Tastings of Californian wine have changed out of sight in the past three years. Egged on by the likes of New Wave South Africa, the venues are imaginative and sometimes edgy, the organisation is top tier, there is food, music, some life and – dare we say it – a bit of fun. None of this would mean a thing, of course, if the wines were still just those ripe old powerhouses. Peter Dean went along to Essential California to test out the new ‘low price’ format and came back literally raving about what he tasted.
There were plenty of old faces at Essential California and plenty of new ones – lots of mavericks – showing such delights as an orange Pinot Gris, high altitude Tempranillo, an homage to the ‘old’ white grapes of Burgundy and a Radio Coteau Syrah that positively rocked.
There are number of reasons why the Essential California tasting could already be called the wine tasting of the year:
- The venue was damn well perfect for allowing the wines to shine in a contemporary setting;
- The organisation was spot on – most impressive being a benchmark tasting booklet that had every detail in it and a very accurate Index cross-referencing the wines by Brand, Grape and Region;
- The segregation between brands represented and unrepresented was helpful (even though it looked a little like a Speed Dating night with winemakers stood under a banner that read ‘Will you be my Importer?’);
- There was a great turnout of sommeliers and key wine buyers;
- The food (not essential but helpful) was some of the best produced at a tasting with whole salmon fillets wood-roasted and an Argentinian style barbeque;
- There was even a band that started playing at the point at which your palate started to fade;
- There was a palpable hum of excitement in the room and a sense of fun.
But the main reason that Essential California was so successful was the wines themselves. In the same way that New Wave South Africa has corralled a group of like-minded winemakers and turned it into a movement, so Essential California had that same spirit – Surf’s Up – or in the immortal words of Fatboy Slim – You’ve Come a Long Way Baby.
Was it only just three years ago we had Go West in Queen Elizabeth Hall? Sure there is a place for an old school Cali Cab Sauv as there is a ripe Chard but that place is arguably becoming smaller and less relevant in the UK on-trade today. At the old style Californian tastings you had to search hard for a bit of balance in the wines, at Essential California the wines were very different – all perked up, brighter, more focussed, and that includes the Chards and Cab Sauv.
At the old tastings it felt like old school Napa still ruled the roost, this year the proliferation of smaller, newer regions was clear to see and funny how they feel increasingly familiar. Lodi, for example, had as many wines on show as did Napa.
For sure California Wines has changed its modus operandi (one criteria is price point) it is now putting on two tastings a year – Collectable California which is where many of the heavyweights now reside and Essential California which is for wines under £50 RRP hence, partly, the lesser priced, newer regions on show.
But this year you also had many more mavericks in the room – younger winemakers less afraid to break rules with a cornucopia of grape varieties you wouldn’t have expected to see in a California tasting three years ago, greater variety in the winemaking styles, and way more imagination in the presentation of the wine – bottle shape, labels and so on.
It was good, then, to see Jim Clendenen, owner of Au Bon Climat positioned at the first table you came to – a man who has done so much for the movement in California advocating balance and drinkability in the wines. A maverick’s maverick if you will.
There were things I would have changed – certainly I’d still argue that 500 wines in four hours is not focussed enough for me – but it would be quibbling. This was an awesome tasting with so many good wines on show. I could have listed 60 but here are 6 wines that really shone.
Here comes the sun: the wines that shone in Essential California
It wasn’t until I compiled these that I realised I hadn’t listed a Chardonnay, Cab Sauv or Pinot Noir amongst them. Welcome to the Motel California.
Ferdinand Tempranillo 2014, Ferdinand
Tempranillo 95% Graciano 5%. 14% ABV
2014 is the new release from Ferdinand which also produces a fine Albariño, this smacks of careful, simple winemaking using great fruit grown in volcanic soil. Red fruits, garrigue herbs, leather and a touch of smokiness invite you in; bright, fresh, integrated tannins (20 months in 10% new French oak) and a nice dry river stone texture to the finish. A touch of citrus to the acidity. Be great to have this blind amongst some Ribera del Dueros. (Nekter)
Hildegard Estate White Blend 2015, Au Bon Climat
Pinot Gris 50%, Pinot Blanc 40%, Aliogoté 10%. 13.5% ABV
Jim Clendenen’s range was showing really well, particularly his Pinots, but this fascinating white blend really stood out. It’s his homage to the three lesser know white grapes of Burgundy and it is firing on all cylinders in 2015 – Pinot Gris/ Pinot Blanc/Aligote. Much drier than you might expect and amazingly well integrated 100% new oak barrels which is there in the vanilla aroma and slight struck match, but nicely veiled from the poached, spiced orchard fruit core. It’s complex, there’s a nuttiness here a whiff of honeysuckle there, but with terrific precision and balance. I think it needs food, where it would be a great talking point around the table. (Fields Morris & Verdin)
Ink Grade Vineyard Zinfandel, 2013, Heitz
Zinfandel. 14.5% ABV
Alongside Montelena and Seghesio, Heinz was the best Zinfandel showing at Essential California. The crack of texture, bright acidity and black pepper in the mid-palate is outstanding and underpins the baskets of intense, freshly-crushed black fruit – mulberry, plum, blackcurrant. Inviting, fruity bouquet, rounded tannins, firm backbone – great winemaking. (Justerini & Brooks)
Las Colinas Syrah, 2013, Radio Coteau
Syrah. 14% ABV
I was aware of Coteau’s single vineyard Pinots but not of how good their Syrah is – while the 2016 is just being released Stateside, this is an opportunity to pick up the 2013, which is all the better for some bottle age. A select barrel blend from two top single vineyard sites, this has oodles of ripe dark fruit, dried herbs, tapenade, peppercorns. The fine-grained texture and spice comes from the 500 litre French oak puncheons. You can always tell the loving care and site-transparency you get with these wines. Impeccable. (Berkmann)
Monkey Jacket 2017, Cruse Wine
Carignan 70% Valdiguige 20% Petite Syrah 10%. 12.5% ABV
Exciting, textural Carignan-dominant blend from the North Coast, all varietals vinified separately in concrete. Floral nose, bit of reduction, bags of crunchy dark red fruit pinned onto tense, citrus acidity, that gives a tidy, clean finish. The tannins are ripe but suggest a food pairing. (Roberson)
Orgia 2014, Robert Sinskey
Pinot Gris. 14.2% ABV
Here comes the sun. Orgia – a stunning Pinot Gris from Los Carneros, fermented in steel with 30 days skin contact by Robert Sinskey, although it tastes for all the world like amphora – an earthy texture mid-palate, firm red-like tannic grip, and mouth-watering acidity. Copper in hue, rich apple and orange blossom aromas, dry, lengthy finish. One of the stars of the Essential California tasting. (Pol Roger Portfolio)