Over the last year I have really rekindled my 25 year old love affair with California wines. Say what you like about them, but they are never dull – I am talking about proper grower wines here, not the big anonymous brands.
My trip to Napa last year really showed me what passion there was, what attention to detail in the vineyard and the winery and how it is not all glossy rich men’s toys – there are real down and dirty farms too.
All of this and more appears to be the case in Napa’s neighbour, Sonoma County.
I recently attended a couple of events hosted by the Sonoma County Vintners where I learned a lot and tasted some wonderful wines.
I could just write it all down for you, but instead you can listen to and watch Honore Comfort, Executive Director of The Sonoma County Vintners on what makes Sonoma different:
OK, that gives us a perfect introduction I think, now for the wines. Wine is at its most exciting when you can see and taste real differences in a group of wines that are only there because of the climatic or geological conditions – and that is what we had in this tasting.
Like most of us Brits, I think, my mental picture of California was of unrelenting sunshine and heat – maybe I’ve seen too much American television? Well, of course that is not a true picture at all – just as it isn’t in Chile – to grow good grapes and to be a great wine region you need a cooling influence as well as sun. The proximity of the Pacific supplies that in Sonoma, or San Francisco Bay in the case of Carneros – Honore explained it so well in my film above that I will refrain from giving you my version too.
However, how do we define a cool climate? Iceland has a very cool climate, Reigate has a cool climate, as does Champagne and Chablis. As far as the climate goes, Sonoma is officially region 1 which makes it a bit warmer than Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Broadly speaking Sonoma is considered to have a Mediterranean climate characterised by warm to hot, dry summers and wet, but mild winters, that is why the effects of the ocean and the fog are so important and define this region.
I love the history of wine, to me history anchors a wine region in its traditions, links it to its cuisine and its people and is vital to great wine. However, I was unaware that Sonoma was the first place in California to make serious vitis vinifera wines when Buena Vista opened for business in 1857, created by the great wine pioneer and quite extraordinary Agoston Haraszthy himself.
If the drama of the fog escapes you, here is a photograph to show quite why it has such an effect:
La Crema Chardonnay 2008
La Crema Winery
Sonoma Coast, Sonoma
Limpid pale gold with green tints.
An intense nose of greengage and light peach notes and some cream and toast.
The palate was soft and delicately creamy with rich apple and a dash of acidity keeping it tight and structured. The subtle oak gave a little toasty spice and overall it was balanced and very drinkable.
The main thing here was the soft texture and clean apple finish – 88/100 points.
La Crema wines are available in the UK from John E Fells.
Ramey Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay 2006
Ramey Wine Cellars
Russian River Valley, Sonoma
David Ramey is a bit of a legend and I have been fortunate enough to taste some of his Chardonnay before. He makes wine from a number of vineyard sites in Napa, Napa-Carneros and Sonoma and all the wines I have tried have been memorable.
A pale melted butter colour, the nose gave off cloves, toast and spice together with apple and peach notes.
The palate was very classy and elegant with a purity and minerality that is hard to define, but I know it when I taste it. There was toasty and spicy oak, figs and a seam of fresh, lively acidity making it very clean and elegant and fine.
There was quite a lot of oak, but somehow it all seemed in perfect balance.
The finish was long and succulent with stone fruit and spice – 92/100 points.
Ramey Wine Cellars wines are available in the UK from Fields, Morris & Verdin.
I was also able to try:
Buena Vista Chardonnay 2007
Buena Vista Carneros Winery
This was a lovely, intensely flavoured and slightly tropical wine with rich preserved lemon characters, good minerality and great balance – 89/100 points.
The winemaker at Buena Vista is Jeff Stewart and he told me about the climate and terroir of Carneros:
We then moved on to a flight of Pinot Noirs, which were very exciting as this grape is so fickle and demanding. It does not seem long ago that it was a widely accepted ‘truth’ that no where outside Europe could really handle Pinot Noir. So, what changed, the climates, the know-how, the grape or our perceptions?
Probably a little of each, but mainly the clones used and the selection of the sites. I also think perceptions changed as consumers and pundits alike are now more willing to accept a softer, fruitier style of Pinot than in the more purist past.
Buena Vista Pinot Noir 2007
Buena Vista Carneros Winery
This was lovely to look at, near opaque and a vivid cherry red.
The nose was gently spicy with classic earthy and savoury notes and underlying red fruit too.
The palate was very attractive and supple with red cherry acidity and a fresh, fleshy and juicy texture with a touch of chalky tannins on the mid-palate giving structure and definition. Red fruit follows all the way to the long finish when a savoury umami seam joins in.
Very attractive wine with good acidity, supple fruit and a supple texture, Jeff did say that Carneros Pinot is ‘fruit driven’ and this wine proves his point – 90/100 points.
Flowers Vineyard Andreen-Gale Pinot Noir 2007
Flowers Vineyard & Winery
Sonoma Coast (marked on the map)
Sonoma Coast is a big place and some of it doesn’t even look that coastal to me, so I have marked this estate on the map. Flowers have vineyards and a winery sitting on a ridge just 2 miles from the ocean and I think the proximity shows – Tom Hinde, the winemaker, voiced the opinion that ‘you have to be able to see the sea to be coastal’. He also explained the location and style of the estate here:
Right from the off this wine had a more delicate style, it was pale and translucent with a light raspberry red.
The nose was smoky and peaty with mushrooms and spice.
The palate had lovely light cherry fruit and beautiful acid balance, it was delicate, but somehow also juicy and yet understated – I know, I’m confused too.
There was no harshness to this wine, it was very smooth, well balanced and elegant, subtle understated and long.
I liked this, the fact that this is the coolest bit of Sonoma really shows – 94/100 points.
Flowers Vineyards and Winery wines are available in the UK from The Wine Treasury.
I also tasted some wines from Joseph Swan Vineyards in Russian River Valley and will tell you about those in a few days.
It was wonderful to get to taste all these wines, to talk to the winemakers and try to really understand the region of which they are all so proud. It put Sonoma back on my mental map – from where, of course it should never have strayed.