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By The Glass
Roberto Viernes

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Italian grapes star
in California wines

Last week I had the pleasure of getting to know and tasting the wines of Steve and Chrystal Clifton, two of the nicest people I've met in the wine business.

Steve is partner and co-winemaker of the fabulous Brewer-Clifton wines. Together with Greg Brewer, he makes some of the most elegant and terroir-driven chardonnays and pinot noirs in California, from vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills.

It seems the entire wine world is clamoring for Brewer-Clifton wines. They sell out as soon as they hit the shelves.

Steve and Chrystal also make an awesome, and perhaps even more intriguing line of wines under the Palmina label, from Italian varietals grown in Santa Barbara County.

Palmina began for the couple as a love affair with Italy and its food and wine culture. Yearly visits are de rigueur; Chrystal speaks fluent Italian and they even got married in Friuli last year.

Steve describes his winemaking philosophy as "making wine as an extension of the meal." It's no wonder the Palmina wines speak volumes about quality and food match-ability.

Let's begin with their 2004 Palmina Pinot Grigio ($17). All the fruit is grown in the Santa Barbara appellation, one of the coolest in California. Steve calls the wine "naked," because he uses all stainless steel fermentation to bring out the essence of the fruit. He uses no oak to obscure or bolster the wine.

The result is a refreshing wine with citrus and mineral notes, grapefruit, lemon and pear flavors, and a zingy and tremendously long finish. It has a medium-to-light body that is perfect for starters -- antipasto, anyone? It also goes great with sautéed white fish with herbs and lemon, not to mention clams and any other fresh shellfish.

Ever had a traminer? Not a gewurztraminer, although they are related. The 2004 Palmina Alisos Vineyard Traminer ($19) is another "naked" wine showing the true quality of the fruit, with is farmed in the Los Alamos Valley of Santa Barbara. It is completely floral with scents of lychee, gardenia, pikake, melon and peach, like a perfume! It's exotic and tropical, yet still dry, taut and crisp, not fatty or obese like some other examples. It's already sold out at the winery, so if you see it, snatch it up. Serve it with an herb frittata (the Palmina Web site has a killer recipe from Mario Batali), some basilladen coconut shrimp or some not-too-spicy Thai curry.

The 2003 Palmina Alisos Red ($18) is a blend of sangiovese and merlot. In a unique winemaking process, Steve and Chrystal put about 10 percent of the sangiovese grapes through appassimento, or drying, like grapes used in making amarone. This gives the wine added dimension.

Along with notes of cherry and cranberry, the wine gives up notes of dates and prune. On the palate it is melodious, singing with black and red fruits -- with bass notes of cooked berries lingering. It is rich without being heavy or bitter. If you like rich Italian wines, you'll like this. It's beautiful with grilled meats and any tomato-based pasta.

Finally, the 2002 Palmina Stolpman Vineyard Nebbiolo ($28) reminds me of barbaresco, with tons of sour cherry, hints of licorice and some earthiness. It has distinctly bright acid that makes it a great wine for food, along with heaps of red berry flavors. Osso bucco is traditionally paired with nebbiolo, so anything braised, such as shortribs in red wine, would be perfect.

The Palmina wines are the best Italian varietals made in California. Period. These wines aren't just for fans of Italian or California wines, they are for all fans of food and wine.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier and wine educator with Southern Wine & Spirits.

This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals. Write to features@starbulletin.com

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