California road trip

Andover Wine Friends’ November tasting had a mainly Californian theme. It was supposed to be an entirely Californian evening but, like a proper road trip, there was a bit of a diversion, of which more shortly.  The aims were simply:

  • to illustrate the main styles of this state which accounts for 90% of the wine production of the USA
  • to look at the quality for price to had in the middle sector of the Californian market, between the tidal wave of cheap supermarket wines and the super-premium cult wines for which large numbers of affluent Americans compete. 

TastingWe started with a high quality version of the supermarket bottle.  Robert Mondavi (d. 2008) was a towering figure in the state’s wine scene.  One of the sons of Italian immigrants from Le Marche, his parents’ made a living from selling grapes to home winemakers during the Prohibition years (1920-33) while he was driven by a conviction that good quality wine (at whatever price level) is a part of gracious living. On this occasion we tasted one of this high quality but big volume wines,Woodbridge, Chardonnay, Robert Mondavi, California, 2011, 13.5%, £8.50.  The fruit here will come mainly from the hot, irrigated, Central Valley and in fact is a blend of 76% Chardonnay, 18% Colombard, 3% Viognier and 3% aromatic varieties.  Apart from the complex blend (with in effect 6% aromatic Two Chardonnaysvarieties which will make a perceptible impact), the key point here is that only a part of the wine goes through malolactic fermentation, which converts malic acid into softer lactic acid. The part of the wine which retains its malic acid will contribute a freshness to the wine that could easily be lost in a hot climate.  The finished wine is then aged on the fine lees in French barriques for 5-6 months to give a light toastiness to add to the moderately-rich ripe apple and melon flavoured fruit.  This is a remarkably sophisticated wine for the price. 

On any road trip worthy of the name there is that moment when you say ‘Shall we just take a diversion to ….?’ In our case, due to a breakdown in communication with Washington Gewurzthe supplier, the byway led us all of 700 miles north to Washington State for a premium Chardonnay and an example of an aromatic variety.  Protected by a mountain range from the cold Pacific, the Columbia Valley is home to a small but growing number of premium wineries in Washington State.  Our premium Chardonnay (which should of course have been Californian) was Chardonnay, L’Ecole no. 41, Columbia Valley, Washington State, 2009, 14.5%, £22.50. Unfortunately one of the two bottles was corked but the sound bottle showed whistle clean fruit, and a fine intensity on the palate.  It was very good but the quality of the cheaper Californian (and you can’t often say that!) rather outshone it at less than half the price.  In the same state, but from Washington’s founder winery Chateau Ste Michelle came Gewürztraminer 2009, 12% at the excellent price of £11.95.  As chance would have it we had marked bottle variation again but this time of the completely inexplicable sort – one bottles had just a touch of TCA about it but was otherwise rich and opulent, while the other one was clean but lean …   Strange but true.  Whatever the true style is the wine impressed with its drinkability and fruit-acidity balance – it certainly was not overly fat and blousy as Gewurz can be. 

On to the red wines and back from our diversion we re-enter California.  While the state grows great Cabernet and Merlot, the grape variety it can sort of call its own is Zinfandel.  The variety hails from Croatia and has made its home in Puglia, Southern Italy, as Primitivo and in California as Zinfandel.  In the States it has been leant on to produce almost any style of wine – the infamous sweet, white wine-bar wine, pink, sparkling and, what it is really good at, dry, rich reds.  We tasted two quality levels, both from Ravenswood.  Their website is quite straightforward about what they are looking for in California’s signature grape: their own description is ‘big, bold and brazen’.  Vintners Blend, Zinfandel, Ravenswood, California 2009, 13.5%, £9.99 is a quite a sophisticated version of big, bold and Zin in glassbrazen, but it still comes out of the glass at you with its juicy, full bodied, black berry fruit, raisins and liquorice.  (The dried fruit flavour is probably due to Zin’s tendency to produce bunches which ripen unevenly – in order to get fully ripe fruit, you have to risk some berries drying out.)  The wine tasted almost sweet, probably due to the combination of ripe fruit and medium acidity.  It is in reality a Zin blend as it can be labelled after the grape variety as long as it is at least 75% – which in this case is exactly what it is, plus 16% Petite Sirah (also known as Durif, a minor French variety which does well in the Californian heat), 6% Syrah and 3% ‘mixed black’ grapes. Further it is a blend of Ravenswood’s own wine and bought-in wine, aged together for a year in French barrels. Like the first Chardonnay above, this is a lot of wine and wine-making craft for £10.  Our second example was Old Vine Zinfandel, Sonoma County, Ravenswood, 2009, 14.5%, £20-£25, a big step up the Ravenswood quality pyramid. This time the wine is 84% of the named variety (plus 8% Petite Sirah, 6% Carignane and 2% of the aforementioned ‘mixed blacks’) and comes from a limited area if the large one of Sonoma County – there are of course single vineyard wines too for those with larger budgets. While it is regrettable that there is no definition of ‘old vine’ on the label (?30 years, ?80 years), there was a marked step up in quality here with far greater intensity on the nose and palate, and, interestingly, both an extra percentage point of alcohol and greater acidity and therefore freshness.  Not just big and brazen, but big, bold and balanced. 

