GOING ALTERNATIVE IN EDNA VALLEY
By Lisa Kring
I don’t drink California Chardonnay, as a rule. To be sure, there exist stellar exceptions. But for the most part, I find that they lack balance and finesse, unlike their French counterparts in Burgundy. So I was excited when I found out about Tangent wines, a line of California wines made from alternative white varietals grown in the Edna Valley.
Two things about Tangent immediately caught my eye: Chardonnay is absent from the lineup, and the winemaker is French. Non Chardonnay, qu’est-ce que c’est? Perhaps this apparent paradox held promise.
Tangent offers fresh, crisp wines that express true varietal character, focusing solely on alternative white wines, such as Albarino, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Reisling. Sourced from Edna Valley vineyards planted by the pioneering Niven family in the ’70s, these grapes can become great wines in the right hands. Raised in Burgundy and grounded in the French winemaking traditions of Champagne and the Loire Valley, Tangent winemaker Christian Roguenant was the man for the job. When the Niven family approached him with the idea for Tangent, he quickly committed. “What made the project completely irresistible is the style of the wine,” he says on the Tangent website. “Pure varietal character, higher acid, minerality, wines to go with food.” The combination of a winemaker grounded in European tradition and the unique Edna Valley growing conditions have come together for the immediate and continued success of Tangent wines.
As I drove up to the Edna Valley to meet with Christian for a vineyard tour and wine tasting, I felt expectant and excited. I had never actually set foot in the soil of Edna Valley. Designated as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1982, it is a unique growing area. Most importantly, it ranks as one of the coolest growing regions worldwide. Lying east-west, this transverse valley near San Luis Obispo pulls fog and breezes from the Pacific Ocean, only a few miles away. This counters the constant California sun at this latitude, offering an even climate and a longer growing season than usual for wine grapes. Extended hang time translates into intense varietal character, while the cool factor retains the hallmark acid so coveted in Tangent white wines.
Christian meets me at the tasting room, the historic Independence Schoolhouse, a charming one-room structure built in 1909. Before tasting, we jump into his truck and drive a short distance to the rolling 900 acres plus that comprise the Niven Family Paragon Vineyard, where all Tangent wine varietals are grown. While the valley itself is relatively narrow, the vineyard rolls out like a lush green carpet, covering the floor. As Christian talks about the ups and downs of the current vintage, as well as the challenges of maintaining integrity in a weakened economy, it is clear that he possesses incredible skill and vineyard wisdom. He is a unique combination of Old World/ New World winemaking experience over a lifetime, and well-honed modern marketing savvy. When I ask him what led to his career path, he just shrugs matterof-factly, affirming the obvious, “I was born in Burgundy…it is the culture that raised me.”
Returning to the tasting room, we settle in to one of the tables outside, overlooking the surrounding vineyards. It is beginning to fill up with groups of girlfriends, bicyclists and adventurous weekend wine aficionados. I ask Christian about the valley and current perceptions. “This is the Napa of the ’70s,” he states happily. “It is bucolic, natural and still relatively undiscovered.” With that, he lines up the Tangent wines. I am amazed to find that they are all priced under $18. We begin with the Albarino, made in the traditional Rias Baixas style found in Spain. Albarino is celebrated for its refreshing acidity and saline, briny notes, making it a perfect partner for seafood. I take a sniff and while the nose is somewhat muted, the palate possesses the characteristic zest.
We move on to the Sauvignon Blanc, which is balanced, bright and racy, with the characteristic aromatic “lift” and grassy/tropical fruit notes. It is a stellar, accurate Sauvignon Blanc, and at $13 it is an amazing value. We sample the Pinot Gris, and it is lovely—full of fresh citrus and vibrant minerality, with a hint of characteristic resin. Moving on to the Pinot Blanc, which is grown most predominantly in the Alsace region of France, this is an alternative bottling in California. It is full of ripe round tropical fruit flavors, yet refreshingly crisp. Next, we sip the Grenache Blanc, a varietal found most predominantly in Spain, and once again, rarely in California. It is ripe and full, tasting of melons with a vein of minerality.
