Drive through wine country and you're struck by how timeless it seems, how pastoral and immutable. Given the technodrama of modern life, it's a comforting feeling.
It's also a grand illusion. The American wine industry today is a hotbed of innovation. Not only are new wine regions emerging across the West, but a brave new world of grape varieties has begun to emerge as well.
Not so long ago, the varieties that caused the most excitement were Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Today, once-obscure grapes such as Viognier and Syrah are being crushed. And on their heels, still-obscure varieties like Arneis and Albariño are beginning to be planted.
What's causing this minirevolution?
First, a new global perspective. In the pivotal 1960s and '70s, when the American fine-wine industry was establishing itself, winemakers looked for inspiration to France's two premier wine regions: Burgundy (known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) and Bordeaux (known for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot). Today, however, there is increasing enthusiasm about dozens of grapes grown in other parts of France, and in Spain and Italy.
Second, many winemakers in California ― where about 90 percent of American wine is made ― have realized that much of the state shares more commonalities of climate and soil with the Mediterranean than it does with Bordeaux and Burgundy.
"The world," explains Randall Grahm, president of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, California, "can be divided into two: that which is Continental and that which is Mediterranean. Continental is butter, Cary Grant, Protestant work ethic, Cabernet. Mediterranean is olive oil, Anthony Quinn, mañana, Grenache."
Here's a list of great varieties beginning to be produced in the West.
Albariño. Snappy, fresh, and lemony, this is the most exciting white wine in all of Spain. The grape is just beginning to be planted in California.
Arneis. This sassy, fresh, and light-bodied little rascal ( arneis in Italian) from Piedmont, Italy, makes a delicious summertime wine. A few makers now produce it in Oregon and California.
Marsanne. This is the main white grape of the Rhône region of France, where it's blended with Roussanne into blockbuster, honeyed-almond whites. California Marsannes are usually softer.
Pinot Gris. This creamy, lemony French grape is better known in Italy as Pinot Grigio. Dozens of producers in Oregon and California now make it.
Roussanne. This is the more elegant "sister" of Marsanne. A few gorgeous Roussannes with delicious melon, peach, and rosewater flavors are now being made in California.
Tocai. Only a few vintners in California are producing Tocai Friulano (its full name), but with terrific results. Native to northern Italy, Tocai is refreshing, with hints of mint and more body than Pinot Grigio.
Viognier. Rich and oozing with passion fruit and honeysuckle, Viognier can be enormously sensual; alas, it's also expensive. A common Rhône variety, Viognier is being planted in Washington and all over California.
Grenache. Several of the best rosés in California are made from this variety (see July Wine Guide, page 146).
Mourvçdre. Popular in southern France, this grape makes black, smoky, juicy wine. In California, Mourvdre is often included in top Rhône blends.
Petite Syrah. Massive and masculine, Petite Syrah is undergoing a renaissance in California.
Sangiovese. The grape in Tuscany's Chianti, it has been a challenge in California, but many good Sangioveses ― sleek and medium-bodied--are emerging.
Syrah. No longer exactly up-and-coming, Syrah has arrived, with dozens of producers in California and a few in Washington: deeply berried, meaty, and earthy ― powerfully delicious.
SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: Rosemount Grenache Shiraz 1998 (Southeastern Australia), $8. Easygoing red packed with spiced berry flavors.
Great wines based on emerging varieties.
Arneis: Il Podere dell'Olivos 1997 (Central Coast), $16
Marsanne: McDowell Valley 1997 (Mendocino), $16
Pinot Gris: WillaKenzie 1997 (Willamette Valley, OR), $15
Roussanne: Zaca Mesa 1997 (Santa Barbara County), $16.50
Tocai Friulano: Monte Volpe 1997 (Mendocino), $12
Viognier: Alban "Estate" 1997 (Edna Valley, CA), $28
Mourvçdre: Jade Mountain 1997 (California), $20
Petite Syrah: Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1996 (Napa Valley), $30
Sangiovese: Turnbull 1996 (Napa Valley), $20
Syrah: Edmunds St. John "Durell Vineyard" 1996 (Sonoma Valley), $25