A volume producer who makes interesting, even classy, wines is a real rarity. It is really difficult to be consistently good when handling large volumes of fruit from different locations with slightly varying picking dates and levels of maturity. Blending volumes tends to bring the quality down to the lowest common factor. Andover Wine Friends’ September tasting showed that big can be beautiful – as long as big is the aggregate of many small lots handled expertly. It featured wines from Kendall-Jackson’s sizeable stable – three wines from the Vintner’s Range (the cleverly named entry-level wines), a Grand Reserve, one wine from the KJ collection of smaller named wineries which operates under its own name, and one from the Highland Estates top flight. The single super-premium stature will have to await another day.
What do these wines have in common?
- KJ prides itself on collecting small vineyards, rather than buying in fruit. ‘Small’ may mean different things in California and Europe, but the point remains. This commitment to the land and to farming pays dividends when it comes to quality and price
- the KJ heartland is the cool Californian coast, Sonoma in particular, but also Santa Barbara. What you won’t find here is the produce of the vast, hot, Central Valley
- traditional winemaking and extensive – but mainly subtle – use of oak barrels for fermenting and ageing
- consistent quality and generally good value for money in a category which is extremely rare – mid-market California. This is entirely deliberate as founder Jess Jackson spotted that there was a huge opportunity for high-quality wines at a reasonable price. The approach certainly worked: by the time the founder died in 2011 he was making five million cases a year and was worth $1.8 billion. The full story is told by Jamie Goode here.
Of our six wines, two really stood out. Pleasingly they were the cheapest and the most expensive. The surprise of the evening was the very first wine: Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2011. This was a brilliant executed SB for those who don’t like SB – barely a hint of greenness, excellent freshness, ripe yellow plum fruit with a hint of something savoury and a really refreshing finish. A small part is fermented in oak – being a big company they can do precise figures: 12%, of which a quarter was new American barrels. We debated what difference 1% Pinot Gris, 9% Semillon and 2% ‘other’ can make, but never mind, this was a surprising star at £12.
Our middle four wines showed the challenge of the mid-market: for all that they are perfectly made, highly competent wines they did not provoke a lot of excitement. Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay 2011, the runaway success of the 1980s which helped to shape the palate of a generation – with its sweet oak and sweeter palate – is much toned down these days. Ripe melon and even mango fruit, vanilla and a dry finish. Cambria Estate Winery, Katherine’s Vineyard, Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley, 2010, from fruit grown just 17 miles from the cold Pacific Ocean, was tighter with good fruit intensity and a mineral layer plus evident oakiness. Is it just to too perfect and rounded to be a really arresting glass of wine? In completely different styles Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Noir 2010 and Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 expertly did red plums, a smoky overlay and a soft palate on the one hand and black cherry and intense blackcurrant fruit with a serious structure on the other. While we can slightly snootily dismiss the lack of vinous excitement in a tasting setting, if you were in a restaurant and saw these on the wine list amidst unknown minor French classics, you would be guaranteed quality at a reasonable price with these cool Californians.
Our top wine, from the Highland Estates range, did show its class. Alisos Hills, Syrah, Santa Barbara County, 2005 packed a punch both with its ridiculously heavy bottle and its 14.5% alcohol. But from the moment you pour this mysteriously dark liquid into the glass, a remarkably powerful perfume arises and persists followed by rich, velvet-encased black fruit, underpinned by lively tannins and enlivening acidity. Powerful, simple, warming, impressive.