Ribolla Gialla: An Unusual Grape Found in an Unexpected Place

During a short, purely escapist trip to California’s central coast, Diane and I enjoyed an excellent seafood dinner at Passionfish, in Pacific Grove, just outside of Monterey. Fine as the food was, the wine list was even better, a real departure from the almost standardized California list of Chardonnay-Merlot-Cabernet-Pinot noir. Passionfish has those wines, of course, but it focuses on the 7% of California wines that aren’t made from those grapes, and on wines that reflect a more European – i.e., food-friendly – style. It offers a very nice selection of French and Italian wines as well, and it prices all its wines at a reasonable 50-80% above cost, compared to the 200-300% (and sometimes more!) that has become the customary markup almost everywhere else. For all of which, I say Hooray!

Being there for only one meal, and having to drive some unfamiliar roads in an unfamiliar rental car after dinner, we weren’t able to do any in-depth sampling of the list. But one section really caught my eye: “Orange Wine,” it was headed, and it didn’t mean wines made from oranges.

orange wine list

ribolla-406-1-1That’s where I spotted Ryme Cellars’ version of Ribolla Gialla, a grape I know well from Friuli. There it makes a very pleasant, light-to-medium-bodied white wine that works nicely with most relatively simple foods. In Friuli it’s usually made in a bright, acid style, but the description in Passionfish’s wine list showed clearly that this California version was vinified very differently for a markedly different effect, for a roundness and fullness that promised to match well with Diane’s king salmon and my sturgeon. It did indeed, and that prompted some basic research.

Ryme Cellars sourced the grapes for the 2010 Ribolla Gialla that we drank from the Vare Vineyard in Napa. As Ryme’s website explains,

We traveled a long way to find this vineyard. Our fascination with Ribolla Gialla took us to Friuli-Venezia Giulia in north-eastern Italy. Visiting one of our favorite producers, Sasha Radikon told us that there was one guy in the US with Ribolla planted. George Vare has about 2.5 acres planted at the base of Mount Veeder in the Oak Knoll district of Napa Valley. We contacted George and were lucky enough to score a single ton from his now coveted vineyard.

Clearly, this is no big commercial project but a labor of love. Ryme Cellars – from the names of the owner/winemakers, RYan and MEgan Glaab – specializes in off-beat-for-California grapes: at present, Ribolla Gialla, two versions of Vermentino, and Aglianico. Why?

Most of our wines are made from Italian varieties simply because of the great diversity and unique character of the wines of that culture. . . . We love wines with distinctive character. They should taste great on their own, but really shine alongside good food. We love wines with ample tannin and acidity, especially if they are expected to age. We always value a great wine’s idiosyncrasies over a polished supple sameness that is so common in the wine world.

More specifically, as Ryan Glaab told me by email, he had his eyes opened by bottles of Ribolla Gialla from Gravner and Radikon at a dinner party back in 2006. “It was the most challenging, surprising, and deeply pleasurable wine experience I have had,” Ryan says. “And these wines vastly overshadowed all the grand cru Burgundy and Côte Rôtie we had that night. I knew then that I wanted to seriously pursue skin-fermented white wines. My wife and I love many orange wines, and we also make a Vermentino, but I think Ribolla Gialla is the noblest of orange wines. I sometimes think of it as the Nebbiolo of white grapes. It demands patience. It has a quiet nature and a powerful structure. There are not many grapes like it. We only make about 50 cases each year. We are very lucky to have access to the small vineyard. In the near future I hope to plant more elsewhere.”

I very much respect passion and commitment like that, and I think happening upon it anywhere is a cause for celebration. Clearly, these are two people I would like to meet, and whose kind I would like to find more of in the wine world. I hope they have a huge success without having to compromise the kinds of things they’re doing now, because what they’re doing now is very simple and very special:

The wines are produced according to simple methods. The wines are always encouraged, never controlled. We use no cultured yeast, no temperature control, no enzymes or other adulterants. We do not fine or filter. The wines are raised in used French oak barriques between 2 and 10 years old. Many of the reds are fermented on the stems. Many of the whites are fermented on the skins.

The 2010 Ribolla was all destemmed and fermented inside 2 old oak puncheons. The cap was manipulated lightly a few times throughout the fermentation. The puncheons were then sealed and the wine saw a total of about one month maceration. It was then pressed and spent two years in barrel and 9 months in bottle.

???????????????????????????????The result of that was a light-orange-colored wine with a smooth, almost waxy mouth-feel, chalky/floral aromas and a range of floral and mineral flavors that recalled without replicating Friuli Ribolla – a sort of Ribolla Plus, if you will. It made a thoroughly enjoyable drink on its own and an even better one with our two very different fish dishes. Had we been walking home, we probably would have had a second bottle, and I can’t give a wine a higher compliment than that. This wasn’t the kind of wine I expected to find on the central coast – or anywhere in California, for that matter – but I’m very happy about the serendipitous encounter. I can only hope that California continues to produce more such individualist winemakers as Ryan and Megan to make more such intriguing wines.

3 Responses to “Ribolla Gialla: An Unusual Grape Found in an Unexpected Place”

  1. Joseph Calandrino Says:

    HI Tom:

    This is a most fortuitous follow-up piece to your observations on sauvignon blanc. These ‘orange’ wines, which to this point meant for me oeil de perdrix ,off-white/nearly rose style wines, seem to have more to do with Denis Dubourdieu’s maceration pelliculaire than color per se, though you do describe that aspect as well. One of the reasons for my affection for dry white Bordeaux is that this vinification method, where the white must is kept in contact with the skins longer to extract character and flavor, seems to work well for many white varietals. I wonder if the change (for the better, I think) in simple soave, gavi di gavi, etc., is the result of the implementation of this or similar techniques. Dubourdieu revolutionized white wine making in the 1980’s, and we are enjoying the fruits of his daring.

    Rest assured that I will be seeking the unusual among the unexpected.

    Best,
    Joe

  2. Charles Scicolone Says:

    Very interesting and informative article- I had no idea!!

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      That’s a good point, Joe, about Dubordieu’s influence on white wine making. I don’t know whether it is a matter of his direct influence or whether it results from the diffusion (and partial dilution) of his ideas, but I do know that many Soave makers are now giving their wines longer skin contact than they used to. But in that particular case, that could be the local example of Gini, which has for decades given its Soaves — nice, long-aging wines — longer skin contact than most producers in the region had done.

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