Why Italian Grapes May Be The Future For California Vineyards

The difference between good wine and great wine? As anyone might guess, it all comes down to the variety of the grapes. Chardonnay, according to California Wines, is the most widely planted blends in California. Grower and vineyard owner Kevin Harvey, however, makes a point to plant carricante, nerello mascalese, and nebbiolo, Italian grapes that are rarely grown outside of their native environment, but that make for high quality wine. As Harvey shared with The New York Times, all it took was a trip to Italy to convince him to bring the varieties to California. "We drank it and it was revelatory," Harvey told the Times, recounting the first time he tried Italian wine made with carricante grapes. "It was like grand cru Burgundy meets grand cru Alsace riesling. That really captivated me."

Harvey wants wine drinkers in the U.S. to have the same experience, and growing the grapes stateside is how he's going about it. Currently there are 900 acres of Italian grapes planted on Centennial Mountain, and the wine produced there could very well change the wine scene of California.

Why has growing Italian grapes been such a challenge?

It's not that California winemakers don't want to grow Italian grapes in their vineyards, but rather that they have a long history of doing so unsuccessfully. Wine Enthusiast Magazine explains that French grapes do better in our climate, which is why the U.S. produces far more French wines like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Kevin Harvey further elaborated to The New York Times that California's high daytime temperatures and low nighttime temperatures, also known as a diurnal shift, allows French grapes to maintain both freshness and acidity. But because Italian grapes are naturally acidic, a diurnal shift is not only unnecessary, but actually has adverse effects. 

California's coastal mountain ranges are the only exception, because the high altitude and low diurnal shift is similar to the Mediterranean climate of Italy. "We weren't growing climate-appropriate varieties for many decades," Sonoma County winery owner Ridgely Evers told Wine Enthusiast. Now that growers are becoming more familiar with the required growing conditions, Italian grape varieties are popping up in California vineyards more than ever before.