Portuguese Grapes Take Root in California

By Ellen Walsh

Sometimes staying in the background is what’s best for the wine. Not so much in getting the highest scores, or catering to the critics of the day, but quietly doing what ‘s best for the wine.

Enter Vern Vierra, owner of St.Jorge Winery located in the Lodi Valley. Here we find him quietly patrolling the vineyards of his 18 acres of planted vines, sipping the wine and chewing the grapes all at the same time, making sure that the taste of the grapes match the taste of the wine. He holds his glass up as a final example.

“Now make sure you get this for your video”, Vern suggests. “ We do whole cluster fermentation here. We leave the berries on the vine as long as possible, contributing to the development of the best flavor possible. We then destem the grapes , leaving them whole, dropping them through the vacuum pump, as they move into the tank. Once the berries break down, they start to ferment. It’s a very gentle fermentation, ensuring great flavors  that enter the fermentation of the wine.  We ferment in 3 – 4 weeks. We do it very slowly. The slower we do it, the better it is.”

Learning his trade the old fashion way, at the knees of his father and grandfather from the st. Jorge islands in the Azores, these techniques of best practices are ingrained since youth. Most of all, Vern is pleased with his choice of the Lodi Valley. “ We were lucky to recreate the climate conditions we were used to in the Azores,”  says Vern. “Because where else can you reproduce the high heat of the day and the cool evenings except in this perfect location.” Vern gesticulates to the valley he presides over. 

This story of an immigrant family fulfilling its dream of life in the New World takes you back to 1954, when a young 8 year old boy, along with his father and grandfather, arrives in Northern California to start life over with their only means of making a living, dairy ranching and wine making. It took a while to acquire their own land, but eventually their hard work paid off. The name of the winery, St. Jorge opened in 2009, and would be a tribute to the islands they all grew up on, the sun drenched  Azores. The hot days and cool nights created the environment they needed to successfully grow grapes that until now, were only successfully grown in the Mediterranean climate of Portugal and the Iberian Peninsula. This new land sat in the heart of the Lodi Appellation, and their winery thrived, being the only winery at the time to successfully grow Tempranillo, Alicante Bousquet, Souzao, Trincadeiro, and Touriga.

 This would be the story of Vern Vierra’s family.

Lodi is one of the largest appellations in the world with over 500,000 acres designated Lodi Appellation, and over 90,000 acres dedicated to grape growing, making it totally feasible to grow the grapes his father and grandfather had grown while living  in the Azores. The Portugese Vierra family moved from the Azores in 2004, found their ideal spot, and opened their winery in 2009. Lodi is smack dab in the middle of the mouth of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which funnels moderating coastal air from San Francisco Bay through a narrow estuary called the Carquinez Strait – a patchwork of rivers, sloughs, canals, levees, marshland and floodplains hovering below or just above sea level. Creating hot days and cool nights, the weather was the magic ingredient. When the macro bins came in at night filled with the day’s harvest, you’d think there was ice in the bins, it was so cold. The hundred degree days became 40 degree nights, creating the perfect contrast for the fruit to sit in as the winemakers rubbed their hands in joyful anticipation of what was to come.

Napa Valley, and to a certain extent Sonoma and the central valley wine regions,  are extreme examples of  wine regions constrained by its economics: its real estate, and even its success. You won't find blocks of Alicante Bousquet, or other selections of wine grapes beyond the usual Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. precisely because of the necessity of sticking to ultra-premium wine production. For places like Sonoma and Santa Barbara, it's the pressures wrought by the recent commercial success of Pinot Noir and the expense of developing vineyards to meet that demand, while staving off the more realistic possibility of seeing everything plowed under for more shopping malls. ( information gathered from the Lodi Grape Commission Blog.)

This article is a tribute to the grapes that originated on the island of St. Jorge in the Azores, but now grow fruitfully in the Lodi valley.  One might ask how they knew that the Lodi valley could imitate the climate they had successfully grown up with. So whether that was advanced knowledge or luck, fate was on their side.  Their winery boasts over 18 acres of planted vines, supplying all the needs of their estate grown wines.

The 2016 Portugese-style blend called Vinho Tinto is a mixture of 5 red grapes handled by owner and wine maker Vern Vierra. It’s the perfect every day wine, to go with absolutely everything. And the best part about it? Each one of these wines can stand alone on its own two feet – and be bottled and drunk on their own.


The 2012 Tempranillo is 18 – 24 months aged in ½ French oak, 1/3 American Oak, and 1/3 neutral oak, example of grape found on Wikipedia


Tempranillo is a very old and ancient varietal. While the earliest official mention of the variety is from 1807, the general theory is that Tempranillo was introduced to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) by the Phoenicians over 3,000 years ago. Tempranillo is the fourth-most planted variety in the world and is considered one of the nine red noble grapes, although that is a number which is constantly changing. Tempranillo is one of the top varieties blended into Port wine from Portugal, where it’s called Tinta Roriz, however, as a stand alone grape, is an enjoyable varietal on its own merit.

Tempranillo Grapes (Wikipedia)

Noble grapes are a term used to describe the variety of grapes that are most recognizable for the quality of the wine they produce. These varieties have principal growing regions, where they are notable for the expression of the local "terroir", but can be grown in other areas with success. The talented California winemakers we come across are a testament to that fact. Knowledge of the characteristics of each noble grape variety helps the taster establish a personal relationship with the individual grape and wine. Knowing how it behaves in the vineyard, helps to determine the potential of a vintage (as long as the weather cooperates)
It is generally accepted (with some argument) that there are only 7 noble grape varieties. For white wines, they are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling. For the Red wines they are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Syrah.
As the new world expands vineyard plantings, we are seeing a growth in experimentation, thus the list of grapes is growing. Consumer recognition has grown beyond those original 7 noble varieties. So, an argument could be made for adding the following grapes. Whites: Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Gris (or Grigio), and Semillon. For the Reds: Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Gamay, Grenache, Mourvedre Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and Nebbiolo, according to wine writers of the arrowheadwine blog. That would increase our total amount of varieties that consumers recognize around the world, as making top quality wines.

