In our recent inaugural visit to Lodi we had the good fortune to meet one of the most unusual characters in that emerging region: Markus Niggli. Come to think of it, he would be one of the most unusual characters in any wine region. A native of Switzerland, Markus has worked in vineyards and wineries around the world. In 2006, he started at Lodi’s first boutique winery, Borra Vineyard, working in the cellar. By 2010, he had moved his way up to become winemaker at Borra and has consistently been one of the most brash and creative forces on the Lodi scene. In parallel with the wine produced for Borra, Markus Niggli has for the past four years or so been making wines under his own label, Markus Wine Co.
At the end of 2017, Borra Vineyards closed its tasting room; though vineyard and winery operations will continue, at least for the moment no wine will be produced under its label. With this change, Markus will put his energy 100% into his own label and focus on the unique varietals and blends that capture his attention. Currently, Markus Wine Co. does not have its own tasting room, so we met Markus on a beautiful sunny Lodi Saturday at the Borra facility where he had quite a roster of wines set up for us to taste – 5 whites and 4 reds in all. As we surveyed the lineup of wines, it struck us that Markus has put himself in a category of his own as he is working with grapes and wines that are not only unique to Lodi but to the American wine scene in general. In fact, we had to Google a couple of his grape varietals when we go to our hotel because we had literally never heard of them in any of our travels or wine classes.
We started out conventionally enough with the 2016 Markus Nuvola, a 100% Gewürztraminer.
Unlike many American versions of this wine which are overly sweet and syrupy, Markus’ take on this grape was crisp, dry and refreshing. Like most of his white wines, the Markus Gewürztraminer does not undergo secondary (malolactic) fermentation and all aging occurs in stainless steel. This wine also does not see any oak and only native yeasts are used. Shortly aftet sipping this first wine, we knew we would want to add it to our online wine store: www.topochines.com.
From this classic grape we moved on to a decidedly lesser-known grape varietal – Kerner. When Markus poured us his 2016 Nativo he explained that it was a blend of three grapes: Kerner, Riesling and Bacchus.
If you know any two of these grapes, that makes you a certified wine geek; knowing all three should instantly bestow some sort of sommelier ranking. We knew only one – Riesling – and soon learned that Kerner was a grape produced in the early 20th Century by crossing Riesling and another grape. Within the U.S. there are very few acres planted to Kerner but, fortunately for Markus, one of them is located in the Mokelumne Glen Vineyards in Lodi (the only Kerner vineyard in the entire state). These three varietals – which are co-fermented rather than blended – produce another dry, crisp, acidic wine that is perfect for pairing with any food onto which you might squeeze lemon. Skip the lemon and savor this wine instead. One thing we noticed when drinking this wine was the rich, golden color, not usually the result of a wine that was aged in stainless steel and did not undergo malolactic fermentation. However, Markus explained that the wine aged on its lees which likely explains the beautiful color and the rich texture and mouthfeel.
Our third white wine was Markus’ 2016 Nimmo, another Kerner-based wine but with 15% Gewürztraminer added to the mix.
Like the Nativo wine, the Markus Nimmo did not undergo any malolactic fermentation and only native yeasts were used. One difference between the two wines, though, is that the Nimmo was aged on the lees for 6 months in 60% new French oak. We did not note any adverse impact from the oak as the wine was still quite crisp and acidic and had plenty of minerality on the palate.
Our fourth white wine was yet another revelation in terms of introducing us to new grape varietals and blends. The Markus Joey 2016 Insieme is a blend of wines from two different grapes grown in two different states – California and North Carolina.
Unlike the previous ones, this label brings together two wine makers, Markus (Niggli) and Joey (Medaloni). For this delicious blend, Markus contributes the grape varietal Torrontes, while Joey contributes Traminette from vineyards in North Carolina. This wine is 95% Torrontes (a grape native to Argentina) and 5% Traminette (a hybrid grape produced by crossing Gewürztraminer and another more obscure grape varietal). The result? A most intriguing white wine, definitely not something that would be confused with a Sauvignon Blanc or similar traditional white wines. To be honest, it’s a bit funky . . . . in a good way. It is definitely crisp and dry, having seen no malolactic fermentation and aging only for 3 months in stainless steel. But beyond dry, it is spicy and, we think, even a bit salty, with plenty of minerality on the nose and the palate. This wine should only be consumed by and shared with people who can appreciate wine tasting as an experience.
