The golden state has spent the last 10 years quietly building up quite the reputation in wine circles, climbing its way to fourth in the world in terms of production.
The first known vineyards in California date back to the missionaries in 1769 when the wine was produced mainly for sacramental purposes, or so they say. Then came the French, German and Italians, all in search of becoming filthy rich during the gold rush, bringing with them some vine cuttings from their homeland.
By the turn of the century, California wines were in high demand with vineyards growing at a rapid rate. That was until the long running Prohibition Act came into force in 1919, banning the production of alcohol. The effect on the wine industry was catastrophic, winemakers were wiped out almost over night and only a few were allowed to produce wine for their home or the church.
Given its history, it is hard to believe that over the past 4o years Cali wineries have grown from 227 to over 3,500 today, producing some of the world’s best Chardonnay, Pinot and Cabernet Sauvignon many of which are commanding eye watering prices.
With over 85% of production being consumed by Americans, it’s no surprise that on these shores many of us have been missing out on some incredibly diverse wines. Thankfully 2015/16 saw a huge shift in many producers’ outlook, with a big push towards having more and more California wine sent to the lucrative European market. Good news for the Irish, as 2017 should see an increase in awareness and tastings of these wines, hopefully exposing a whole new generation of wine lovers to this splendid region.
On a recent trip with the California Wine Institute we got to see just how progressive and expansive the wines produced there are. New varietals, innovative growing techniques and a real sense of place are present in almost every winery we visited.
It is hard to think of a better location in the world for growing wine as Mother Nature certainly blessed this region with such a diverse climate that it has allowed Napa, Sonoma and Carneros to experiment with more elegant Chardonnay styles and lower alcohol Cab – Sauvs. Even the less grown Sauvignon Blanc is having a moment with some well structured examples and quirky labels appealing to the millennial drinker. Below are some of the stand out wines you will hopefully soon be able to sample on the Irish market and some you already can.
Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
A Napa Valley stalwart, Freemark Abbey produces some top end Cab Sauvs.
Packed with rich plummy flavours and black cherry notes this full bodied wine is a fine example of what makes California wines so unique.
The sweetness to the oak and subtle hints of clove add balance and elegance that is hard to rival.
Ravenswood Lodi “Old Vine” Zinfandel
Ravenswood is best known for its exceptional Zinfandels. Once one of the most popular wines in California, due to its luscious dark fruit flavours, well balanced acidity and silky tannins, they have now been taken over by the Cab Sauv lovers.
However this sometimes forgotten grape is one of our most loved Californian wines and at this price is an excellent introduction if you have yet to sample a quality “Zin.”
Napa wines garner much of their influence from classic French styles and this Pine Ridge blend is something quite different from what many of us have come to think of this region.
Delicate floral notes, white peach and hints of apple blossom on the nose, bursting with pear and apricot on the palate with a lively refreshing finish make this a real crowd pleaser. Under €20 this is well worth picking up.
Black Stallion, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA
Delicato Family Vineyards have one of the largest portfolios in California with many familiar brands under their umbrella such as Gnarley Head and Brazin, however their Black Stallion range is the one to watch and well worth seeking out if you are wiling to push the boat out on price. A savoury nose of blackberries, cassis and spice lead beautifully to smooth mocha and caramel flavours which produce a silky, elegant finish that will prove hard to beat.
Celtic Whiskey Shop €30.99
One of the most entertaining wineries we visited in Sonoma, with wines equally as impressive as the hosting we enjoyed. Ideal for Chardonnay lovers who enjoy a more subtle oak experience, this La Crema vintage displays well balanced acidity, with a delicious juicy brightness. A palate of oatmeal, lemon, with a trickle of melon make this an ideal companion for a feast of roast chicken or some lobster with a creamy butter sauce – heaven.
If you have read our Top Ten Wineries in California piece you will know that Raymond Winery like to do things differently. Owned by Jean Charles Boisset, who Decanter magazine has named in their Top 50 Power Brokers in the global wine industry, this organic tipple (don’t let that put you off) is the work of a dynamic, Napa Valley born and bred winemaker by the name of Stephanie Putman. Her 2013 Merlot is described as being designed to “awaken the senses” and its earthy notes with soft spice certainly deliver.
Mitchell & Sons €56.00
Hard to pin down in Ireland but so worth the search, Littorai is the epitome of “sense of place”, their ethos is that their wines should express the terroir. All of their bottles are 100% biodynamic and grown with sustainable farming practices which, unlike many others, are not in place for cynical marketing reasons but for their love of the land. Biodynamic can sometimes be a dirty word in the wine scene but their Pinot Noirs are up there with the best, savoury notes and a beautiful bright acidity give these wines a remarkable purity.
Unless you frequent the States regularly you probably have yet to sample some of the exquisite Sparkling wines produced in California. The leading producer is Schramsberg, a winery steeped in history that could easily rival some of the best bubbles in Champagne and which is the toasting wine used by the White House for visiting dignitaries. In fact their Blanc de Blanc was the first commercial use of Chardonnay in American sparkling wine. Although not quite of diplomatic standing just yet we were treated to a tasting at their winery above St. Helena and witnessed the hand crafted and labour-intensive process in their maze of underground caves first hand. Their dry, crisp Blanc de Blancs is made from 100% Chardonnay with lots of vibrancy on the palate and if you can get your hands on a bottle you may never drink Champagne again.
For the die hard cab sauv fans out there this is one to add to the wish list.
Not only is it one of the most beautiful etched labels you will find but its contents are equally as impressive.
Often referred to as one of the easiest wines to single out in a blind tasting due to its distinct vanilla and coconut aromas from the oak, this is a full bodied drop that is made to last, packed with dusty tannins, a great structure and a seamless, smooth finish.