Sometimes, the search for fine wine is like an expedition; studying wine reviews like they were scouting reports, patiently stalking the aisles of the wine shop, asking the advice of the local guide (wine shop staff), and occasionally checking in with your fellow hunters to see how they’ve done.
Other times, it lands on your doorstep, unannounced and unexpected. So it was when the UPS driver left a distinctive, single-wine-bottle-sized package on the porch a few weeks ago. Upon opening, we discovered a bottle of Salengo Grenache 2018, with its beautiful watercolor art label, and a note indicating the wine was sent at the request of friend and wine broker, Bill Tobey.
We’d never heard of Salengo, but fortunately the box also included a spec sheet, and bio of winemaker Nicole Salengo. In addition, we reached out to Nicole via email, and she was gracious enough to answer a few questions and fill in some additional detail.
The Salengo Grenache 2018 is from Yolo County. Wine lovers may be familiar with wines from Clarksburg…a designated AVA also in Yolo County. Yolo County is in the Sacramento Valley, just west of Sacramento. Its bordering counties include Solano to the south, and Napa and Lake Counties to the west, all known for quality grape and wine production. The fruit for the Salengo Grenache 2018 comes from the Coble Ranch in Winters.
Nicole Salengo is the winemaker at Berryessa Gap winery in Winters. She has nearly 20 years of wine industry experience, including time in Napa and New Zealand. With the release of the Salengo Grenache 2018, Nicole is realizing her long-term dream of having her own label.
The first thing we noticed when we looked at the bottle was the very light color of the wine, noticeable even through the green glass. We are big fans of Grenache, and have had many Grenache wines from numerous regions, but had never seen one this light in color. During our initial email exchange, Nicole said her goal was to model the wine in a Châteauneuf-du-Pape style; light and elegant, yet complex, and with lower alcohol.
In Nicole’s bio, and on the back label on the bottle, there is reference to Nicole’s origins from New England. We were intrigued by this, partly because Robyn is from Boston, and partly because one doesn’t often think of New England heritage when discussing wine. So after we tasted the wine (more on that in a minute), we reached out to Nicole again with some follow-up questions. In reply, she said she was born in Vermont and graduated from high school and college in upstate New York. Not Boston, but cose enough!
Beyond that, Nicole responded to our other questions…(warning: wine review spoiler alert!)
AfW: What brought you from New England to Northern California? Other than the weather, of course.
NS: You said it…the weather! I don’t like being cold!
I would call it ‘opportunity’. I’ve always been driven and when I was 8, I told my mom I wanted to move to California. I wanted to go to college here but that didn’t work out so I moved here after college. I had an aunt and uncle living in Davis and they offered to let me come stay with them. So the same year I graduated from college, I had $1,000 and a suitcase (almost like a dollar and a dream) and got on the plane to Sacramento. The rest is history. Once I was here, I worked in a lab and eventually quit to work in a wine shop. That’s where I learned about wine, and then was hired at my first winery. I went back to school at UC Davis for the Winemaking Certificate.
AfW: Your wine is exceptionally light and elegant. What was your process? Length of skin contact, stainless vs oak, oak selection and aging?
NS: Thank you. I try to allow for the variety and place where it’s grown express itself. Grenache is like Pinot Noir in that you can have a lighter expression or a darker, heavier expression. It also has a tendency like Zinfandel to creep up in sugar content once it’s in the fermenter (something I want to avoid). So I wanted to pick it earlier than other red varieties to maintain the acid profile and a lower alcohol level. Other things that I think contributed to the lightness and elegance of this wine are the way it was farmed and the area it was farmed in. 2018 was a year with a large crop so we had more fruit. So all of the energy of the vine was distributed among more grapes resulting in lighter color. In addition, the grapes are from the Coble Ranch Vineyard in Winters (owned and farmed by Berryessa Gap) where it has a warm, Mediterranean climate. Warm weather creates less anthocyanins (color compounds) and can result in lighter-colored wines. Both of these factors contribute to how light and elegant the wine turned out.
