Italy is home to more than 1,000 grape varieties, and a handful of the lesser-known have found a happy home in Santa Barbara County. These off-the-beaten-path varieties, most of which are native to Northern Italy, are hard enough to find outside of their native region, so the opportunity to taste homegrown versions should prove irresistible to wine geeks.
Freisa, for example, is indigenous to Piedmont and has suffered a tarnished reputation ever since Robert Parker described it as "totally repugnant." While there's no way around the grape's rusticity, it can also produce delicate and expressive wines that pair well with food. Lucas & Lewellen grows the grape in their Los Alamos Vineyard and bottles it under the Toccata brand.
Palmina's Steve Clifton, meanwhile, works with a number of Italian varieties, as does Mosby Winery’s Bill Mosby, who produces teroldego (native to Alto Adige in northeastern Italy) and sagrantino, long used to make sacramental wines that St. Francis of Assisi enjoyed. Foxen Canyon's Tres Hermanas Winery grows refosco from Friuli, unlike anything you'll taste around here, and the Joughin Vineyard in Los Olivos produces a lagrein that Santa Barbara Winery’s Bruce McGuire turns into a rich, gulpable red.
So while everyone else is chasing pinot noir and chardonnay, tap into these bottles for a rewardingly unique sipping experience.
Toccata Freisa 2012: Notes of red cherries and raspberries on the nose give way to a delicate red wine that is lightly floral, savory, and bright. $20
Tres Hermanas Refosco 2008: While the 2008 might have a bit more bottle age than is ideal, the wine is still worth seeking out for its sweet rich fruit flavors that are balanced by strong acidity, great minerality, and a savory finish laced with notes of baking spices. $38
Palmina Dolcetto 2013: In Piedmont's Langhe Valley, dolcetto hovers in the shadow of nebbiolo. Steve Clifton’s version shows notes of orange peel and blackberry on the nose, bright acidity, and depth of fruit punctuated by spice and grippy tannins on the finish. $20
Mosby Sagrantino 2008: Mosby was the first American producer of this ancient variety, which even Pliny the Elder refers to! This bottling has aromas of tobacco, pencil lead, and blue fruit along with firm tannins and a clean, piercing finish that would make it appealing to a cab fan. $32
Santa Barbara Winery Joughin Vineyard Lagrein 2012: Inky and dark in the glass, that richness carries through to the palate with notes of roasted plums, sturdy tannins, a hint of spice, and a fresh, herbal finish. $32