Tasting of the year? Quite possibly. On the evidence in the eight bottles that we tried the future is very bright indeed for California. Before getting onto the wines, a potted history might help you to understand what we mean by ‘New California’
It’s said that 100 miles is a long way for a European but 100 years is a long time for Californian. The wine industry as we know it is really a product of pioneering work undertaken during the 1960s, principally by Robert Mondavi and wine maker André Tchelistcheff.
The Judgment of Paris, where Californian wines out performed French wines in a blind tasting, in 1976 gave further confidence to the nascent wine industry. The economic boom years of the 1980s saw massive expansion and the unleashing of cheap ‘white zinfandel’ into foreign markets. At the same time the twin axis of American wine criticism, Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate and Marvin R Shanken’s Wine Spectator led the new American consumer into the confusing realm of wine with a simple system of rating wines out of 100. Corporatization and conglomeration through the 1990s and 2000s along with the ‘point chasing’ style saw the region change direction once more, specifically through manufacturing flavour at the winery.
And so we arrive at the present day; memories of the older vintages, a generational change and the dawn of a Post-Parker age of wine criticism have seen a flourishing of wines broadly grouped under the heading ‘New California’. What unites them is a desire to be less about manipulation of the wine in the winery and a return to a sense of place. Alongside this a wave of ‘food friendly’ and ‘balanced’ wines are getting their moment in the spotlight.
How did we get here? The Californian specialist Jon Bonné describes a period in the 1990s and 2000s where winemaking became an arms race; bigger extractions, more oak, higher alcohol, ever greater ripeness in order to obtain 90+ point scores from the influential US wine critics. In doing so the style of wine became less about drinking pleasure and more about impact. Both are, of course, important but today it seems the balance is swinging back towards the more demure and elegant. More chill-out than power ballard if you like musical comparisons.
In a way though this is nothing new, merely the end of a period of experimentation. The wines that inspire these new wineries are the classic, sleek models of the 60s and 70s. Perhaps that’s best embodied by the wines made by Paul Draper at Ridge. A self-taught wine maker who has made perhaps the best, and most consistent, Californian Cabernet Sauvignon of all from the Monte Bello vineyard.
High up above Silicon Valley and Cupertino the style of Monte Bello has rarely waivered. Alcohol levels are routinely between 12 and 13.5%. But for years Ridge was ignored by the critics, dismissed as light-weight and lacking depth. Far from it, the wines have more than proved themselves over the long term and Draper is at finally getting the reverance he deserves.
Make no mistake about it, the wine tasted are all very Californian in their flavour profiles. The Golden State is renowned for its hours of sunshine and warmth. The key factor has to be site selection, be it altitude, old vines or proximity to the fog laden coastline. Hence why you will see a lot of wines that can be collectively grouped under the ‘New California’ heading from the rapidly expanding, cool, Anderson Valley in Mendocino (north of San Francisco above Sonoma) and the Sonoma Coast Region.
Skylark 2012 Orsi Vineyard Pinot Blanc, Mendocino County £21.95
Tight, taut, citrus and red apple peel. Feisty and fresh, loaded with reverberating freshness. Like diving naked into a still lake at dawn
RedCar Winery 2012 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, £34.95
Pear and gentle brioche notes. A suave and very Chablisien style. Looking for a plate of roast beets, curd cheese and parmesan crisps
Chanin Wines 2012 Bien Nacido Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley £34.95
Restrained elegant style that recalls the majesty of a fine Meursault per Cru. Like a hot rod revving at the start line on a drag strip. Lots going on under the oatmeal and nectarine exterior
Anthill Farms 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, £34.95
Mocha, cinnamon marinated plums. Super savoury style, warming and round, gentle oak maturation. No ants harmed in the making of this wine
Knez Winery 2010 Cerise Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley £38.95
Ultra-vivid, crackling with ‘mineral’ energy. Super sweet cherry fruit. Enlivening and refreshing. Crystalline purity, like holding a ruby up to the sun
Varner Brothers 2012 Foxglove Zinfandel, Paso Robles £18.95
Vibrant rather than heavy Zinfandel? It can be done! A dash of the licorice and clove spice that this grape exhibits but with plenty of dark berry fruit and energy. Zin for Pinot Noir drinkers
Snowden Vineyards 2010 The Ranch (Cabernet blend), Napa Valley £39.95
Unmistakably Napa Cab of the ripe but well-balanced school. Diane Snowden is steering this estate towards a beautiful purity and grace without excess of oak. Think 2009 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion but about £1000 cheaper
Skylark 2009 Rogers Creek Vineyard Syrah, Sonoma Coast £34.95
The most Rhône like Syrah from California we’ve encountered; violets, leather, pepper, black olives and intense essence of blackcurrant
Many of these are completely sold out in the US to over-subscribed mailing lists but all wines are in stock here in the UK. If you want to buy single bottles, or for the enthusiastic, cases, call Fulham Vagabond on 020 7381 1717 or email colinATvagabondwines.co.uk
Don’t forget, we do these kind of things EVERY WEDNESDAY at Fulham. Head over the our events page for more details.
By Colin Thorne