California wines are changing with the future looking bright for alternative varieties, and wines made by new winemakers, producing contemporary styles for a younger demographic. The well known names and heavy hitters are still holding their own, argues Justin Keay, but it is in the middle bracket – the wines that sit between blue-chip estates and supermarket wines – that you can discover amazingly good value.
“Although traditional Cab, Pinot and Chardonnay will continue to rule the California wines roost, younger winemakers with different and expressive ideas will make an increasing impact on the UK market,” writes Keay.
California’s wine industry is rightly considered to be one of the world’s most prestigious, including iconic Sonoma and Napa and the less well known Central Coast, where regions like Paso Robles have emerged from the shadows. California Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel have all earned a global reputation for their forthright styles, generally defined by oak and high alcohol. Yet somehow for the general British consumer and even the trade, California wine has a muddled image. High end names like Robert Mondavi, Joseph Phelps, Opus One and the famously expensive Screaming Eagle will register alongside mass produced brands from the likes of E and J Gallo, but everything else? Um, not so much.
Efforts are being made to change this. Last March saw the launch of the upscale California List, a ranking of 51 of the Golden State’s “most impactful” producers, chosen by leading lights in the UK wine industry, and loosely based on Bordeaux’s 1855 classification. As an enthusiastic but only sometime follower of California’s wine industry, I had heard of and tasted, around 35 of these producers – including the likes of Ridge, Corrison and Tablas Creek – and suspect my knowledge is probably industry-average.
Clearly more needs to be done, which is why I approached late March’s California tasting in central London with can-do enthusiasm. OK, the number of wines on show was daunting – 184, which is actually well down on what was shown at the same tasting in 2022 – but this tasting promised to provide a good snapshot of the industry in 2023, with retail prices from the mid teens Sterling to well over £300 a bottle.
So what did I learn?
That California can provide good quality at all price points (unless you’re really into Pinot Noir, which is frankly pretty forgettable at the sub-£30 level) and remains pretty traditional, with producers sticking to making wines pretty much as they’ve always done – there’s been no real move to making, say, mean, lean and green Chardonnay like Australia a few years ago, when many winemakers overdid the acidity in their rush away from oak. If you exclude blush wine (which some might struggle to describe as wine) pink wine is thin on the ground – there was just one at this tasting, the rather good fresh and zesty Bread and Butter Rose 2022 – which strikes me as unusual given its growing global popularity.
Cabernet, Zinfandel and Chardonnay (and Pinot from the Central Coast in particular) made up the bulk of the wines at this tasting, although there were enough examples to show that alternative varieties are becoming more of a thing – Lieu Dit’s Melon 2020, Sabeli-Fitch’s La Malinche Mission 2019, made from the original Mission grape (called Pais in Chile), Ernest Vineyards Edaphos Madavan Barbara 2018 and Clendenen Family Vineyards The Pip Nebbiolo 2017 all showed well.
As a spokesperson for California Wines UK put it to me, much of the innovation is happening out of sight, with more producers moving towards organic winemaking and more sustainable vineyard management. Overall, demand for wines from California remains strong, particularly at the premium, super premium and luxury end.
“California is aspirational and offers excitement. People reach for California wines when they have a success or want to celebrate or feel special. Top Cabernets from Napa Valley continue to surge and we find importers constantly in the hunt for new brands. High end Chardonnay and Pinot from places like West Sonoma Coast are also doing extremely well as the trade and consumers continue to look for better priced alternatives to scarce Burgundy.”
So which 12 wines rocked my boat?
My two favourite sparkling wines couldn’t have been more different. I loved Carbonsite’s Sparkling Albarino 2021 (Roberson Wines), a great zesty, lemon-charged vision of the Galician variety but also the more traditional Domaine Carneros Sparkling Brut 2018 from Taittinger, which has benefitted from a few extra years in bottle (Hatch Mansfield), with a rounded, brioche-style mousse and very complex. At around £34 a bottle, both these wines tick all the right boxes for characterful sparkling wine.
