A slightly shorter version of this article about the many less classic wines being made today on the west coast is published by the Financial Times.
The days when California meant Napa Cabernet and rich Chardonnay are long gone, even on export markets. I attended two major California tastings in London recently and only afterwards realised I hadn’t tasted a single Napa Cabernet, for long the emblematic flagship of California wine, sailing confidently above a seabed littered with cheap supermarket bottlings that certainly don’t express any of the state’s varied terroirs.
Just as in Australia and South Africa, a new generation is much more interested in the esoteric. Trousseau Gris vinified on its skins to produce a chewy, deep-coloured white? Check. Dry-farmed 50-year-old Charbono? You bet. Pet-nat (pétillant naturel – a fashionable form of lightly sparkling) Malvasia? Check. Ditto Counoise, an obscure Châteauneuf-du-Pape red wine grape, from hippie heaven Mendocino.
These wines are all injecting fun and innovation into the California wine scene. And, it should be said, the best classic Cabernets from California – whether from Napa Valley, Alexander Valley or the Santa Cruz Mountains – can be monumental, in a good way. (Others are simply monumental in terms of size.)
The only trouble for those of us living outside the US is that many of these examples of the sort of wines described by author Jon Bonné in his 2013 book The New California Wine – A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste (Ten Speed Press) seem pretty expensive. Production costs are relatively high in California, and very few of these new wine producers own their own vineyards. They are having to buy grapes and, often, rent winery space – and they are selling most of their wines to a market used to paying three-digit prices per bottle for more conventional California wines.
Several times when tasting, say, an innovative California Chenin Blanc, I found myself writing in my tasting notes, for example: ‘but for this money you could find something really special from the Loire’. Or, about a blend of the grapes Aglianico, Montepulciano and Barbera, ‘Italy could field an example at half the price’.
Not that I want to pour cold water on the laudable efforts of younger wine producers to track down really interesting grapes, many from relatively senior vines capable of yielding particularly good wine, that are so much more affordable than Napa Cabernet from a prime spot that can easily cost a five-figure sum per tonne. Some really great and unusual California wines are now being made and are even, I’m particularly delighted to see, finding their way across the Atlantic.
Sniffing out suitable vineyard sources is a time- and fuel-consuming business, after all. Producers such as Birichino in Santa Cruz (the protagonists are pictured above in this 2011 Jason Lowe portrait) and Broc Cellars in the university town of Berkeley on San Francisco Bay may have an urban base but make wines from vineyards with appellations hundreds of miles apart. Broc’s portfolio, for instance, includes a Solano County Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc from the delightfully named Happy Canyon appellation way south in Santa Barbara County, and a white Rhône blend from a vineyard high above the baking Central Valley that qualifies for the Madera appellation.
Arnot-Roberts was one of the first proponents of the new wave, a collaboration between Nathan Roberts, son of a cooper and grandson of the second Mrs Robert Mondavi, and his Napa schoolmate and ex cellar rat Duncan Arnot Meyers. They scouted out some of their first vineyards by biking through the hills of Sonoma. Today they buy from a total of 15 vineyards all over Sonoma, Napa, Lake County to the north of Napa and Santa Cruz Mountains. Imagining that there must be some competition for the fruit of these old vines, I rather unromantically asked Nathan Roberts when he was in London recently whether he had contracts for these purchases. ‘About half contracts but the rest are just handshakes', he said with a shrug, adding reluctantly, ‘We try not to increase our number of vineyards but sometimes we just get sucked in.’
I’d recommend all the wines listed below to those keen to try out the California wine revolution. But perhaps of interest to the greatest number of the world’s wine lovers, especially now that Burgundy prices have gone through the roof, is the impressive quantity of fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay now being produced in a state once thought too warm to do so.
There was a time when Carneros at the southern end of Napa and Sonoma counties seemed cool enough for Pinot finesse but now those corners of the state that are most viciously cooled by the Pacific are being sought out by wine producers keen to replicate, or at least respond to, the delicacy of red and white burgundy.
The misty coast of Sonoma county was the most obvious hunting ground initially. It has its own Sonoma Coast appellation (AVA or American Viticultural Area in US parlance) but the boundaries were drawn too far inland for it to be a guarantee of really cool conditions. The best sites for fine Pinot and Chardonnay tend to be within a few miles of the ocean, often under sea fogs for much of the day, some of them whipped by marine winds. Hirsch and Marcassin were important pioneer growers, and Walt Flowers was the first to build a winery here, but they have been joined by other wine producers such as Failla, Kutch, Littorai, Occidental, Peay, Radio-Coteau, Raen and Ramey, who both grow and buy from growers here.
There are various spots south down the coast such as the Santa Lucia Highlands and Chalone and Calera high above the Salinas Valley where either elevation or marine influence produce cool-climate Pinot and Chardonnay.
But the really savage cool Pacific influence is to be found much further south, wherever the protective coastal range peters out. Santa Maria Valley, long the home of Burgundy acolyte Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, is a typical example but still further south is an even greater concentration of producers in the AVA known as Sta. Rita Hills in an unusual east–west valley wide open to the Pacific (and the Vandenberg air base) which has been well and truly colonised by the vine.
We outsiders tend to think of California, particularly southern California, as definitively warm and sunny but sweaters are de rigueur here. The typical wine producer here make their wine in a funky shed – far from the well-groomed tourist temples of Napa Valley.
And then, of course, for those looking for less expensive alternatives to fine burgundy from North America, there are hundreds of wines from Oregon and even nowadays some from Canada. But those are whole new stories, which I hope to tell some time.
RECOMMENDED CALIFORNIA NEW(ISH) WAVE WINES
Broc, Love White 2017 Madera
Giornata Fiano 2018 Paso Robles
£24.50 RRP imported by Boutinot next month and due to be stocked by Noel Young of Cambridge, Phil Amps of Oundle, The Good Wine Shop of Chiswick and Cork of the North of Manchester
Sandhi Chardonnay 2016 Sta Rita Hills
Kunin Syrah 2016 Santa Barbara County
Peay Pinot Noir 2016 Sonoma Coast
£311.78 a dozen Justerini & Brooks
Birichino, Old Vines Grenache 2017 Central Coast
£28 RRP imported by Berry Bros & Rudd
Broc, Wirth Zinfandel 2017 Solano County Green Valley
Precedent, Evangelho Zinfandel 2016 Contra Costa County
£32.50 RRP imported by Indigo Wines
Arnot-Roberts Trousseau 2017 North Coast
Ferdinand Wines Tempranillo 2014 Amador County
£36 Nekter Wines
Calder Wine Co Charbono 2015 Rutherford
£38 Nekter Wines
Donkey & Goat, The Bear 2016 El Dorado
£48 Nekter Wines
Radio-Coteau, La Neblina Pinot Noir 2014 Sonoma Coast
£51.49 Berkmann Wine Cellars, £57.99 AG Wines
Domaine de la Côte, Bloom’s Field Pinot Noir 2016 Sta Rita Hills
You can find my tasting notes by searching in our tasting notes database, and further stockist information via Wine-Searcher.com.