It’s not just the excuse to transport yourself to the iconic world of Californian wine that has made the California Wine Institute Somm Sessions such a success over the long months of lockdowns, it has been the consistent high quality of the wines, winemakers, producers and sommeliers involved in the events. The recent Trinchero Family Estates tasting, in association with Lanchester Wines, was a case in point. The chance, as David Kermode explains, to see just how far Californian wines have come in recent years and why sommeliers are increasingly turning to them as ideal gastronomic wines.
The key to capturing the imagination of any discerning sommelier is to make wines that work and pair well with a wide variety of dishes on their restaurant’s menu. That is what Trinchero Family Estates’ Napa Cellars and Trinchero Napa Valley brands, imported by Lanchester Wines, are 100% focused on.
As California’s first – and most famous – AVA (American Viticultural Area), the Napa Valley, with its 16 ‘nested’ sub-regions, is the obvious setting to start a Californian wine journey and Napa Cellars is probably the perfect place for anyone seeking wines that exemplify the region’s celebrated style.
With its 40 years of winemaking history, the Oakville-based winery styles itself as the “classic, unmistakable interpretation of Napa Valley” and the wines have the sort of textbook quality that suits a California Wine Institute ‘Sommelier Session’.
Though rooted in education, these sessions are always engaging and relaxed, the CWI managing to keep it Cali’, while also promoting the Golden State’s breadth and diversity. If it were diplomacy, it would be ‘soft power’.
Now part of Trinchero Family Estates, Napa Cellars was founded by Charlie Woods in 1976. Around the same time Bob Trinchero was busy making a name for himself with his Sutter Home brand and its completely new style of wine: blush white Zinfandel.
Astonishingly, this innovation came about completely by accident, the result of a stuck fermentation that left a significant level of residual sugar: such were the commercial pressures he faced at the time, Trinchero decided he would have to sell it anyway. The rest is history. Sutter Home’s blush white Zin’ (in reality, a shocking scarlet pink) went on to become a blockbusting best-seller and Trinchero Family Estates is now a global business that encompasses more than 50 wine and spirit brands.
The Trinchero way
Napa Cellars winemaker, Joe Shirley, is very much a company man having joined Trinchero in 1998. He has been making the wines in Oakville for 15 years and it has been a story of gentle evolution. Chilled and disarmingly modest, he likes to let the grapes do the talking.
“There isn’t really a winemaker signature through the wines”, he says, “my goal is to find the spots that are best to grow grapes that exhibit varietal character and, from that point on, avoid any heavy-handed winemaking techniques.”
He adds: “Napa is one the best places in the world to grow grapes. The valley is much smaller than most people think, but there’s a large temperature gradient, so that means you can really find a place to grow any variety in Napa, if you want to.”
As California’s wines have changed, with oak less obvious, the emphasis on better integration, the Napa Cellars portfolio has followed a similar course.
“I have dialled it back. It used to be about a third new oak, now it’s around a quarter, all medium toast, no heavy toasting and we have gone from a three year rotation to a four year one,” says Shirley. “No matter how good the oak is, I am still much more interested in the grapes.”
This particular Sommelier Session featured four wines, three of them under the Napa Cellars brand, one under Trinchero Napa Valley, all of them imported by County Durham-based Lanchester Wines. Tasting alongside me on the virtual panel, blogger Juel Mahoney and former GQ ‘Sommelier of the Year’, Sonal Clare, general manager of Birmingham’s award-winning Wilderness.
“I am a huge fan of the wines coming from the region (and) I also look at how I would match the wines tasted to dishes I think would work well together,” says Clare, whose tempting pairing suggestions are featured below.
“The California Sommelier Sessions have helped me to keep involved and busy over lockdown,” he says. “It is great to have events like this to help keep us all connected and up to date in such unprecedented times.”
The wines we tasted:
Napa Cellars Chardonnay 2018, from plots in warmer Oak Knoll and cooler Carneros, where the chilly morning fog keeps it fresh, there’s around 25 percent new French oak, which plays a supporting role, with the wine undergoing near total malolactic fermentation. There’s red apple and fleshy tropical fruit, including guava and pineapple and a lovely toasty creme brulée hint to the finish.
“The wine was well balanced with a great body, a hint of spice and the finish had zippy lemon freshness that brought some surprisingly refreshing and mouthwatering acidity that was really persistent,” says Clare. “I would love to see this served with some lovely grilled lobster and a lemon beurre blanc.”
Napa Cellars Pinot Noir 2017, from plots in the cooler south of the valley, with 10 months in 27 percent new French oak, an elegant, crunchy berry-forward wine.
“Raspberries, redcurrants, cranberries and cherries were all present as I thoroughly enjoyed the nose, which also showcased notes of tomato leaf and a slight vegetal note with a hint of smoky spice and vanilla on the palate,” says Clare. “I would pair this with a salad of warm beetroot with feta.”
Napa Cellars Zinfandel 2017, contrary to what some may think, Zinfandel is a relative rarity in Napa, where, of course, ‘Cabernet is King’. From plots in warmer parts of the valley, including St. Helena, Yountville, Oak Knoll and Calistoga, a weighty black-fruited wine that retains a sense of vibrancy and balance.
“I found this wine to showcase baked and stewed black plum and cherries. Herbaceous notes and almost tea-like elements with a hint of bay leaf. I found lovely texture with balanced tannins and oak treatment to temper the presence of high alcohol,” says Clare. “I think this is crying out for a piece of slow braised lamb shank or shoulder with thyme and herbs.”
Trinchero Napa Valley BRV Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, from high altitude vineyards in Atlas Peak and Mount Veeder, at around 1,500 feet, a flagship wine, rich and powerful, that showcases high quality Cabernet.
“There’s deep intensity with bold flavours of blackcurrant, bramble and blackberry. That classic pencil lead character of Cabernet Sauvignon was present as the wine showed great purity and ripeness. This is a monster! Oak treatment and tremendous tannins brought a robust wine that still showed good acidity,” says Clare. “I would pair this with roasted duck and blackberries, and perhaps a cheeky little glass with a bit of Black Forest gateau.”