Tempranillo has fruity characteristics, consisting mainly of cherry, plum, tomato, and dried fig. Tempranillo wine produces a medium to full-bodied red wine. It is typically aged between 6 to 18 months in oak, however St.Jorge’s Tempranillo is aged 18- 24 months in French oak, American oak, and again, in neutral oak. It is also known as Tinto del Toro and Tinta Fina in Spain, and Tinta Roriz in Portugal.

The flavor of Tempranillo is very distinct. It is more savory than sweet. It has contrasting tastes of cherries and leather, with a smooth finish. A discerning palate will also find dried fig, cedar, tobacco and dill. New World varieties, which typically come from Argentina and the US, have more cherry flavor and less earthiness. With the extra aging, you can expect to find more deeper fruit notes, dry leaves, and other signature leather flavors of the Tempranillo.


Facts taken from winefolly.com


A L I C A N T E    B O U S Q U E T

 example of Alicante Bouschet by Wikipedia

The Alicante Bousquet grape is a cross of Petit Bouschet (itself a cross of the very old variety Teinturier du Cher and Aramon) and Grenache. Alicante is a teinturier,meaning a grape with red flesh. It is one of the few teinturier grapes that belong to the Vitis vinifera species. Its deep colour makes it useful for blending with light red wine. Alicante Bousquet is a rare teinturier; having blood-red pulp, rather than clear white like the vast majority of black skinned varieties





Popular in Spain, Portugal, France and now Northern California, the black skinned grape pierces a blood red juice as you pull it apart from the vine.

The tiny crop on this Borra Vineyards Alicante Bousquet vine (planted in early 1930s) .Taken from the Lodi Commission website.

Alicante Bouschet is widely planted in Portugal, Spain (where it is known as Garnacha Tintorera) and southern France. It is a crossing of Petit Bouschet and Grenache, bred in 1866 by French viticulturist Henri Bouschet, after whom it is named.(from wine searcher.com)


The dark skinned Alicante Bousquet oozes a red juice, instead of clear colored,  as you squeeze it on the vine, making it a teinturier grape.

These grapes have a red pulp, opposite usually light or gray like most red wine grapes. That means the anthocyanins are not only present in the berry peels, but also in the interior of the berries and thus in the grape juice in larger quantities.. Most of the dying grapes are used for the production of top-quality wines, but only a small number of wines are sold separately, such as the Alicante Bousquet.


Touriga Nacional


Touriga, taken from lodi wine commission blog/website

Touriga, or Tinta Cao

Touriga Nacional is a dark-skinned grape variety that is currently very fashionable and is widely believed to produce the finest red wines of Portugal. Extensively planted in the Portugal's northern Dao and Douro wine regions, the variety is a key ingredient in both dry red wines and the fortified wines of Oporto (Port).

In many ways, Touriga Nacional is Portugal's answer to France's Cabernet Sauvignon. Both varieties display bold dark-fruit flavors, often with hints of spice, leather and violet. Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Touriga Nacional has firm tannins, is expressive as a varietal wine and shows great aging potential. As a blend, though, it really comes into its own, which is fortunate in Portugal where blends are de rigueur.

Touriga Nacional Grapes

In Douro, Touriga Nacional is extremely important in the production of Port, even though it makes up just a tiny fraction of the grapes grown there. Here it is blended with up to 80 other varieties (the Port blend is nothing if not complex), the most important of which are Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz and Tinto Cao.  Featuring a big sweet fruit flavor, it has a floral undercurrent with a hint of lavender which carries into the wine.


. (Winesofportugal)

Trincadeira, also known as Tinta Amarela, is a red wine grape that is commonly used in Port wine production. When blended with other wines, it adds a nice texture with soft floral notes to the wines it is a part of. Not known as a robust wine, Trincadeira can help tone other wines down to produce more balanced wine. It also has been acknowledged lately as a great stand alone wine, and that is aided by the fact that it is aged 18 – 24 months in French Oak, American Oak, and Neutral oak. This adds to the robust nature of the wine and deepens the flavor. The grape is noted for its dark coloring. Its use in the Douro region has been increasing in recent years. The vine is susceptible to rot and performs better in dry, hot climates. That is one of the reasons that Vern has been so successful with this grape. The dry heat of the day, so intense in the Lodi Valley, has been the predictor of this success.In most years Trincadeira yields great wines with excellent acidity, soft tannins and abundant, intense aromas of black plum and jammy blackberry. These wines are often elegant and well balanced There are over 4 acres total in the United States that grow this grape, with St. Jorge growing slightly over half of that volume. A Trincadeira blended with Touriga Nacional in the Douro, where it is known as Tinta Amarela, will result in a very engaging wine. However, this Trincadeira, blended with Tempranillo, Alicante Bousquet, Touriga, and Souzao, will produce a very nice table wine that pairs easily with most every dish, making it the go to wine in the cellar for dinner..

The intense Souzão

Known for its intense flavor and color, a trait that unusually comes from both its skin and juice, the Souzão grape is a Portuguese variety commonly blended into Port.

In addition to high potential alcohol and natural acidity, the Souzão grape also produces wine with aggressive flavor. Tasting notes include such flavors as wild black currant, licorice, spice and even leather.

While native to the Minho region of Portugal, the grape has also found itself  among wineries in both California and Western Australia. (fromthegrapevine.com)


Put it all together, and we bring you, the 2016 Tinto Vinho.