Pitchers From Some Matchbook Men

There’s a  winery in the Dunnigan Hills AVA called Matchbook, which sounds more like a name for a singles networking site than a vineyard.

John Giguiere viewed without 'They Live' glasses

John Giguiere viewed with 'They Live' glasses

Actually, the truth behind the name is far more disturbing—and yes, Virginia, you can get more disturbing  than a singles networking site, though granted, not much.  Winemaker John Giguiere confesses to being a childhood pyromaniac with a track record that includes having lit his father’s Dunnigan Hills wheat fields on fire and, along with his brother Karl, firing incendiary devices that resulted in more than a couple of nasty run-ins with the local fire department.

“Everything that was around us we would burn up,” he said in a recent interview with the Sacramento Business Journal. “We had grass fires, we had rockets; we burned everything when we were kids.

The Giguiere brothers claim to have grown out of their sociopathology (you burn, you learn), though John seems quick enough to point out his fond memories of the ‘sense of power’ that lighting fires gave him.  I might have written off his pyro comment as a little dark PR humor to justify his burnt-paper wine label, but describing a ‘sense of power’ in destroying property?  Eegads, that’s a bit of a psychological red-flag to encounter in a press release about tempranillo.

I’m prone to think out loud, so forgive me.  But if I was making wine in a state which in the past decade has seen 35 million acres burned in half a million wildfires, I’m not sure I’d be confessing to being a reformed, if unrepentant arsonist.   Better Giguiere should have confessed to being the Zodiac killer—the big ‘Z’ only claimed seven lives while 31 people have died in California fires since 2001, including 19 in 2007 alone—ironically, the vintage of the tempranillo that Matchbook sent me.

I’m a wine writer, so I’ll try to stay on topic. 

Anyway, tempranillo is a spicy, sexy grape native to Northern Spain; it puts the oomph in wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero and is the key varietal in Port.  It does best in a cooler climate where it ripens early and can, if handled judiciously, produce wines of great depth and complexity.  It is also key to a fine sangria, which should not be confused with the half-assed sangrias that most of us have tried.  Made with fresh fruit juice, quality Rioja, a top-shelf brandy and sluiced over a hot summer afternoon, sangria can be the pitcher of perfection.

California tempranillo

Here in the States, along with its sister varietals grenache and graciano, tempranillo proves an ideal match for the weather patterns of northern Yolo county.  Certain parts of Yolo—Dunnigan Hills in particular—boast a Mediterranean climate similar to that in which tempranillo was born.  As in Spain, California tempranillo is moderate in alcohol, moderate in acidity and somewhat prone to oak intimidation.  In Spain, fruit flavors can be restrained in favor of herbaceousness, cigar-boxiness  and forest-flooriness; in California, the focus in on more user-friendly berry notes, especially strawberry, currant and blackberry.

Serendipity or intelligent design?

Secondary flavor notes of tempranillo are often described as wood smoke and scorched earth.

Toasted Head label viewed without 'They Live' glasses

Toasted Head label viewed with 'They Live' glasses

As such, Rioja-style reds are not only ideally suited to the unique Dunnigan Hills microclimate, but a perfect style to spark fire in the soul of John Giguiere and company.  ‘And company’ being the blockbuster winery R.H. Phillips, which he and Karl founded in 1984 and sold for $92 million in 2000.  So what if tempranillo is not the most widely distributed varietal in California?—this sort of scoot is what a wine writer with less self control than I might refer to as ‘money to burn’.  (At R.H. Phillips, he and Karl developed a brand called ‘Toasted Head’, but the less said about that the better.)

Matchbook makes for a killer sangria

Matchbook’s contribution to a small, but heated clan of Spanish grape fans in Northern California, which includes such pioneers as Coral Mustang and Barreto Cellars, is sensational; near the top of the heap.  The wine is alive with juicy fruit, and equally, with with an outstanding varietal earthiness, deep concentration and vibrancy that only small pockets of Sacramento Valley can offer.  Giguiere has apparently found the hot spot.

At around $15, Giguiere describes his ’07 tempranillo as ‘an affordable luxury’ and he’s not far off the mark.

Forget about Daddy’s wheat fields; with this sort of product at this sort of price point, Giguiere  should be able to set the world on fire.

Tasting Notes:

Matchbook Tempranillo, Dunnigan Hills, 2007, about $15: Simultaneously rustic and elegant, there’s licorice and blackberry up front quickly and seamlessly melding with chocolate and coffee bean flavors.  On the palate, spicy tobacco notes combine with truffle and leather, but especially,  bursts of ripe raspberries, dried cherries and plum.  The wine is firm and rounded; the tannins are integrated and the finish, though a trifle shorter than the big mouthfeel suggests, is all vanilla, hazelnut and toffee.

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