RICHARD ESLING: ‘Unexpected’ wines from California

Justin Knock MW (centre) leading the California Masterclass
Justin Knock MW (centre) leading the California Masterclass

What do you normally think of when you hear the words ‘Californian Wines’?

Depending on what your taste profile is, the answer can be somewhat different.

At the lower end of the market, there are some ranges of easy drinking, relatively characterless white, red and rosé wines, such as Blossom Hill or most of the wines from Gallo. If you are young and have a sweet tooth, white Zinfandel may be just the ticket, even though it’s pink. For the more discerning drinker, the answer is probably big, chunky reds from grape varieties such as Zinfandel or the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon, with whites undoubtedly from Chardonnay.

Some wines are fabulous, world beaters and indeed have surpassed their French counterparts in blind tastings.

But there is another side to California wine, which to the majority of consumers – and professionals – is very unexpected. These are wines from grape varieties that you would never dream of producing wine in California, due to the climate. Some of these, in fact, are among the oldest vineyards of the region and were, like almost all the vines, brought here by the pioneers back in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Since these early settlers came from all over Europe, they brought their local varieties with them, and there are more than 100 different grape varieties producing wine in California.

90 percent of all US wine comes from California and if it were a separate country it would be the fourth largest wine producing country in the world. Last year the total production of Californian wine grapes was 4 million tons. When you consider that one ton conservatively makes 800 bottles, that’s an astonishing amount of wine.

At the end of last month, the California Wine Institute held a fascinating Masterclass in London, to showcase some of the ‘unexpected’ wines from this region. Led by the UK director Justin Knock MW, it took place in the tasting room of the wine shop in New Quebec Street called Philglas and Swigott. Top of the range wines, some of those tasted are made in very small quantities by boutique wineries – a smattering among the 3,500 in existence. One such was Clos Saron the Pleasant Peasant 2014 from the Sierra foothills. Only 1860 bottles were made from 110-year-old Carignan vines. The wine has great complexity of both aroma and flavour, with tremendous balance, harmony and an exquisite, long finish.

Other reds introduced were from varieties more commonly found in the south of France or Italy, such as Cinsault, Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo. A further revelation was a red made from the Valdiguie variety. Grown in the Languedoc Roussilon region of Southern France, it is little known there, let alone coming from California, where Broc Cellars winery produced 7,800 bottles of it for the 2015 vintage. A very appealing wine with characteristics of ripe quetch plums, it has light tannins, medium body, and a satisfying, peppery, spicy fruit finish. Hugely enjoyable.

The whites were equally impressive and surprising.

Although we think of California as the land of continuous baking hot sunshine, there are of course many microclimates in this vast state, some of which can be quite cool, either due to high altitude or cool ocean currents. A relatively new arrival as a grape variety in California, is Albariño. The Marimar Estate’s Don Miguel vineyard, is located in the coolest, foggiest region of the Russian River Valley, only 10 miles from the Pacific, and produced just 450 cases of Albariño 2015. The wine is zippy and fresh with green apple, lime and white peach aromas and flavours.

All the wines mentioned are between £24 and £36 per bottle and available in the UK (details from California Wine Institute). While clearly not cheap, they are exceptional wines that are big on quality, flavour, complexity and character.

What else would you expect from Arnie’s State?

Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Twitter @richardwje. Visit www.winewyse.com.

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