Our final (sort of) white wine was the Markus 2017 Zeal, an absolutely delicious rosé made from Syrah (64%) and Old Vine Carignane (36%).
Most rosé wines are made by the “direct press” method where the grapes are pressed together and then removed from the skins after a few hours. Winemakers that use this method typically grow the grapes in question specifically to make a rosé wine. Being the slightly contrary and creative winemaker that he is, Markus makes his rosé using the saignée method where grapes that are destined to be bottled as a red wine are pressed and a portion (about 10%) of the juice is “bled off” and fermented separately to make a rosé. Wines made using this process often have a deeper color, which is certainly the case with the Markus Zeal. The most dry of Markus’ white wines (i.e., the one with the lowest amount of residual sugar), the Zeal has bright watermelon, strawberry and citrus flavors complemented with powerful minerality and acidity. This wine has not been released yet which made it an extra treat for us to taste it.
Finally it was time for us to move on to Markus’ red wines, another interesting assortment of varietals and blends that are not simply “normal” Lodi reds. Sure, Markus does make a Zinfandel; after all, Lodi is routinely referred to as the Zinfandel Capital of the World. The 2015 Markus Blue is 90% Zinfandel (80% from Borra Vineyards and 10% from Spenker Ranch) with 5% each of Petite Verdot and Petit Sirah.
If there is one of the Markus wines that we consider to be a “classic Lodi” wine, this would be it, although the addition of the Petit Verdot and Petit Sirah add earthiness and flavor that make this an intriguing Zinfandel. While there is plenty of fruit on the nose and palate, there is an equal balance of spice and earth and wood that results in a sophisticated and elegant final product.
Our second red was the 2015 Markus Domo, a blend of Carignane (75%), Petite Sirah (15%), AND Syrah Clone 450 (10%).
When Markus first poured us a taste of the 2015 Domo, the appearance led us to expect a mild wine as the color was on the lighter end of the scale. However, this was a serious wine, tart and spicy and more than big and bold enough to hold its enough against a juicy steak.
We rounded out our red tasting with two additional creative blends, the 2015 Markus Zeitlos and the 2015 Markus Sol.
A blend of Syrah Clone 877 (76%), Carignane (12%), Petit Sirah (8%) and Viognier (4%), the Zeitlos is an elegant and structured wine with strong tannins that lead to a long finish. Despite its 23 months in 75% once-filled French oak, this wine does not feel over-oaked at all. The Markus Sol is another fascinating blend, this one led by Petite Sirah (42%) with Syrah Clone 877 (37%) and Mourvèdre (21%).
While the Zeitlos had more red fruit on the palate, the Sol leads with plenty of dark fruits – blackberry and blueberry – and hints of earth.
Tasting Markus’ entire portfolio left us with the clear impression that Markus is both a maverick and a classical winemaker. Sure, he is experimenting with different varietals, unique blends and co-ferments. However, he is also showing respect for varietal and terroir, refusing to use oak for instance to alter the flavor or character of the wines.
Another impression that our time with Markus left us with is how personal all of his wines are to him. For each wine discussed we included both the label and a picture of the bottle. Each label tells a story, both with words and images. On the top right of every label is the name of a place from Markus’ life, places that had an important impact on his development as a person and a winemaker. These places range from the town he was born in Switzerland (featured on the “nativo” label) to his current home of Lodi (“domo”) and many wine stops in between. Each label also has a creative design whose story relates to the varietal in a way that has meaning to Markus. Those that plan to taste with him should plan to spend enough time to not only taste the wine but explore the labels and understand what makes each wine personal to Markus.
Within the next couple of days we are planning to add some of the Markus wines to our online wine store: www.topochines.com. Look out for them!
John & Irene Ingersoll
March 2, 2018