I could frankly have spent the whole day with Chardonnay and nothing else at this tasting – by my reckoning, there were 41 still examples, starting at £12.50 up to ten times that price, £125 – and the quality was very high, with fewer examples of the full on, vanilla-charged oaky style than I’d anticipated but those with more bottle age showing best.
Honourable mentions go to La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2021 (John E. Fells) and the fresh, zesty Far Mountain Myrna Chardonnay 2020 (Liberty Wines) but my two favourites were Calera Mt Harlan Estate Chardonnay 2019 (Top Selection) from the Central Coast, aromatic, lush with white peach and lychee on the palate, and not shy with 14.5% alcohol, and the very different Staglin Family Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 (Pol Roger Portfolio), from Rutherford, 13.8% alcohol, classic but modulated oaky style, very broad but concentrated palate – so nicely done.
Despite some pretty high price points, this tasting showed just how well Pinot is doing right now particularly in the Central Coast, areas like the Santa Barbara and the Santa Rita Hills, where the film Sideways famously pushed this grape into national prominence, but also further north. I loved the Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2021 (Wine Treasury) – intense red cherry, raspberry and a clean finish, with used oak barrels keeping the wood very much in the background – and Buena Vista’s Carneros Pinot Noir 2020 (Berkmann Wine Cellars), solid, cool climate style with hints of jasmine and cedar. Two great examples of a fuller, and more complex style include Fort Ross Vineyard’s Sea Slopes Pinot Noir 2021 (James Hocking) – dark cherry and bramble on the palate, quite dark colored, very textured – whilst the Pol Roger Portfolio scored another bulls eye with the Robert Sinskey Vineyards Pinot Noir Los Carneros 2017, plush tannins, rounded cherry and ripe plum with a long, voluptuous finish.
A really great value choice amongst the many, many Cabernets on show here would be Four Vines The Cowboy Poet (just £27, Wine Treasury) – chocolate, black plum and sage in a full-on style, 14.5%, and Kendall Jackson’s hefty, muscular, no nonsense Hawkeye Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 (John E Fells).
The two Zins which took my heart here were the Ridge Vineyards Geyserville 2020 (Berkmann) – delicious like all the Ridge wines showing here, notably the Lytton Springs 2020, but the blend of complex blend of Zin, Carignan, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre and Alicante Bouschet working really well in the Geyserville, and Seghesio’s Home Ranch Zinfandel Alexander Valley 2018 (Liberty), Zin with some Alicante Bouschet and Petite Sirah, very velvety with suggestions of sage and cinnamon on the long finish. Both classics of course, and deservedly well known even outside the trade.
I will admit I was flagging towards the end of this tasting, and distracted by a bearded, stern looking fellow taster who looked a dead-ringer for Logan Roy in Succession, who I expected to tell the hovering wine waiters to “F##k off” at any minute. However, I managed to dodge his imagined wrath to enjoy two great examples of California’s New Wave, Field Recordings Fiction Red 2020 (Nekter Wines), an extraordinary blend of Zin, Syrah, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Carignan – and small amounts of four other varieties – from Paso Robles, wonderfully textured with hints of chocolate, tobacco and coffee on the nose and palate, and great value at just £21.50.
At the very high end – £100 a bottle –also from Paso Robles, Tor Wines remarkable Chasing Windmills 2019, yet another hit for the Pol Roger Portfolio and truly something Don Quixote and Sancho Panza would have loved: wonderful balance – helpful if you happen to be chasing windmills – and great depth of fruit, with 41% Grenache and 59% Syrah, with dark bramble fruit and suggestions of black olive and thyme on the palate.
So what might the future hold?
Although traditional Cab, Pinot and Chardonnay will continue to rule the roost, younger winemakers with different and expressive ideas will make an increasing impact on the UK market.
“New Wave California is doing fantastic business through importers like Nekter and Wanderlust, showing younger producers and fresh wines from regions like Lodi, Amador and the Central Coast,” says California Wines UK.
The future then is bright but gradually changing as the Golden State bends to evolving tastes. On the basis of this tasting, Cali retains its commitment to quality but when you look hard enough, past the more obvious names and varieties, there is value here as well. All the more reason then for consumers to get to know these wines a little better.
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