Quick: Name the black grape varietals allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah probably made your list — but what about Conoise?
If you didn’t include it, don’t worry too much. Only about 0.5 percent of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s surface is planted with this grape. And just a miniscule amount of this grape is being planted in the United States.
Since 1990, when Tablas Creek Vineyard imported cuttings from Château de Beaucastel, a handful of American wineries have been planting Conoise. As Megan Blankenship recently wrote for Palate Press, “You may be surprised to learn that West Coast wine regions are excellent sources for bottlings of 100-percent Counoise — in fact, you may be surprised that such varietal bottlings exist. These enterprising ventures, often side projects of major growers and producers, are an attempt to elevate a little-known variety from an obscure existence as a blending grape.”
I learned of Conoise thanks to Cana’s Feast, a winery based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. (The winery sent four bottles of wine as press samples.) Cana’s Feast sources grapes from throughout the Pacific Northwest, and its Conoise comes from Coyote Canyon, a vineyard in Washington’s Columbia Valley.
Conoise isn’t the only unusual varietal they’re producing. They’re making wines from several Italian varietals, as well, including Barbera, Sangiovese, Nebiolo, Primitivo, all of which are also sourced from Washington State.
What’s interesting about Cana’s Feast is their choice of grapes. The winery is headquartered in Carlton, which is right in the heart of the Willamette Valley. So no one would bat an eye if the winery only put out Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris sourced from local vineyards. But instead, they’re purchasing grapes from throughout the Pacific Northwest, taking risks, and making some fun wines.
For winemakers – but especially for vineyard owners — producing wine like this has got to be tough. In Napa, for example, one has to wonder if anyone will grow Zinfandel or Grenache (or Charbono or Carignan) in 20 years. With the price of Cabernet Sauvignon rising higher and higher every year, vineyard owners will undoubtedly feel economic pressure to rip up their vines and blanket the Valley in Cab Sauv.
Risks, though, are a critical part of American winemaking. In Virginia, for example, lots of people are getting excited about the potential for Petit Manseng. (I’m one of these people. I recently had some late-harvest Petit Manseng from Linden Vineyards, and it was phenomenal.)
Another example is what Dan Petroski – the assistant winemaker at Larkmead – is doing with his recently launched label, Massican. Rather than making the big red wines Napa Valley is known for, he’s focusing on Italian-inspired whites. One of his wines, for instance, is a blend of Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, and Chardonnay.
Readers: What’s your favorite unusual varietal that’s being bottled somewhere in the United States? If you’ve got a bottle in your cellar, post a photo alongside your comment!