Winemaker takes a calculated Zocker (Gamble)


I’ve never met a real live global winemaking star but if they are all like Christian Roguenant, the world would be a far better place. Hailed as a “winemaking genius” by reputable wine publications, the fact that Roguenant was willing to share his secrets with a Wine Novice like me, and make me feel good about the little I know, is testament to the patient, caring, and innovative way he nurtures the organically grown grape varietals at Edna Valley’s Niven Family Wine Estates in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Rougenant visited Tutto Bene wine shop in Lowell last week, showing some remarkable new releases to proprietor Dick Rourke. Roguenant was gracious enough to lead me in a sample wine tasting of his fabulous Zocker Gruner Veltliner, Baileyana Pinot Noir, and Tangent Chardonnay. Zocker is the Austrian word for “gamble” — something that Roguenant has turned into a winning bet with the Gruner Veltliner  that is only grown in North America at Niven’s Paragon Vineyard in California’s Central Coast region.

Roguenant was born in Dijon, France, graduated university there, and has produced serious wines, including champagne, in five countries, from Europe to New Zealand. He was commissioned to create the official wine of the 1988 World Olympics in South Korea, and won raves for his “Grande Joie” champagne sparkler. Ten years later, when the Nivens built their new Baileyana winery, they turned to Roguenant. They were seeking a classic Old World winemaker who understood the importance of integrating modern techniques to produce quality products.

According to the Niven Family web site, Roguenant aims for elegant, food friendly wines. “My philosophy of winemaking,” he says, “is these grapes are rough but nice diamonds. My job is to polish without scratching them.”

Roguenant’s delicate touch is predicated on picking the grape at the height of its ripeness and flavorful intensity, and fermenting it in steel tanks. There is no malolactic fermentation from oak barrels, so don’t expect a creamy, vanilla taste. His whites are tastefully balanced: crisp, flavorful, acidic and with good minerality.

Of the four wines I tasted with Roguenant (see the accompanying video), I was greatly impressed with the Zocker Gruner Veltliner. Roguenant introduced the varietal to Edna Valley several years ago — he took a calculated gamble, he says — and it has thrived in the Paragon Vineyards terroir: clay loam and rocky marine sediment, Pacific Ocean breezes to cool down the grapes, and an extended growing season that ends in a November harvest. The wine I sampled had a fresh fruit taste, citrusy, and crisp. The finish was elegant with zest. Roguenant said the zest was a “white pepper” finish.

Wine Enthusiast rated the 2010 vintage with 91 points. The San Francisco Chronicle put Zocker on its Top 100 Wines of the Year list. It sells for $18 a bottle and is great with seafood of any kind and for all relaxing occasions.

The Baileyana Pinot Noir was also exceptional. Six months ago, several bottles arrived in my Wall Street Journal Wine Club purchase and they were the hit of the lot at less than $20 a bottle.

Roguenant also produces a dry Zocker Riesling for $20 that was rated 91 points in Wine Enthusiast’s April edition. Tutto Bene is now carrying some of the Niven products. You should give them a try.