We recently had the most interesting visit to this picturesque Lodi winery. St. Jorge Winery produced its first vintage in 2008. We have tasted St. Jorge wines in the past. Several times someone has brought a bottle to an annual crab feed we attend. We have always liked the wine, usually a Verdelho, and have been curious to try their other wines. Several weeks ago we decided to take a trip out to the winery to see what their wines are all about.
Vernon Vierra, the winemaker, is Portuguese. His grandfather came from the Azores island of St. Jorge. Vern grew up making wine with his father and grandfather. It was very much a family social event. Everyone would pick the grapes, often Mission or other black grape varieties. Wine was consumed with family meals and was a part of every day life.
Vernon remembers, at the age of four, sampling the fermenting wine. The fermenting barrel of wine had a hose coming from it into a container of water where escaping carbon dioxide bubbled into the water. He took a taste from a hose but forgot to replace the end of the hose in the water. This of course was discovered by his grandfather who was not too pleased. Vernon was allowed to drink the finished wine with meals whenever he chose, but was not allowed to sample from the barrel!
Vernon makes wine that reflects the vintage, his wines will not be exactly the same year-to-year. Grapes are hand-picked and sorted. Red wines are produced using whole berry fermentation. It takes more time, but Vern wants his wines to express the flavors of the fruit. He uses oak, French and American, but keeps the oak influence in the background.
You will see many Portuguese varietal wines on the list at St. Jorge — Verdelho, Souzão, Tinto Cão, Touriga Nacional and Trincaderia. This does not mean that Vern has neglected Old Vine Zinfandel for which Lodi is famous. And he has plans for a Cabernet Sauvignon in the future.
In the below-ground cellar, the only one in Lodi according to Vern, we barrel-tasted 2012 Zinfandel from both American and French oak barrels. The American oak allowed the bright fruit flavors of the Zinfandel to shine thorough. The French oak influence is evident in the mid-palate and produced a very long finish. Less fruit-forward.
We tasted a similar difference in another 2012 Zinfandel. An old vine Zinfandel from 108 year old vines. Wine from the American oak barrel had a obvious fruity nose and flavors.
Vern replaces one-third of the barrels every year, third-year barrels are considered neutral. He will rack red wines up to five times. This process of moving the wine from barrel to barrel clarifies the wine. Sometime after the third racking, the barrels are combined and depending on what flavors are needed in the developing wines, barrels for further aging are selected.
We tasted the 2012 Trincadeira from two barrels, both second year French oak. The wine in both barrels was very light ruby, but the flavors were distinctly different. It was a great demonstration of the unique characteristics of every barrel of wine. Each barrel has its own chemistry going on.
The 2010 St. Jorge Trincadeira had a very light body and complex dark fruit flavors with smooth tannins. The finished wine was very special. Not much of this grape variety is planted in California, Vern has one acre himself.
As we sampled the 2012 Touriga Nacional in French Oak Vern explained many Portuguese grape varieties are challenging to grow. They ripen late, so if there is early rain fruit may be damaged. This wine still has a young ruby-violet color in the glass with floral and cherry flavors and minimal tannins.
Next it was time to move out to the vineyard. But first, Vern poured us a glass of 2010 Vinho Cor de Rosa, his Carignan rosé. He wanted us to taste the wine as we visited the Carignan vines to see what is happening in the vineyard. He showed us the developing bunches of grapes and explained the details of pollination between the berries. A lot of labor is required in the vineyard to coax ripeness from this grape variety. Leaves are thinned on the north side of the rows. Vern is specific about how many shoots to leave and where they are left to develop. It is a labor of love.
The 2010 Vinho Cor de Rosa has summer fruit flavors of peaches with interesting minerality and great acidity. The juice spent 24 hours on the skins and the 2010 still has plenty of flavor.
St. Jorge produces a Verdelho Seco and a Verdelho. We tasted both. The 2011 Verdelho Seco is fermented to dryness. It is crisp with citrus and minerality. This wine has plenty of flavor even when served very chilled. The 2011 Verdelho has a bit of residual sugar, 1.2%. It too has great acidity, minerality and citrus flavors with a touch of sweetness. It’s great to have a choice of styles. Both are very refreshing.
The Verdelho is grown by Ron Silva, a Portuguese grapegrower, in the Alta Mesa AVA (American Viticultural Area) northeast of Lodi. This very warm AVA has gravel and clay soils. The Verdelho cuttings, as well as the Souzão, were brought from the Azorean Island of Pico where Ron’s grandfather was born. Ron’s Silvaspoons Vineyards is home to several other Portuguese grape varieties as well — Tinto Cão, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesa. All together he grows about 20 grape varieties on 300 acres.
We tasted both the 2010 St. Jorge Souzão and 2010 St. Jorge Tinto Cão. Both are flavorful wines with moderate tannins and fairly light feel in the mouth. The Tinto Cão had a more complex mid-palate and neither is overly influenced by oak.
Also of note, the 2010 St. Jorge Silvaspoons Vineyards Tempranillo. This very dark wine is aged in French oak for 17 months. The flavors are complex with ripe dark fruit and moderate tannins. Once again the flavors of the fruit are enjoyable and complemented by a bit of spice from the wood.
Wine tasting in Lodi could not be complete without sampling Zinfandel. We tasted two vintages of Old Vine Zinfandel from the Mohr-Fry Ranch. The 2009 St. Jorge Old Vine Zinfandel Mohr-Fry River Ranch (66 year old vines) had dark fruit flavors but was not over-ripe and not over-oaked. The fruit was front and center in this surprisingly light Zinfandel. In contrast, the 2010 St. Jorge Old Vine Zinfandel Mohr-Fry Home Ranch (99 year old vines) was much more concentrated with riper, darker fruit flavors and a bit more weight in the mouth. Both Zinfandels had subtle wood influence and well-integrated tannins.
To finish this interesting wine experience there was 2010 St. Jorge Port. Produced from a field blend of the usual five Portuguese Port grape varieties and aged 30 months in oak, this fortified wine was dark and viscous in the glass, complex and spicy in the mouth and had a sweet, hot finish like a good Port should.
Did someone say Madeira? Vern has one in the works, made from Verdelho.
This is the perfect time of year to visit St. Jorge Winery. The vineyards surrounding the Winery are green and lush. The Verdelho wines are crisp and perfect for warm weather. The red wines are flavorful, not over-ripe and not over-oaked. They will be great companions for summer meals and beyond into fall and winter. And how often do you have the chance to sample so many Portuguese varietal wines in one place? If you are interested in tasting something a little different, this winery is an excellent choice.
Most likely Vern’s wife Jenise will greet you in the tasting room. She will step you through the tasting menu, telling you the history of the winery and the grapes that produced the wines. Even though she is Italian and not Portuguese, her enthusiasm for Vern’s Portuguese ancestry will be evident. She will give you little nibbles of Portuguese sweet bread and chocolate.
St. Jorge winery is a lovely, inviting oasis with a beautiful courtyard and vineyard view. A great place to sit a while after tasting their interesting and flavorful wines. I particularly enjoyed the visit because my paternal grandparents both came from the island of St. Jorge in the Azores. Pete and I have visited the Islands several times and been to St. Jorge. This visit brought back many fond travel memories for both of us. Thanks to Vern for sharing his family history and winemaking knowledge with us.