Most wine regions in the United States - and the world - tend to be associated with select grape varieties. Think Napa and cabernet sauvignon comes to mind. Malbec from Argentina. Riesling from Germany or the Finger Lakes. But think of Mendocino and … what?
One reason for this is that Mendocino has always been a little bit off the beaten path. It's far enough from San Francisco that it tends to lag a bit behind its southern neighbor, Sonoma, in terms of name recognition (and price point). So maybe we just don't think about Mendocino often enough to associate a grape with it.
But another reason is that Mendocino, California, has a staggering variety of microclimates. This means the region can provide suitable growing regions for a far greater range of grapes than many others. A main cause of this diversity is the Mendocino Range. Running north-south, parallel to the coast, those vineyards at higher elevations, and those closer to the cooling influences of the Pacific Ocean, harbor grapes that thrive in cooler climates. As one goes farther inland, average temperatures increase, and the grapes one is more likely to see are those that flourish in a warmer climate.
While shopping for wines to feature in this article, I ran across wines ranging from elegant cool-climate grapes like riesling and pinot noir to wines like petite sirah and petit verdot, which could probably drive a forklift if you asked them to. In order to narrow it down, I focused on red wines, selecting one that likes a cool climate, one that likes it warm - but not too warm - and one that soaks up heat like the sun is going out of business.
Pinot noir is a prima donna. It is susceptible to a variety of vine diseases, is extremely picky about its weather (cool, but no frost or wind, please!) and is unpredictable both during fermentation and while aging. You can't grow pinot noir just anywhere. So the fact that it is grown in Mendocino, mere miles away from sun-loving Rhone varietals like grenache and syrah, is nothing short of amazing.
Also amazing is the price point of 2016 Parducci Pinot Noir Mendocino Small Lot. At $15 a bottle, I'd normally be very suspicious. Inexpensive pinot noir … well, let's just say that the lady usually requires more than the winemaker can give her at that price. But Mendocino is often regarded as a source of good value wines, and the Parducci is an excellent example. It's not the most elegant pinot noir I've tasted, but it's certainly crowd-pleasing. Woodsy aromas of cedar and sandalwood marry nicely with red cherry and cocoa. As the wine breathes a bit, the fruits darken in color and the wine becomes mouth-filling and ripe.
Zinfandel likes a warm climate, but get the vine too hot and the grapes shrivel into raisins. Depending on where in Mendocino zinfandel is grown, it can produce very different flavor profiles. Cooler regions produce spicy, red berry zinfandels, whereas the warmer regions make zinfandels ripe with dark, brambly fruits, black pepper and roasted meat. The 2014 Edmeades Zinfandel Mendocino ($17) uses grapes from the coastal mountain ranges so it falls somewhere in between. Black raspberry and blueberry are lightened by aromas of rose, while on the palate the wine gains gravitas with flavors of graphite and dark chocolate.
Unlike zinfandel, which ripens quickly, carignan needs a full, long while to achieve ripeness; in fact, if the climate isn't warm enough, the grapes may not fully ripen before frost sets in. The grapes that make up 2015 Lioco Carignan Mendocino Sativa ($36) are grown, somewhat paradoxically, in one of the highest elevation wine regions in California: Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak. What makes carignan thrive here is not poundingly hot daytime temperatures, but the fact that a meteorological inversion takes place at night. The warm air that accumulates in the valley below during the day rises to the peaks at night. Add this to the fact that the vineyards lie above the fog line, and these high-altitude grapes get more sun and more prolonged warmth than grapes on the valley floor.
The wine smells of hot rocks and iron, blackberries and blueberries and black plums, with a whiff of something barnyardy (never an insult in wine). On the palate, there is bracing acidity, making this an ideal companion for a variety of foods. I paired it with chicken, polenta scented with rosemary and sage and homemade tomato sauce, a combination that did not disappoint.
Not only does Mendocino boast a munificence of grape varieties, but they're also on the cutting edge of sustainable viticulture: nearly a quarter of all grapes in Mendocino are grown organically. And since a lot of wineries in more prestigious Napa and Sonoma buy grapes from Mendocino to blend into their wines anyway, why not take a chance on something a little off the beaten path. It's nearly impossible not to find something you'll like in Mendocino.