I visited the South of France (Châteauneuf du Pape) when I first was starting this project and had the most amazing 100% Grenache: light in color and body with nuanced complexities that really made you think about the wine and every sip was a different experience. My Grenache is modeled after that beautiful wine I tasted out of the barrel in France. I remember thinking that it was the perfect wine. And it liked that it wasn’t showy, it was just being itself, something I strive to do in life. In other words, the wine really spoke to me and created inspiration. The grapes in that French wine were grown on similar soils that give it a nice minerality, so that’s what is creating much of the texture (rather than the skins or barrel) of the wine. The Salengo Grenache was aged in old, neutral barrels so I think that also contributes to the lightness of the wine as well and allows for the fruit to be accentuated. Also the light color: as a young red wine ages, it reacts with the oxygen getting into the wine through the oak staves in the barrel and the wood tannin which can help to stabilize color. This wine was aged in very old barrels, that kept the color light too.
The juice was on the skins for about two weeks, just enough time to ferment but not get any over-extraction. We performed manual punch-downs twice a day, pressed it and aged it for 18 months in neutral oak, as mentioned. The wine really blossomed as it was aging and it was so exciting to taste it along the way to see it open up and release all of these yummy flavors.
AfW: How long have you been making wine? Where did you start, history?
NS: This year will be my 17th harvest. It’s basically been a process of elimination and me trying to prove people wrong and find a career that keeps my attention. I’m hard-headed and have a good palate which has a lot to do with why I’m making wine. It’s been a lot of hard work, and sometimes I try too hard and have too high of expectations and it makes me discouraged but it’s a fabulous combination of art, science, tradition with possibility of great things in the future. That is why I’m a winemaker.
The whole story is I worked at a Belgium-style brewery in college which started to develop my palate. I always had an interest in science, particularly chemistry and geology. I was made wine buyer at a wine shop which expanded my palate significantly when I was an age where I couldn’t afford fine wines. Then, I was hired at a start-up winery and discovered my love for making wine. I fell in love with it the first day of my first harvest. I went back to school, got promoted to assistant winemaking positions, did harvests in Napa and New Zealand and was hired as head winemaker at Berryessa Gap in 2013. I’ve now worked with over 50 varieties and have fulfilled my dream of having my own label. It’s a very fun industry to be a part of.
AfW: What is your wine story? That first bottle that got you hooked?
NS: The wine I referenced earlier has been a part of my inspiration to want to make wine. This is going back to my early twenties when I was a wine buyer. It was a bottle of 1995 Chateau Rayas, Pignon. That wine is 100% Grenache like mine and it’s the same winery I referenced above where I serendipitously saw the small rusty sign while in the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in 2016. I was by myself and didn’t speak French but after an afternoon of waiting, I had a tour with the winemaker Emmanuel Reynaud and tasted the 2015 Pignon from barrel.
I also recall tasting some really amazing Pinot Noirs from Willamette that really moved me early on. Then some Tempranillos form the Ribera del Duero that were really amazing. There are lots of great wines out there and I just love the ones that take you to a place. There are times when I taste a wine and I almost feel transported to that region where it was grown and made, those are the very special ones for me, the ones that take you on a mini-vacation and get your imagination going. You know a truly great wine when you taste it, so I just keep tasting.
So it turns out that New England isn’t the only bond we have with Nicole. Kent’s start in wine was with a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir; from St. Innocent. Turns out Nicole knows St. Innocent, too, and loves their wines. It’s always good to make new wine-friends!
So what about the wine? Very impressive! It’s a wine that gets better with each sip. Honestly, it’s a wine for wine geeks, like us, but not for everybody. We have a number of wine friends who favor jammy fruit bombs. Salengo Grenache 2018 is not that wine. It is a sophisticated wine with layers of complexity. Here’s our review:
Very pale ruby color, with an almost tawny port rim. The nose is unique, with subtle raspberry and red cherry notes, with dusty, earthy notes. On the palate, raspberry and cherry, cherry cola, and licorice notes, with hints of smoked meat and black pepper. Tannins are soft and smooth. Bright acidity, excellent balance, and a medium finish of red fruit and a bit of licorice. We paired with brats, which complemented nicely and drew out even more earthiness. This is a very sophisticated wine that grows on you the more it opens up!
Are you ready to try an out-of-the box Greneache? You can find Salengo Grenache 2018 online at the Berryessa Gap Winery website. Of course, if you’re in NorCal, please stop by the winery and give it a try. Tell Nicole that Kent and Robyn sent you!
- By Kent Reynolds and Robyn Raphael-Reynolds
- Photo cred: Robyn Raphael-Reynolds