Peter Ranscombe goes back to school during four masterclasses in London to learn why California’s wide variety of terroirs and blending options allows it to produce competitively priced wines below the £50 mark without compromising on quality. From larger American Viticulture Areas like the Central Coast and Sonoma County through to pockets including the Alexander Valley, Carneros and Mendocino, the sheer scale of The Golden State allows suppliers to find wine-by-the-glass candidates that won’t break the bank.
Large and small producers alike are creating wines that capture the essence of California without straining the pockets of consumers.
There’s something very Bordeaux-like about California – in the same way that France’s premier grape-growing region has a split personality veering between uber-expensive first growths and workaday clarets, so too does America’s largest winemaking state, ranging from the eye-watering prices of Napa to the bargain basement “Zinfandel blush” on the bottom supermarket shelf.
Yet, somewhere inbetween California’s extremes, there lies an incredibly vibrant middle ground, where producers are turning out quality wines that don’t cost the earth.
That sweet spot was put on show by the California Wine Institute (CWI) UK & Ireland during its four masterclasses at this month’s Essential California tasting at the Ace Hotel in London’s hipster Shoreditch district.
More than 500 wines priced at £50 or less were shown to buyers and sommeliers, with the chance to meet some of the producers behind the bottles and their representatives.
Few salesmen can match the sheer enthusiasm of Chuck Cramer, who showed Terlato Wines’ Big Max, David Bruce and The Federalist brands during his masterclass.
The freshness of the Big Max Central Coast Chardonnay was contrasted with the more classic ripe peach, pineapple and cream flavours of The Federalist Chardonnay from Medocino, with both wines available in the UK via Matthew Clark.
Cramer likened The Federalist range – which also includes a Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon – to “craft beer”, explaining that it was marketed as a “craft wine”.
He also pointed to the innovation taking place within the price bracket, including with The Federalist Bourbon Barrel Aged Red Blend from Medocino, a mix of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan that’s spent six months in American oak casks, which previously held Jim Beam bourbon.
Cabernet Sauvignon was the order of the day at the session featuring Louis M Martini, an historic brand that traces its roots back to 1933 and the years following Prohibition, with the company being snapped up by E&J Gallo in 2002.
Gallo has invested cash into the winery and vineyards to “shake-up” the “sleeping beauty”, with its Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon designed to be “the best Cab Sav under $20”.
Cabernet grapes from Sonoma cost half the price of those from neighbouring Napa, offering the opportunity to create high-quality wines without the accompanying price tag.
The Sonoma County version sparkled with bright, black cherry flavours, while the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon had more of the classically Californian assertive tannins and oaky vanilla and coffee notes.
Sonoma’s vast array of American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) – the United States’ equivalent of the European Union’s protected designation of origin (PDO) system – was the subject of the masterclass led by Honore Comfort, who served as executive director of Sonoma County Vintners for nine years until 2015 and who took up the role of vice president of international marketing at the CWI last year.
She described how “fog creeps in on little cat feet” into Sonoma, gently lowering temperatures to create wines like the elegant Ramey Russian River Valley Chardonnay, which combined crisp acidity with intense pear, fresh lemon and a crunch of digestive biscuit.
Another classic on show during her session was the Ferrari Sonoma Valley Carano Vineyard Merlot, which ticked all the boxes for sweet ripe plum, raspberry jam and a savoury finish.
While Lodi may be most readily associated with Californian Zinfandel, Comfort proved that Dry Creek Valley can hold its own too through wines like the Dry Creek Vineyard Heritage Zinfandel, with vines ranging from 20 to 100 years old, laden with blackcurrant jam, vanilla and a sprinkling of mocha.
While visiting lesser-known AVAs may deliver the classics at more-affordable prices, it’s not simply Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon that can be caught for under £50, as Birichino co-founder and winemaker Alex Krause reminded participants at his event.
He led tasters through five wines from his winery – which is distributed in the UK by Fields, Morris & Verdin (FMV) – ranging from Chenin Blanc and Malvasia to Cinsault and Grenache, with some Mouvedre and Vermentino vying for attention in between.
Kraise said the flavour of his Vin Gris rosé blend reminded him of “watermelon Jolly Rancher” sweets thanks to its complex co-fermentation of varieties harvested from throughout the state.
Picking and collecting the grapes he needed for his wines led to 26,000km of driving between August and November last year – a timely reminder of the vast scale of California and why, if you look in the right places, you can still find quality wines below the £50 barrier.