Coro Mendocino: America’s “Corporate PDO”

Mendocino County winemakers are kickin’ it Old School! Or Old World, rather. Coro Mendocino represents “the first time in U.S. history that winemakers from any region have created parameters for a wine distinctive to their area,” and the experiment of applying “Old World” rules to “New World” winemaking (and winemakers) has lasted for over a decade now. Your Private Wineaux has thoughts, but first a bit about that “Old World/New World” thing.

One major difference between wine’s “Old World” (southern and central Europe, the Mediterranean, and western Asia) and “New World” (everywhere else) are the rules of appellations. In the Old World, a wine can’t be called “Bordeaux,” “Chianti,” “Rioja,” etc. unless it’s been produced from grapes of specific varieties grown in a specific region and made according to specific procedures. These rules are set as law by the respective countries and are respected by other countries through reciprocal agreement. The rules can be rigid for producers (and a bit daunting for the novice), but they do guarantee a level of consistency — and ostensibly quality — when one buys a wine from a certain appellation. Thus, a bottle of Amarone will look and taste like Amarone, and not like Champagne, or Tokaji, or Barolo. The European Union collectively labels the highest appellations “Protected Designation of Origin” (PDO), which includes France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), Spain’s Denominación de Origen (DO), and others.

New World appellation laws and rules only guarantee origin: that is, where the grapes were grown. If a bottle of wine says “Napa Valley” or “Mendoza” or  “McLaren Vale,” then 75-100% of the grapes must have come from that region. Beyond that, pretty much anything goes: any grapes, blended or single variety; any production techniques; any amount of aging is okay. There’s no guarantee that one Napa Valley wine will have flavor profile characteristics in common with another, or even that they’ll be comparable in quality.

Enter Coro Mendocino.

In 2001, a group of Mendocino County winemakers came together to develop and produce a class of ultra-premium wines that represent the region with the best it has to offer. Zinfandel was chosen as the representative and lead variety (40-70% of the blend) with any of nine “second tier” varieties allowed in smaller percentages and a 10% “free play” of any vinifera grape. All fruit must come from Mendocino County, and the wines must be wholly produced at a Mendocino County winery  according to proscribed production protocols including chemistry (alcohol, pH, acidity), cooperage and aging, and labeling, in addition to the varietal composition stated above. In short, the winemakers of Consortium Mendocino have agreed to submit their Coro wines to the same types of rules and strictures as Old World PDOs like Chateauneuf du Pape or Chianti Classico.*

But does it work?

Your Private Wineaux has had the opportunity to taste Coro Mendocino from two producers: the 2004 vintages from Fetzer and from Pacific Star — and the answer is a resounding “Yes!” The offering from Fetzer, one of the largest wine producers in the U.S., was a more “traditional” blend of 47% Zinfadel, 42.5% Petite Sirah, 10% Grenache, and 0.5% Syrah. The plush, jammy, blueberry plum tart with fine, dusty tannins and a bit of chocolate on the finish is well-balanced and pretty much what one would expect from a Zinfandel-based blend (one CellarTracker reviewer called it a “Zin with benefits!”). The Pacific Star offering was more adventurous blend with the minimum allowed 40% Zinfandel and six other varieties (including a “free play” of 6% Pinot Noir). It was a bit darker and a bit more earthy than the Fetzer, but the body and balance were in keeping with it’s “brother from another.”

Both wines could be clearly identified as efforts toward the same goal and that is where Coro Mendocino should see its greatest success. With proper marketing, placement, and of course word-of-mouth consumer endorsement, the link between wine and place will be solid. Coro tends to be made in small quantities though — Fetzer produced only 211 cases of the 2004 — which can make it difficult to find. The current vintage (from all producers) is available online from Sip! Mendocino and directly from most of the wineries where previous vintages may also be available. Find it. Drink it. Spread the word.

We want them to make more.

*The Consortium makes the full production protocol available, along with links to all current release and past producers, release party information, their blog, and other useful bits of knowledge at the Coro Mendocino web site.

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