This is a longer version of an article published in the Financial Times. See full tasting notes on all 88 wines.
In Britain we wine lovers are proud to boast that we can choose from the widest range of wines in the world, thanks to our long history as traders and importers. But there is one very important category of wine that has largely been missing from shelves and wine lists in the UK since the 1980s when the pound was so strong against the dollar, and that is fine California wine.
The rise of Silicon Valley has played its part in this regrettable lacuna. Thanks to the high-tech revolution, there has been so much money around to fund and bolster the California wine business that demand and then prices rose to levels that made the great majority of the most sought-after labels look distinctly poor value to those living far from the Napa Valley. I remember a wine list in a Paris restaurant around the turn of the century that mixed up regions and simply listed wines upwards by price. Such Californians as there were clustered at the very bottom of the list.
But there is good news for those who, like me, love the verve and sumptuousness of top-quality California wine. Prices in California have stopped heading skywards and, perhaps even more importantly, there has been a distinct increase in the number of British wine importers taking California seriously.
Time was that Sir Peter Michael of the eponymous California winery and founder of Classic FM was almost alone in importing top-quality California wine into the UK to sell in his restaurant outside Newbury, The Vineyard. A handful of producers such as Ridge Vineyards in the hills above Silicon Valley and John Williams of Frog’s Leap have long been faithful to the British market via Berry Bros’ agency arm, and importers The Wine Treasury also kept the faith, but otherwise it was left to a handful of enthusiasts such as David Motion of The Winery in London’s Maida Vale to wave the bear flag.
The last year or two, however, has seen much more fraternisation between wine traders in California and Britain. Roberson of Kensington High Street, London, even organised a day-long tasting and series of seminars with San Francisco Chronicle wine editor and author of The New California, Jon Bonné. The Dorchester’s Cut, The Chiltern Firehouse, Mash and The Avenue all have superior American restaurant wine lists, and now the seriously wine-minded wine-bar owners Michael and Charlotte Sager-Wilde have opened Mission, a second establishment in east London substantially devoted to California wine. UK wine merchants such as Flint Wines, The Wine Society and Naked Wine are now offering some wines of real interest, because they are either bargains or cutting-edge cult wines, from the US state that would be the world’s fourth biggest wine producer if it were a country.
Despite all the recent hullabaloo about the state’s much more refined Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and a host of obscure grape varieties now marketed as the height of fashion, top dog in the California fine-wines scene is still Cabernet Sauvignon, or carefully crafted Cabernet-based reds made in the image of the wines that ‘beat’ Bordeaux’s best in both the 1976 and 2006 versions of the Judgment of Paris taste-off.
American Masters of Wine, a contingent that is growing every year and now constitutes 35 of the 319 MWs worldwide, decided recently that it was high time that their British counterparts were exposed to a hand-picked assortment of some of the finest American Cabernets. They had doubtless picked up on the fact that it has been convenient in British circles to dismiss the entire category as overpriced and over-alcoholic, and put together a collection designed to combat at least the second blanket prejudice.
Accordingly, 88 American Cabernets – 70 from California and the rest from Washington state, Long Island, Virginia and even Colorado – were shown last month in Trinity House (as shown) overlooking the Tower of London and its moat full of commemorative red poppies. They were carefully grouped by subregion, even within the Napa Valley. To judge from my fellow tasters, the cohort most interested in American Cabernet is Master of Wine students and many of them had flown in specially from continental Europe, where recent vintages of the style are even rarer than in the UK. (The typical smart European restaurant wine list has a clutch of ancient American vintages that have lingered there, unordered, for a decade or two in my experience.)
In fact it was left to producers to decide which vintage to show and some of them reached right back into the darkest corners of their cellar. We had the 2005 vintage of Joseph Phelps Insignia and Francis Ford Coppola’s Inglenook Rubicon and representatives of the lauded 1997 vintage from the once-iconic Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard and its modern counterpart Ridge Monte Bello, as well as many wines from the late 2000s.
But the vintages most commonly shown were 2010 and 2011, two unusually cool, wet years in northern California, so the fruit bombs that some British tasters may have expected to encounter were relatively thin on the ground. That said, there were some 2010s and 2011s that tasted downright timid, as though their makers hadn’t really been sure what to make of such relatively unripe grapes. There is a perceptible swing away from full-throttle winemaking reliant on leaving the grapes on the vine as long as possible anyway, and perhaps there was a temptation in some quarters to think that simple wines without too much alcohol are enough to satisfy that trend.
But there were many truly excellent wines in this collection and I see that the great majority of my favourites were 2010s, supplemented by some of the finest older wines.
What was notable was how coy American label designers seem to be about alcohol levels. A magnifying glass was almost needed to discern percentages that varied from 12.9 (Ridge 1997) to 15.7 (Beaulieu, Georges de Latour 2010). And to European sensibilities there seemed to be far too many ridiculously heavy bottles. There were also some wines that offered no refreshment whatsoever with such fruit as there was cloaked in a sort of sickly oil slick of strangely flavoured oak. But these disappointments were in a minority and I am already looking forward to the next edition.
See full tasting notes on all 88 wines.
Ridge, Monte Bello 1997 Santa Cruz Mountains
Corison, Kronos Vineyard 2010 St Helena
Anakota, Helena Dakota 2009 Knights Valley
Antica 2010 Atlas Peak
Beringer Private Reserve 2010 Napa Valley
Blackbird, Contrarian 2010 Napa Valley
Cain, Cain Five 2009 Spring Mountain District
Cardinale 2010 Napa Valley
Chappellet, Pritchard Hill Estate 2010
Daou Reserve 2010 Paso Robles
Dry Creek Vineyards, The Mariner 2011 Dry Creek Valley
Ingelnook, Rubicon 2005 Rutherford
Lokoya 2010 Mount Veeder
Louis M Martini 2011 Napa Valley (my wine of the week yesterday)
Mayacamas 2008 Mount Veeder
Joseph Phelps, Insignia 2005 Napa Valley
Snowden Reserve 2010 Napa Valley
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Cask 23 2010 Stags Leap District
Stonestreet, Rockfall 2010 Alexander Valley