There are a lot of double takes wine drinkers have when they consider this beautiful wine from an obscure grape by a tiny young 1,000 case strong California winery.
Where is Alta Mesa? Do a Google search and the first result will be a memorial park (which happens to be located across the street from where I attended high school back in the day, interesting coincidence).
The name of the winery. It’s not exactly a conventional name, would you agree with me?
The suspense of “Suspiro del Moro.” What could that mean? You almost expect the wine label to have Zorro’s mask on it.
And of course, how in the world do you pronounce “Alvarelhao?” What is Alvarelhao? Some letter must be out of place there. Isn’t it a type of salt cod?
Amidst the head-scratching, question posing, and butchered pronunciations, 41 year old Matthew Rorick is crafting some of the most eye-opening wines today in California. Slowly, the rigid days of Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon or hit the road are becoming part of the past thanks to risk-takers like Rorick. There is, yes, hope, for the less tried and true varietals to shine because of Forlorn Hope.
After working with wineries of all sizes in California and Chile after serving the Navy in the Gulf War and graduating from UC Davis, Rorick switched gears, leaving the vineyards to pursue a graduate degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago. After the death of the grandfather who initially turned him onto the joys of beautiful wines, Rorick returned to winemaking, leading to a position as the winemaker for Elizabeth Spencer in Rutherford (Napa Valley). After peer encouragement, Rorick started experimenting under his own label and fully left Elizabeth Spencer in 2010.
So, where did the “Forlorn Hope” arrive from? It is a somewhat appropriate description for the daunting, thankless challenge that is opening a winery. Earlier this year in his “Winemaker to Watch” profile on Rorick in the San Francisco Chronicle, critic Jon Bonné explains:
After reading a book about the Duke of Wellington’s peninsular campaign against the French, he became intrigued with “forlorn hope” – a permutation of “verloren hoop,” Dutch for “lost troop,” both of which refer to soldiers chosen as the first wave in an offensive. Massive casualties were a way of life, but survivors reaped significant benefits.
Being a winery of great optimism, Forlorn Hope gives the unheralded grapes of the world a chance. This concept certainly is in vogue worldwide, leading to lots of risks that lead drinkers to yearn for a Pinot Noir again. Rarely has the new wave found the uniform rousing success Rorick’s wines have.
The Forlorn Hope grapes come from vineyards all over California. A soon to be released Riesling comes from Santa Barbara (really?). The St. Laurent grape grown for the 100% St. Laurent “Ost-Intrigen” is from Carneros in southern Napa Valley. Torrontés for the “La Gitana,” named for a gypsy, hails from the Silvaspoons Vineyard in the Lodi Valley, arguably THE emerging wine growing region of California.
You have your “Nacré” with 100% Sémillon based on the same grapes and style of Australia’s Hunter Valley, the “Mil Amores” blending Tinto Roriz and Touriga Nacional (what and what?), and one of Rorick’s original wines, “Gascony Cadets with 100% Petit Verdot, named from Cyrano de Bergerac (that earns mega bonus points from here). Every wine from this label boasts an intriguing, dramatic European phrase from tales and myths.
Like the Torrontés, the Alvarelhao grapes come from the Silvaspoons Vineyard, grown in the metropolis known as Galt in the Alta Mesa AVA of the Lodi wine growing region, a very warm and low elevation appellation part of Sacramento County with 5,300 acres of growing vines. It’s about 90 minutes east of San Francisco, directly east of the Delta and south of Sacramento. In other words, you’re stuck in Lodi again. Except now Lodi has great wines.
Alvarelhao is a Portuguese grape, demonstrating a flexible, lighter Rhône style character. It’s also known by its Spanish name, Brancellao. Forlorn Hope’s expression of the varietal is one of speckled pepper and juniper initially, an opening that smacks you with the fact that this is a vibrant wine. It’s Mick Jagger energy, not a symphony tonight.
The glowing raspberry hued body, slightly lighter universally than its similar colleagues, leads to a carbonated mouth feel that expresses similar plum jam, chipotle, and even anise notes of Cabernet Franc, without the hefty tannins and puckery finish. The carbonation comes from the fact that all Forlorn Hope red wines are stood up on their heads when in barrels aging, then have their tops popped off for fermentation. The conclusion here is smooth, almost sweet like a Port without the syrupy consistency. It’s a bizarre, comforting finish after the jazzy beginning. Talk about a wine with an arc of sensations.
Pigeon, sweetbreads, chicken liver terrine, or any form of game will be a perfect pairing for this very complimentary wine. Even a steak or a pungent cheese would be a terrific pairing since the wine doesn’t overwhelm with a canvassing structure and aura. It would really push forwards these strong flavors. I enjoyed many of these plus a delicate spring onions and turnips salad with the Alvarelhao, with no mismatches to be found. O.k., it might not be perfect with hamachi crudo, but it could work.
I befriended the Alvarelhao recently while dining at Los Angeles’ exceptional pop- up turned quaint energetic bistro, Alma, a restaurant itself that shares much in common with Forlorn Hope’s story and vision. Chef Ari Taymor and his team are turning that city’s dining scene around turning humble or forgotten items like an English muffin or sweetbreads into Oscar winners.
Sure, from the wine list you can order a Scholium Project Sauvignon Blanc or a Syrah from La Clarine Farm (both are exceptional wines of well known grapes), but come on, this is a place with a Malvazija (took me three times to correctly spell this while looking at the name) from Slovenia, and not one but two Listán Negros from the Canary Islands. Be bold!
More specifically, believe in this new bold manner of thinking and wine making, with Rorick as one of its vital pioneers. There is now tremendous hope for Alvarelhao and the lost grapes.