Collecting on a budget – the Americas

American wine collection

From Canada to Chile and Argentina, Jancis highlights some worthwhile pickings. See this Guide to collecting on a budget.

A confession: for a long time I concentrated on Europe when buying wine for our cellar. It seemed as though countries such as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Chile were making better wine every year, so why cellar the current vintage?

We’ve always had some California wine in the cellar, however, as the Golden State has been making fine wine for well over a century. Our focus has been on wines made before the fashion for picking very late took hold towards the end of the last century, or on producers who ignored the trend towards ripening tannins and other phenolics at the expense of refreshment. Many of the more alcoholic, heavily extracted reds of California have failed the test of time, and the test of the table. Subtler, more appetising wines tend to go better with food.

Ridge Vineyards never espoused the over-ripeness creed and has always had a place in our cellar, along with the likes of Corison, Gallica and Spottswoode (all with women in charge, I suddenly realise). And today an increasing number of northern California Cabernet producers are picking grapes earlier and producing wines with more digestible levels of alcohol, oak and extract, thank goodness. 

The other exciting trend in California is the development of its coolest wine regions, the likes of Sta Rita Hills in Santa Barbara in the south and the true Sonoma Coast in the north (see the detailed World Atlas of Wine USA maps for locations). A Sonoma Coast appellation was created back in 1987, but under pressure from one or two producers, the inland boundary was drawn ridiculously far east so as to include some relatively warm parts of the state, so it’s pretty meaningless. Since then a number of geographically more precise, reliably cooler appellations, or AVAs, have emerged within the original Sonoma Coast AVA: Petaluma Gap, Fort Ross-Seaview and, most recently, West Sonoma Coast. In theory these would be the AVAs to look for on a label to guarantee a wine made from grapes regularly cooled by Pacific fogs – many of their vineyards are just a few miles from the coast – but unfortunately some producers, even those who fought most keenly for the creation of more specific AVAs, continue to prefer Sonoma Coast on the label because that’s what they think the consumer knows.

This mirrors a continuing trend for Napa Valley producers to ignore their clearly different sub-AVAs such as Oak Knoll District and Rutherford on their labels and persist with nothing more specific than the market-friendly ‘Napa Valley’. (If you see an unexpectedly inexpensive wine labelled Napa Valley, it’s worth remembering that producers are allowed to blend in 25% of wine from outside the region.)

The strong suit of these newer, Pacific-cooled wine regions, which include Santa Maria Valley in the Central Coast, is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The best wines can rival much (even?) more expensive wines from Burgundy. Indeed in a recent blind wine tasting called grandly the Judgement of London, a Hirsch, San Andreas Fault 2019 Sonoma Coast, was much the best of the four Pinot Noirs shown, including a grand-cru Burgundy from a widely admired address.

The great majority of American wine is made to be enjoyed on release rather than to be cellared and it is relatively difficult to find cellar candidates at less than $100 a bottle. Grgich Hills, Marietta, Martinelli, Once & Future, Parducci, Smith-Madrone and Trefethen spring to mind as examples of producers worth investigating for well-priced wines worth ageing, often superior Zinfandels.

South American wines are generally seen as early-maturing and inexpensive but there are some exceptional wines from both Chile and Argentina that fully deserve a place in any unprejudiced wine-collector’s cellar. Chile’s top Cabernet blends such as Don Maximiano from Errázuriz and Don Melchor from Concha y Toro may be obvious choices but they age beautifully. I make these recommendations not just because these are the producers’ most expensive wines but on the basis of serious tastings of mature vintages of them.

Chile grows very much more than variations on the theme of red bordeaux, however, and there are white wines, Pinots and Syrahs of real interest which can be well worth cellaring.

In Argentina the Catena family could not be trying harder to deliver long-lasting cellar treasures. Another star of the Judgement of London tasting was Aleanna’s 2018 from the Gran Enemigo vineyard in the high Uco Valley, a joint venture between Adrianna Catena and their winemaker Alejandro Vigil. The Unus blend from Mendel also has a proven track record and LVMH have lavished huge resources on their Cheval des Andes to excellent effect. There has been so much new planting at ever-higher elevations in the Andes, with the resulting wines typically made in brand-new wineries, that their track records tend to be relatively short – but the Aleanna wine certainly indicates potential. And Argentina has a particularly fine clone of Chardonnay.

We don’t see enough wines from Washington in Europe but our US editor Sam reminds me that L’Ecole 41’s Cabernets are good value, and I've long seen that DeLille’s Chaleur white blend ages surprisingly well. The producers of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York are quite rightly hanging their hat on dry Riesling, which is well suited to their cool climate, though few are exported.

In Canada, vintners in the east have been beneficiaries of climate change, with their grapes now ripening reliably every year, but those in inland British Columbia in the west have been suffering dreadfully from alternate frost and fire so that currently few of them have much to sell. The recommended Nova Scotia fizz (see below) is an eye-opener and should last well.

Oregon has also suffered from wildfires, notably those of the hot summer of 2020. Fortunately we are starting to see more of Oregon’s refined Pinots and Chardonnays on this side of the Atlantic, not least as importers seek better-value alternatives to burgundy.

As for Mexico, even fewer wines are exported, though see this selection of some new-wave highlights.

But wine prices have been shooting up all over the world, and the Americas provide particularly lean pickings for bargain hunters.

Cellar bargains from the Americas

Zuccardi, Serie A Malbec 2023 Valle de Uco, Argentina 14.5%
£14 Tesco

Tensley, Fundamental (Rhône blend) 2021 Central Coast, California 14.5%
£23 Berry Bros & Rudd

Catena Zapata, Catena Alta Historic Rows Chardonnay 2021 Mendoza, Argentina 13.5%
£23 The Wine Society

Benjamin Bridge Brut NV Nova Scotia, Canada 12%
£23.50 VINVM, £24.99 Shelved Wine, £25 The Sourcing Table and others

Santa Rita, Floresta Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 Maipo, Chile 13.2%
£25.90 Hedonism

Sokol Blosser Pinot Noir 2019 Dundee Hills, Oregon 13%
£27 The Wine Society

Hundred Suns, Old Eight Cut Chardonnay 2020 Willamette Valley, Oregon 12.9%
£30.21 A & B Vintners

Bethel Heights, Estate Pinot Noir 2021 Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon 13.2%
£30.21 A & B Vintners

Joel Gott Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Napa Valley 14.5%
£37 Tesco

Hedges Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 Red Mountain, Washington 13.5%
£38 Wine & Earth

Turley, Kirschenmann Vineyard Zinfandel 2019 Lodi 15.2%
£48.60 Four Walls

Ridge, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Santa Cruz Mountains, California 14%
£75 Albion Wine Shippers

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Image from Heritage Vine Custom Wine Cellars.