“This is great with spicy food, such as Thai,” Christian says. He then pours the Viognier, a varietal that thrives in cool climates, which he has fermented in stainless steel for added freshness. It’s a delicious wine, tasting of luscious stone fruit and orange blossom, with a touch of minerality for added complexity. The Riesling is next, a varietal that can be stunning in cold climates, such as Mosel, Germany. Slightly off-dry, with a hint of residual sugar, the Tangent Reisling is pure of fruit, while possessing the characteristic veins of acid and minerality that give balance and vitality.
Taking in the full spectrum of diversity, quality and value of this lineup, one could enjoy any of these wines on any given night. Because these wines really shine with the right food, it would all depend on what was for dinner.
Christian saves his blend, Ecclestone, for last. After tasting through all the individual lots of Tangent varietals each year, he creates an “Alsatian” blend, incorporating them all. “This has become one of my favorite wines to make each vintage,” he says, smiling. Ecclestone is a delicious, exotic, yet refreshing wine. Once again, a great value at $17. Full of fruit flavors and flower aromas, it is juicy, yet crisp.
It is clear that Christian has a knack for blending. I wonder if this stems from his days in France blending vintages during his early days making Champagne. Perhaps. Turns out, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Independence Schoolhouse, Christian has styled a singlevintage, methode Champagne, blanc de blanc, made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. With this Frenchman, I feel as if I have come full circle. I take one sip, and am immediately transported back to France. This is a California wine made from Chardonnay I could drink again and again. The blanc de blanc is fresh and crisp, with the characteristic vein of tart minerality. I confess to Christian that in a blind tasting, “I would guess Champagne, France, absolutely.” I can see in his eyes that this is a compliment he humbly relishes.
Last, but not least, Christian brings out a wine that takes us off-road into true alternative white-wine territory. Under its own label, Zocker, Christian makes a wine from Gruner Veltliner grapes. Traditionally found in Austria, Gruner Veltliner is an esoteric varietal celebrated by wine geeks and chefs alike. It works wonderfully with certain foods that resist pairing, such as asparagus and artichokes, making it a great wine for vegetarians. This Gruner is fantastic, possessing all the classic hallmarks—slightly steely, great acid, flavors of citrus and pear, with hints of white pepper. I sit back, thoroughly impressed, confessing that the Gruner is my own personal favorite. Again, in a blind tasting, I definitely would have guessed that this was an authentic Austrian Gruner.
If you want to experience the diversity of Tangent wines for yourself, I highly recommend that you plan a trip to the tasting room. The Edna Valley is beautiful and uncrowded, and I am told that the blanc de blanc is available only through direct purchase there, for only one vintage. Furthermore, there are even more wines to taste. Along with the Tangent and Zocker wines, Christian carefully styles all the wines in the Niven family wine portfolio—Baileyana (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), Trenza (Spanish varietals, both white and red) and Cadre (Christian’s single-vineyard line of Pinot Noir). While all the grapes for these wines are estate grown in the Edna Valley, each line has its own distinct personality, thanks to Christian’s styling expertise. When he asks if I would like to taste through some of the red wines, I can only shake my head and smile. Looks like I will need to plan another trip up to Edna Valley.
The Alternative Wines of Tangent
2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Edna Valley, $13
2008 Pinot Gris, Edna Valley, $17
2007 Pinot Blanc, Edna Valley, $17
2010 Albarino, Edna Valley, $17
2008 Riesling, Edna Valley, $17
2010 Viognier, Edna Valley, $17
2010 Grenache Blanc, Edna Valley, $17
2008 Ecclestone, Edna Valley, $17
Zocker, 2010 Gruner Ventliner, Edna Valley, $20
The tasting room for the Niven Family Wineries,including Tangent, is open daily from 10-5
Lisa Kring lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two children, dogs and biodynamically farmed home vineyard. She is a sommelier certified with the Master Court of Sommeliers, the International Sommelier Guild and the UCLA Vintage Program, but her passion for honest wines that taste of place is experienced most happily at a table with friends and good food. She is on the steering committee for Slow Food Los Angeles, and values and supports all products that are good, clean and fair. Lisa is also a licensed clinical social worker and teaches mindfulness meditation as a group clinical intervention at various hospital and clinical settings in Los Angeles.