.Geek Wine: Rare Italian varietals, local wines

Where to sip unique, obscure and rarely planted Italian grape varieties in the North Bay?

Arneis, Biancollella, Cortese, Fiano, Freisa, Favorita, Grignolino…

If you haven’t heard of some (or any) of these grapes, you aren’t alone. These are just a few of the unique, obscure or rarely planted Italian varietals currently in Sonoma County vineyards and tasting rooms. If you love seeking out and finding new wines that help you expand your palate and turn you on to grape varietals with which you aren’t familiar, these three wineries will be right up your alley.

Idlewild Wines

Idlewild founder Sam Bilbo’s love for the wines and region of Piedmont in northern Italy led him to create a brand focused on “Piedmontese inspired wines from the rugged hills of Northern California,” and more specifically from hillside vineyards in Mendocino County. Idlewild works exclusively with varietals that hail originally from northern Italy’s Piedmont region, and that are rarely seen planted in California (though often rarely planted or uncommon in their regions of origin).

Idlewild’s menu of Italian white wines includes varietally specific wines and blends such as Arneis, Favorita, Cortese and Erbaluce. Their red wines include Dolcetto, Freisa, Grignolino and Nebbiolo.

Having tasted many West Coast and California winemakers’ attempts at Dolcetto and Nebbiolo (and having been disappointed in almost every case) and having tasted all of these grapes in Piedmont with Piemontese winemakers, I think Idlewild is doing a  phenomenal job with these grapes.

132 Plaza St., Healdsburg. idlewildwines.com

Orsi Family Vineyards

Crafting wines that are an “expression of Italy, planted in Sonoma County soil,” Orsi started experimenting with uniquely suitable Italian varietals in the Dry Creek Valley in 2008. The winery produced their first vintage in 2010, but most wines were sold to wholesale customers or friends and family until this past June, when they opened their Dry Creek Valley winery and tasting room.

Orsi grows red Italian varietals such as Primitivo, Negro Amaro, Nebbiolo, Schioppettino and Aglianico and white varietals that include Fiano and Biancolella, which thrive in warm or hot climates. The winery has so far focused on 100% single varietal wines (no blends). 

The highlights for me at Orsi were the Biancolella, Fiano and Montepulciano.

2306 Magnolia Dr., Healdsburg. orsifamilyvineyards.com

Unti Winery

Unti grows and produces rarely seen white and red Italian varietals that include Falanghina, Fiano, Biancollella, Vermentino, Aglianico and Montepulciano. They also grow Barbera and Sangiovese. 

What I love about Unti’s menu of wines is that Mick Unti carefully considers what varietals make sense to plant, with an eye on climate change, water shortages and long term viability. This is what led Unti to experiment with grapes like Fiano (which Mick planted in 2011) and Aglianico that thrive in hot temperatures and are more resistant to drought.

On my most recent trip to the winery, the highlights for me were the Fiano and the Barbera (which I think is the best Sonoma County Barbera…), but I really like all of Unti’s wines. 

4202 Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg. untivineyards.com


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