Spotlight on Unusual California White Wine: Wind Gap Trousseau Gris 2013

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photoIf you thought you were free of California, think again. I realized when profiling the various Chardonnays of the so-called “new” California, that many exciting developments were occurring with unusual, lesser known white varieties and with white blends. While great California Chardonnay arose really from a handful of top, classic producers who inspired a new generation of wine-makers, the increasing appearance of unusual white wines is primarily the bastion of young winemakers working without estates.

I also realized after discussions with wine colleagues in BC that California white wine in particular has a difficult, if not downright poor reputation in this province, and I can only assume elsewhere outside of the US. Much of the reason does have to do with the bombastic Chardonnays that dominated the state for so long, but lack of exposure is also a significant factor. With this companion piece to my “New” California Chardonnay spotlight, I hope to put a spotlight on some of the great things going on with contemporary California white wine.

The Estateless Winery: Pursuing the Inner Wine-Geek

It is apropos to begin this spotlight with Wind Gap. Its owner, Pax Mahler was one of the key inspirations for my exploration of the “New California”, after I spent some time with him back in 2012 at the old Wind Gap facilities.

Pax and Wind Gap are the perfect example of the ‘estateless’ winery that has become one of the hallmarks of the reinvention of California wine. The reason is the very high cost of vineyards in California and the comparatively minimal potential for expansion into new areas. Newcomers simply cannot afford wineries unless they partner with very deep pocketed investors. The solution has been to seek out fruit and farming contracts with growers who did not attract the attention of big bucks cult wine-makers or those seeking the traditional Cabernet and Chardonnay. This approach has allowed a new batch of young, ambitious winemakers who desire to produce affordable but fascinating table wines to pursue their inner wine geek and still have a viable business. It tends to produce wines from obscure varieties, often from fairly old vineyards in out of the way places. The wines also tend to be quite affordable, and well below the price point of California Chardonnay.

The cream of this new bunch of young-ish estateless wine makers such as Pax don’t just buy fruit but have agreements that allow them to farm the land themselves. In some cases this has greatly improved fruit quality while keeping costs reasonable. It has also allowed investment in various wine making equipment, particularly alternative fermentation vessels such as concrete eggs and state-of-the-art amphora.

The Spirit of Experimentation

The appetite for the unusual and expressive has also led these new young producers to experiment with farming and cellar techniques that the typical California wine maker has until now for the most part eschewed.

In the case of this Trousseau Gris, that unusual technique is skin fermentation of white wines. Pax has been experimenting with this technique and a couple of his wines use it to varying degrees (the Wind Gap Pinot Gris is a full-on orange wine). The Trousseau Gris sees a shorter maceration, which certainly provides tannic structure and some interesting aromatics, but avoids the complete domination of the wine by skin characteristics.

Importantly, with the new breed of young winemakers in California, each wine is not an end-point but a snapshot of a particular approach and a particular time. Experimentation is the modus operandi, usually blended with a healthy grasp of pleasure-creation. Some wineries lean more to the former than the latter, but I find the Wind Gap wines at a happy mid-way point. Thus, the 2013 Trousseau Gris is both not the end point for Pax’s experimentation with skin contact and also a proper, highly enjoyable and intriguing wine in its own right. Expect new perspectives in new vintages. This is precisely why California’s renaissance in white wine making has started to take off.

The Wine

This Trousseau Gris is from the Fannuchi-Wood Road vineyard in Russian River, with whom Pax has a contract. The vines are a respectable 32 years old. The wine is 100% whole cluster pressed, natural-yeast fermented in concrete eggs and aged in stainless steel and neutral oak.

This is a structured but fresh wine, with a lot of fruit but also delineation and focus. The aromatics are apple, lemon and cinnamon. The palate leans more towards an apple/cinnamon melange with a very subtle citrus pith character from the skin contact and a streak of minerality. It is mouthwatering wine and a serious but pleasurable skin contact white.

Very Good+
$24 at the winery

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