forwardness to it that was quit appealing.
Over time, however, the lightness became even lighter. I finally bottled the lot a few months ago, and have served it on several occasions. One person thought it was a rosé, and I couldn’t blame him, it’s that light. The pleasant fruit-forwardness of its flavor was still evident, and in fact I enjoy drinking this wine.
But a commercially viable grape? I don’t think so. The rot issue is really something that’s it’s hard to get past. And the resulting wine, while pleasant, is nothing to write home about. In the Rhone, it’s used primarily as a blender, never comprising a substantial part of the blend at that. I’m not sure what this light, wistful, wine (at least the one I made) would bring to a blend dominated by the more aggressive Rhone varietals (in particular Syrah). I can only think they get a wine with a little more stuffing than I was able to achieve. The three wines highlighted in the Palate Press article also seemed to achieve a much richer texture than did I. So maybe they know something I don’t know, or maybe the grape just isn’t that suited to my location.
Maybe in the even hotter Central Valley, this grape could do better. I would certainly advise anyone wanting to try it out to drop a decent amount of fruit midseason to allow what remains a better chance to achieving reasonable sugar levels.
At any rate, we take a fairly conservative approach to trying out new varietals, and I’m glad we do, as I’d hate to be saddled with a bunch of Counoise, trying to figure out how to make it work, or else just giving up and taking the loss. At the same time, I’m not sorry that we tried it out. It’s not by doing the same thing everyone else is doing that you can achieve something new and exciting. But Counoise, for me, stands as a testament to the fact that when you try new and different things, you have to be ready to accept that most of them are going to be failures.