I came across some interesting wines from San Benito County yesterday at Kenneth Volk's tasting room in Santa Maria. His Negrette from Caleri Vineyard in San Benito County is fairly well known in the wine nerd world--apparently the variety is only grown in San Benito County in CA (maybe a few other places?) and near Toulouse in France. I've had this before, but yesterday came across some even more fascinating esoterica.
There's an 85 year old vine Mourvedre from Enz Vineyard in Lime Kiln Valley (pictured left), a sub-AVA in San Benito. I didn't take careful notes--I was too excited by all of these interesting wines--but it definitely had the concentration, spice and funk of a good Mourvedre. Mourvedre isn't that rare, but vines this old are! Volk also has Cabernet Pfeffer from Siletto Ranch in San Benito County, which to me had a very peppery if not tobacco-y aromas. Supposedly this is actually the varietal Gros Verdot, though an alternate explanation claims it's a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and another grape variety by a guy named Pfeffer. I have no idea on the age of the vines though. Made me think of a Chinon perhaps or Blaufrankisch.
Another interesting one is his Touriga Nacional from a vineyard in the Templeton Gap in Paso Robles, Pomar Junction. Definitely young vines. This is by far the most floral and spice laden red wine I've encountered next to Lacrima di Morro d'Alba. Touriga I suppose isn't that rare, but finding it is a varietal wine isn't something you see every day.
As a side note on Kenneth Volk, the guy is clearly driven to explore these rare grapes. I don't think every wine he makes works. His is Viognier was bordering on raisined flavors, for example, though that will have appeal to others and it's probably too hard to get all these disparate vineyards exactly as he'd like. But the majority really express unique character. Too often CA vintners simply take an unfamiliar varietal and turn it into another ripe, oaky wine with a different name. It's also pretty compelling that many of these "heirloom" varietals are not produced in any quantity anywhere in the world. Often times wineries use an important grape less known to CA consumers and make an overpriced, inferior young vine version compared to the old vine, old world equivalent. Volk is finding vines and grapes so unique that there aren't any equivalents anywhere. I don't even think Bandol has 85 year old Mourvedre vines as it was largely replanted in the mid-20th century after Phylloxera wiped out most of it.
OK, so this is turning out to be more about Volk than San Benito County. But it seems he's a big advocate for this region. I'd like to dig deeper on this area as it appears to be a very old region that's recently been rehabilitated, much like Languedoc. Surely there are some areas best for bulk wine, but given some of the old vines, the limestone soils in some areas, and the adjacent mountain range, there must be terroirs with stunning raw materials. And not just that, but unique and essentially indigenous grapes. The location at the top of a valley even sounds promising as it should be warmer than Monterrey, but still get cooling influence from the Pacific.