Cougar Vineyard and Winery offers a boutique experience in Temecula Valley Wine Country

Cougar Vineyard and Winery, poised on a hillside off the De Portola Wine Trail, offers exceptional mountain views, wine and delicious sandwiches available at Sangio’s Deli. Matthew Burlile photo
Cougar Vineyard and Winery, poised on a hillside off the De Portola Wine Trail, offers exceptional mountain views, wine and delicious sandwiches available at Sangio’s Deli. Matthew Burlile photo

Aglianico. Falanghina. Lambrusca di Allesandria. These are just a few of the Italian varietal grapes grown on the Cougar Vineyard and Winery that have gotten the notice of both southern California wine lovers and Italian wine.

“What was thought to be Nebbiolo turned out to be something different,” assistant winemaker Erick Erno said during a recent wine tasting at Cougar. “The grapes were studied and turned out to be a rare Lambrusca di Alessandria.”

Working with UC Davis to properly identify the Italian grape, Cougar has been instrumental in drawing notice to the Lambrusca di Alessandria varietal, as well as two other rare Italian vines – the Brachetto and the Falanghina. At this time, Cougar is the only commercial winery in the United States producing both Brachetto and Falanghina wine.

If you are a lover of fine wine, exceptional views and a laid back inviting atmosphere, Cougar Vineyard and Winery Located on the De Portola Wine Trail, is a must stop on your visit to Temecula Valley Wine Country. Follow the tracks, as the bottles say, to the winery that is the dream made reality from ground to glass by owners Rick and Jennifer Buffington.

Their path to what is now Cougar Vineyard is over 20 years in the making, starting out in the Texas heat, when they attempted their first wine. A move to Bellevue, Washington had them perfecting their wine making process, where the Cougar Vineyard and Winery label was born with their first award winning Semillon in 1998. The lure of southern California wine country was strong and a move to Fallbrook led them to planting their first vineyard locally.

Now, Cougar Vineyards in Temecula Valley Wine Country is growing some of the rarest Italian varietal grapes outside of Italy, and the Buffingtons continue to produce specialty boutique wine on 17 family acres.

“We are 100-percent estate bottled,” Erno said. “Our Italian varietals stem from across Italy, and due to the unique climate of the De Portola Wine Trail, we are able to capitalize on growing these vines.”

The rare treat of the crisp, white 2015 Estate Falanghina is the ideal wine to begin your tasting tour of Cougar’s estate bottled wines. This grape heralds from the Campania region north of Naples, Italy—above the toe of Italy’s boot. This is a well-balanced dry white, with crisp acidity and hints of melon on the palate. An idea summer deck wine, make sure you put a bottle of the highly drinkable Falanghina in your wine fridge for Temecula summers, poolside.

On a warm day at the tasting room, try a side-by-side tasting of the Pinot Grigio, both the 2015 and 2014, showcased in a vertical tasting. See the benefits one year in bottle can add, with the subtle differences. The 2014 holds more vanilla notes, as it benefitted from 8-months in neutral American oak barrels, while the 2015 was tank fermented by comparison. The 2015 Pinot Grigio holds more of the mellow fruit flavors of pear and peach, as well as that crisp green apple bite. Either is ideal for the warm sunny afternoons in southern California.

On the red side of the menu, Cougar Vineyard and Winery starts with their 2013 Estate Cask Reserve Sangiovese. This Italian varietal stems from both the central Italian regions of Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Abruzzo, and Marches. Sangiovese is most often thought of as a Tuscan wine, and is a defining grape at an Italian winery. Sangiovese is ideal for warm climate such as Temecula, according to Erno. At Cougar Vineyard and Winery, the Sangiovese started out in American oak barrels, finishing in the large French Oak cask. This is a bottle to buy and enjoy now, and to save in your personal cellar.

While enjoying the Cougar tasting menu, make sure to pause your tasting for a sample of the Sangio’s Deli. Here, Boars Head meat is servedan d Ciabatta bread is baked daily for the enjoyment of wine tasters. Paninis or cold sandwiches are available. To go with the wine, try an Italian Roast Beef, where roast beef, provolone, red leaf lettuce, Roma tomato, red onion, pepperoncini, and roasted red peppers are served with a special deli dressing. To thoroughly enjoy your lunch time Cougar Vineyard and Winery experience, try the prosciutto – with perfect slices of the smoked Italian ham pair with roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella cheese and extra-virgin olive oil. Sandwich prices start at approximately $10.

If sharing is more your element, try the pizzas, made fresh to order, and started with the San Marzano Tomato sauce, full of herbs and spices. The Pizza Margherita is highly sharable, topped with fresh mozzarella, bruschetta and basil, or the Pesto Margherita – served with fresh pesto, mozzarella and bruschetta, topped with fresh basil, both starting at $11. Other sharable menu items include the Meat and Cheese platter, piled high with fresh Mozzarella, asiago and provolone cheese, served with ham, Sopresatta salami, hot capicola, fresh bruschetta on a crisp crostini bread served with assorted fruits and peppers—this well apportioned treat serves two or more, for $20.

Returning to your tasting, be sure to finish up with the reserve tastings of the Library and Limited Quantity Wines. As Cougar Vineyard and Winery is a true boutique, the wines on the list are often retired to the library during the tasting season. If you find a wine that you love, take home a bottle or two before they disappear. Such can be said for the 2012 Estate Lambrusca di Alessandria. This rare varietal is dark in color, with aromas of dark fruits, such as black cherry and anise on the nose. Rich on the palate, with a long, lingering velvet finish, and a rarity make the Lambrusca di Alessandria the wine to cherish for special occasions.

Come to Cougar Vineyard and Winery for a little bit of Italy in southern California. Visit online at

Cougar Vineyard and Winery is open Sunday through Thursday from 11a.m. to 6 p.m., Fridays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and features live music on Fridays from 5- 8 p.m. and Sundays from 2- 5p.m. They are conveniently located along the De Portola Wine Trail at 39870 De Portola Road in Temecula and can be reached by calling (951) 491-0825.

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