Mendocino County is probably best known for the pinot noirs of Anderson Valley, the cool section of the county that opens onto the coast. I’ve judged the Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition for many years, so I know that the county’s wine scene isn’t limited to pinot. But even I was impressed at this year’s competition by not only the huge range of wines but also by how many of them are really good.
In years past, competitions have often been dominated by a few wineries and by grape varieties like pinot noir, gewürztraminer and zinfandel. Those are varieties that Mendocino excels at, it’s true; I voted for a gewürztraminer for best white of the competition (it lost out to a pinot gris). But among the reds in the sweepstakes round, my three favorites were carignane, syrah and grenache. (The carignane ultimately was named best red.)
That carignane was the 2013 Graziano Carignane ($19, though it’s currently listed on the winery’s website for $14.25), made from 65-year-old vines. The wine is peppery, spicy and surprisingly refined for carignane. Winemaker Greg Graziano was also responsible for that grenache I liked so much, the 2013 Graziano Grenache (same low price as the carignane). The grenache offers ample juicy berry fruit, great spice and fine tannins. The syrah was the 2013 Handley Cellars ($25), from a winery better known for pinot noir and Alsatian white varieties. Handley is in Anderson Valley, but grapes for the syrah come from Kazmet Vineyard in inland Redwood Valley. The wine is smoky and peppery with lots of dark fruit.
The wine named best white of the competition was the 2015 Handley Cellars Pinot Gris ($20), a fragrant, pretty wine from Anderson Valley. I also loved a pair of gewurztraminers from the valley: the 2015 Husch Dry Gewurztraminer ($15), named best of class for gewurz, and the 2015 Navarro Vineyards (the 2014, at $19.50, is currently available). Both display the typical gewurz characteristics of lychee, rose petals and spice.
But there was also a lot of variety among the whites. From inland Mendocino County, there was the 2014 Monte Volpe Tocai Friulano ($15), a spicy, fresh wine with good weight, made from a grape from northeastern Italy, where it’s now known simply as “friulano”; and the 2015 Monte Volpe Primo Bianco (an unbelievable $10), a kitchen-sink white blend of mostly Italian grapes that displays notes of bright apple, pear and peach. Monte Volpe is another brand from Greg Graziano. The 2015 Handley Cellars Pinot Blanc ($22 for the 2014) comes from a cool spot in the inland Ukiah Valley; it’s fresh and fragrant, with apple, apple blossom and good length.
Or, from Anderson Valley, there was the 2015 Navarro Vineyards Muscat Blanc ($19.50 for the 2014), a dry, fragrant, pretty wine with tangerine and floral notes, and the sweeter 2015 Husch Muscat Canelli ($16 for the 2014).
Sparkling, rosé and dessert whites used to be lumped in with other whites like chardonnay and pinot gris for purposes of the sweepstakes judging; red dessert wines were judged alongside dry reds. This year, for the first time, the competition added categories for best sparkling, best dessert wine (white or red) and best rosé.
The rich, creamy 2007 Scharffenberger Cellars Blanc de Blancs ($30, available mostly at the tasting room) was named best sparkling, while the 2015 Seebass Family Rosé of Grenache ($35), which I didn’t taste, was best rosé. In the dessert category, there were two excellent late harvest rieslings. The luscious, honeyed 2011 McFadden Farm Late Harvest Riesling ($18/375ml) just edged out of the 2014 Navarro Late Harvest Cluster Select Riesling ($35/375ml for the 2013), which was even more intense. There was also a very good red dessert wine, a Port-style fortified red from Cesar Toxqui Cellars ($18/375ml).