Where there is wine making, some cool sites and a range of soils, sooner or later there will be an attempt at Pinot Noir.  Josh Jensen famously not only spent time Caleraworking in two of Burgundy’s most prestigious cellars (DRC and Dujac), he also searched for a cool, limestone site to plant his Pinot and found a site adjacent to an old limestone pit at 670m above sea level, one of California’s coolest vineyard sites.  The result is Pinot Noir, Ryan Vineyard, Mount Harlan AVA, Calera, 2008, 14.5%, £25. This is a single vineyard wine from the single winery delimited area of Mount Harlan.  This wine showed beautiful sweet (as in fully ripe) fruit on the palate and an attractive if not particularly intense nose and that same ripeness on the finish.  By no means a fruit bomb of a Pinot (which do exist in California) but perhaps lacking the beguiling subtlety which Pinot-lovers crave and occasionally find. 

Similarly alternative and now mainstream are the efforts of California’s Rhone Rangers, pioneering spirits who didn’t just want to stick to Cabernet, Merlot and Zinfandel but also want try Syrah and its Rhone variety companions.  Our example was from the inimitable Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon (just try his website to see what I mean): Le Pousseur, Syrah, Bonny Doon Vineyard, Central Coast, 2008, 13.5%, £17.50. This was one of the most immediately attractive wines of the evening with subtle red and black fruit well integrated with the oak (declared but no indicator of the age of the barrels or the length of time in them), a smooth texture supported by fine tannins and a fine fragrance. 

But of course the biggest deal of all in California is Cabernet Sauvignon which leads to our last red wine.  The standard of this wine was a good indicator as to why Beaulieu CabernetCabernet and Bordeaux blends are so successful here.  It came from one of Napa Valley’s historic wineries, Beaulieu being the longest continuously operating winery in the Napa Valley, founded by Georges and Fernande de Latour in 1903, with the vineyard being replanted in the 1990s.  They survived Prohibition in the 1920s by the most secure route of all, providing sacramental wine!  Probably the key to their success was hiring the Russian émigré and talented wine maker Andre Tchelistcheff who produced Napa’s first cult Cabernet.  At the other end of the price scale we tasted the entry level Cabernet Sauvignon, Beaulieu Vineyard, Napa Valley, 2008, 14.3%, £15.95.  The overwhelming impression here is of smooth, deep, rich blackcurrant fruit with good acidity and smooth, ripe tannins which stops this wine falling into the Ribena trap.  As a result the wine pulls off the quite difficult trick of being both highly drinkable and impressively knit-together and multi-layered. This bottle conclusively answers the question of whether there is quality and value for money to be had in Californian wine.  There is a huge divide between the technically perfect but dull, inexpensive wines which fill the Tastingshelves of UK supermarkets and the expensive superstars of Napa, Sonoma and beyond.  But this tasting showed clearly that there are also wines in the mid price range which are worth seeking out. 

To end the evening and to show that Californian can do just about anything we finished with a sweet wine – there wasn’t time to fit in Merlot or the increasingly rare Fumé Blanc (oaked Sauvignon Blanc) or the fine sparkling wines of the state.  Muscat, Bartolucci Vineyard, Bonterra, Lake County, 2010, 9%, £7.25 / half bottle is a pleasant slip of a thing, light, with good floral notes and a hint of orange peel.  Presumably made moderately sweet by stopping the fermentation and filtering out the yeast and nutrients. Not a wine to linger over but simple, refreshing pleasure in a glass. 

With thanks to Winedirect for help with sourcing some of these wines. 

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