White and cheap, with low alcohol. Can you say Chasselas?
There’s no AVA designation, no varietal qualification, no flavor profile to define it, but you know what it is when you drink it.
It’s a porch wine. It’s what the top of your tongue and the back of your throat are silently asking for on a hot summer day when you’ve pulled off the gloves and rolled up the sleeves and parked yourself on the front porch around noon with a perfect deli sandwich.
A cold beer sounds good, but if you hang onto that thirst just a little bit longer you soon realize what you really want is a light, crisp, chilled white wine, maybe with a faint hint of effervescence but not enough alcohol to put an end to your day.
Knowing what you want, and putting a face on it, are two different things. Because a true porch wine has certain requirements that can make it hard to find.
First and foremost, a porch wine is white, or at least a dry rosé. Second it isn’t expensive—you’re slurping it with your sandwich, with your boots on, and it’s 90 in the shade. Twenty bucks is about the limit for a porch wine, unless it’s spot on the money.
That eliminates some really good dry Rieslings and Gewürtztraminers and narrows the focus considerably.
Porch wines can have a little sweetness, and some porch wine drinkers would include moscato, but that’s definitely an acquired taste.
Third, and this is important, a porch wine isn’t an alcohol monster. Two glasses won’t put you to sleep or fry your brain. So 13.5 percent is the limit, and lower is better—one or two percentage points of alcohol will make all the difference on a hot summer day. That, of course, opens the door to a lot of good sauvignon blancs (like the lovely Fume Bob from Beltane Ranch), and a fair number of un-oaked chardonnays.
But for our money there’s just one porch wine at the front of the line and, unless you’re Swiss, the odds are you’ve never heard of it.
It’s called Chasselas (say chess-lah), it’s the second most popular grape grown in Switzerland (the Germans call it Gutedel) and rarely mentioned in North America. But Sonoma County has two growers—the Raffaini family on Eastside Road near Healdsburg, and the famed Pagani Ranch on Highway 12 near Kenwood.
Mike Berthoud (say Bear-two) is Swiss-American (he has two passports to prove it), speaks French, and husbands one of Sonoma Valley’s more charming boutique, family wineries. Mike makes a stunning and muscular Bordeaux blend called Ursus, a small amount of very tasty syrah and about 145 cases of Chasselas Doré each year. The Chasselas comes in at 12 percent alcohol (it’s picked fully mature at 22.3 brix, which is surprisingly low), it is light and airy as a summer breeze, has a lovely, slightly flowery bouquet and the tiniest trace of effervescence to add a little bit of sparkle.
Mike buys the entire Chasselas production of Pagani ranch, about two tons. A recent California crop report, he notes, reveals the state’s total commercial production of the grape is only about three tons.
Talking cars in the summer heat outside Mike Berthoud’s classic barn, we find the Chasselas is easy as lemonade, but a lot more interesting.
Mike’s family homestead, where the tiny winery remains, has no conveniently available porch, so we slip into the shade of the doorway while admiring a 100-year-old screw press inside the barn, and talk about Chasselas.
Mike’s father grew up around Geneva, in the heart of Chasselas country, and liked to describe the wine as being “as pure as mountain spring water.” The family moved to Sonoma in 1971 and began making wine the next year. The tradition continues, on a small scale, but when the winery’s entire production is less than 500 cases, small is a good thing.
“It’s not designed to be an 8-year-old wine,” Mike explains, so there aren’t barrels of Chasselas stacked deep in the aging barn. And the relative rarity adds that much more to the drinking pleasure.
As we talk, the level in the bottle drops dangerously low, so Mike opens a second and pours some more of the straw-colored nectar. We sniff the fragrant, flowery nose with a slight mineral edge, and contemplate the summer afternoon as the flavors of nectarine, green apple, and perhaps hibiscus drift down our throats.
The 2009 Chasselas Doré is $20 from Berthoud Vineyards & Winery, 707.938.1482, berthoudwinery.com. Some bottles are available at Sonoma Market.
From the 2012 summer issue of SONOMA