Ribolla gialla and the prospects of an Octagon bianco

Luca Paschina sets his sights on a bianco version of Barboursville's highly regarded Octagon label. Photo: Amy Jackson Luca Paschina sets his sights on a bianco version of Barboursville’s highly regarded Octagon label. Photo: Amy Jackson

I heard about a patch of ribolla gialla vines in Barboursville, and I had to go and see them to find out what was happening with these special grapes.

Luca Paschina, the winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards, first tasted wine made from ribolla gialla about 30 years ago. “It was the mid-1980s in Italy, and I was dining at a restaurant that brought in wines from all over Italy,” says Paschina. “This was unique, because many restaurants focus on their local wines.” It glowed a deep yellow, and Paschina recalls of the grape variety, “It had a name you can’t forget.”

Ribolla gialla (ree-BOWL-ah jee-AH-lah) is a white grape variety that ripens to gold. It has an unusual amount of tannins for a white, which translates to a wide variety of wine styles. It can be made into a dense, dry wine, or it can be fermented with the skins, resulting in a rich amber color and lush tannins.

Affectionately called “ribolla” by those in the industry, the grape has a history in written papal and tax records that can be traced as far back as 1296. Over the last 700 centuries, ribolla’s popularity has waned and waxed in its likely birthplace of Friuli, Italy’s “bootstrap” in the northeast that borders Slovenia. Plantings thrive in the region, but you don’t find the grape in many other places.

You do, however, find some prized ribolla vines in California. Ribolla owes its California plantings to the late George Vare. After an inspiring visit to Friuli—Vare had been on the hunt for pinot grigio—he sourced some ribolla gialla from Josko Gravner in Italy, and ultimately grafted over his pinot grigio. Vare’s love of ribolla affected his winemaking friends, and today you can count several producers of California ribolla.

The California ribolla interest was partly sparked by Gravner, a winemaker who became disillusioned with modern winemaking and went in the opposite direction. He traveled to the country of Georgia, studying its vineyards and the once-common technique of fermenting in clay amphoras. Gravner has steadfastly produced unique ribolla bottlings since the 1990s, and his philosophy has spread to others throughout Europe, and now the United States.

The California vine nursery Novavine took note of the movement and started cultivating ribolla. Nurseries are often the unsung heroes of the wine business—they select and test vine clones that will be ideal for wineries, then wineries purchase ready-to-plant vines that have already been through a quarantine period, ensuring their health and quality. Many of the grape plantings you see at local wineries wouldn’t be possible without such nurseries.

Paschina took note of Novavine’s unique Italian varieties, and in 2015 he brought ribolla gialla vines to Barboursville. When new vines arrive from a nursery, they don’t look like much. They’ve been grafted onto special root stocks, they are already 1 year old, and they look like bundles of twigs. Paschina planted the experimental ribolla vines in late March/early April 2015, after working the ground and preparing it so the young “roots can dig and develop,” he says.

I asked to see the ribolla and Paschina obliged, but as we climbed into a truck he warned that I might not be impressed with the fruit after the crippling series of frosts Virginia experienced this past spring. The vines have been in the ground less than a year and a half and haven’t had much time to develop.

We pulled up to the small patch of baby ribolla vines and were delighted to find healthy looking plants with promising fruit. Despite the frosts, and the youth of the vines, the vines seemed to be making themselves at home and a sense of nascent possibility hung in the air around the bunches. Usually, you don’t get enough fruit to work with until vines are three to five years old. But perhaps the ribolla might find a home in the upcoming 2016 vintage.

Paschina plucked a ripe ribolla berry from the vine for me to taste. The skin was gold and tasty, and slightly tannic in a chalky way. The fragrant juice was sweet and delicious, and the seeds had started to turn from green to nutty brown. These wine grapes had character.

What will Paschina do with the ribolla? It’s too soon to tell. The vines are so young it’s not possible to foresee how they will perform in the long run.

Paschina pauses for a moment. “I’m still deciding,” he says. He might make a 100 percent ribolla gialla wine, but, if so, he would likely make a crisp white wine instead of a Gravner-style amber wine with extended skin contact.

He also shared his thoughts on a different bottling. For a while now Paschina has been fomenting the idea of a Barboursville Octagon wine made from white grapes. An Octagon bianco, if you will. He’ll likely blend several different Barboursville grapes, including a hefty amount of the special Italian varieties he’s been working with, such as the ribolla gialla.

Barboursville Vineyards’ Octagon red blend has become a cornerstone ambassador of Virginia’s wine industry. Could an Octagon bianco also become a Virginia benchmark wine? And what could this mean for ribolla gialla, a little-known grape with, as Paschina says, “a name you can’t forget”?

Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog, thinking-drinking.com.

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