California Wine: The Italian Stallions of Palmina

Photo courtesy Palmina Wine

If you're a wine lover, you've most likely heard of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. These indigenous French varietals are the vetted stars of California wine production; they continue to make great juice in every style from crystalline sparkling to rich velvety red all up and down the west coast.

But there's another family of varietals you may not have heard of. Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, and Barbera are the autochthonic varietals of the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy. Thin-skinned Nebbiolo, which derives its name from 'neblina,' Italian for fog, is the grape that produces powerhouses Barolo and Barbaresco, arguably Italy's finest red wines. Darker, full-bodied Dolcetto and red-fruited Barbera tend to represent some of the highest quality, most food-friendly Piedmontese values on the market today. But they get next to no lip service from California producers.

Enter Steve Clifton, who had the bright idea of producing Piedmontese varietals right here, on the Central Coast. As he came up in ranks in the late '80s early '90s from sommelier to tasting room at Rancho Sisquoc and finally into the cellar, he realized that literally no one in California was producing Italian varietals. He saw this unique hole in the market and crafted his first vintage of Palmina wine in the basement of his home in 1995.

Now, nearly 20 years later, there are a handful of California and Washington houses producing Italian varietals, mainly Tuscan flagship Sangiovese. But Clifton and wife Chrystal remain the only west coast winery devoted entirely to the grapes of Northern Italy. So if you're looking for something different to pair with a plate of linguini alla vongole try Palmina Tocai Friulano, and sip their Dolcetto with a plate of Tajarin. Trust me, your taste buds will thank you.

2009 Palmina Tocai Friulano Honea Vineyards $20
Indigenous to Friuli in the Northeast corner of Italy, Tocai Friulano is an unlikely candidate to make quality wine in California. Nonetheless Palmina produces a lovely, medium-bodied Tocai Friulano, with white flowers, saline notes, yellow fruit, and a touch of musk. On the palate the wine is mouthfilling but lively -- the ideal accompaniment to sautéed seafood or seafood pasta.

2010 Palmina Dolcetto Santa Barbara County $16-$20
We drink Dolcetto from the Piedmont because it's round, warm, and rife with chewy black fruit. Palmina's version is much the same. Aromas of cassis and kirsch on the nose lead to a deep and spicy wine on the palate that gives great pleasure. This wine is both serious and fun at once, and will bring out all the best in your braised lamb shank or egg pasta with meat ragu.

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