Recently I took part in a wine tasting debate that was all about Cabernet and Merlot blends. My job was to champion the wines of California while other wine educators championed Bordeaux and Australasia.
It took place at the West London Wine School where I do quite a lot of teaching as well as events like this, so keep an eye on the web site, there are more of these debates to come.
Well, I was really thrilled to be able to show people good some really good California wine, the state makes great, great wine that somehow gets ignored, by and large anyway, over here in the UK. I think most UK wine drinkers only ever see the cheap, simple, overly fruity mass market, branded bulk wine examples and assume that is what all California wines are like.
Nothing could be further from the truth and it is a shame that UK wine drinkers don’t often get the chance to try California wines that are a little more complex and interesting as there is plenty of good stuff to be found. It is widely believed, of course, that the good stuff from California is all very expensive and while wines from California can cost a lot of money, that does not mean that you cannot find good value.
Many UK wine drinkers either forget, or never knew, how important California is in terms of wine. It has a long history of making premium wine and it makes a lot of it to. California would be the fourth largest wine producer in the world if it was a separate country. I love the history of the place, but will leave that for another time. It’s cultural importance as a wine producer really began in the 1960s when a group of pioneers – I was lucky enough to meet many of them early in my career, including Bob Mondavi, Joe Heitz, Paul Draper of Ridge, Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap, Jamie Davies of Schramsberg and Frank Woods of Clos du Bois – started to seriously make ambitious wine. Of course they were building on those that had come before them, but they realised the potential in this sunny state that had dry conditions and a Mediterranean climate. Really they created the modern world of wine. Before this we had never seen wines that were so technically well made – it helped that UC Davis had become one of the world’s preeminent agriculture and viticulture research stations by this time – and what’s more they were amongst the very first wines sold with a simple grape variety name on the label – new world wine as we know it was born.
Well, my love of California wine clearly rubbed off on to the tasters on the night of the debate as I won, but in truth the credit goes to the wines. I showed 3 wines at 3 different price points, the first 2 both came from the Napa Valley, which is perhaps the most famous A.V.A. (American Viticultural Area, the US equivalent of a P.D.O. or P.G.I.) within California for Cabernet Sauvignon:
2008 Cain Five
Cain Vineyard & Winery
Spring Mountain District A.V.A.
This is a single vineyard blend of 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot grown high up – at 450–675 metres above sea level, it may interest you to know that Napa itself is only at 5 metres! – in the Mayacamas Mountains that define the border between Napa and Sonoma. This wine is astonishingly complex and fine and is far from the fruit bomb of popular imagination for California wines. The fruit is beautifully ripe making the wine rounded and supple, but there is so much more here too. It is a beautiful and very fine wine – 93/100 points.
At about half the price we tasted the very nearly as fascinating:
2010 Beringer Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa Valley A.V.A.
Another exciting blend, from several vineyard sites across Napa this time, including Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain District and the original Beringer vineyards in St Helena this a superbly supple and complex blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot and 1% Merlot. The concentrated fruit dominates a bit more here in the classic Napa style, but the finish is savoury, while the fine chalky tannins and touch of minerality add to the finesse and balance. I used to sell Beringer wines a long time ago and am really pleased to see that they are even better now – 91/100 points.
Both od these wines were superb and a lovely treat, but I also wanted to show that California could turn out out top notch affordable wine – and I did just that witht he first wine I showed at the tasting. It is so good and such good value for money that I have made it my Wine of the Week:
2012 Pedroncelli Three Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
Dry Creek Valley A.V.A.
Although labelled as a Cabernet, this too is a blend; 76% Cabernet Sauvignon (wines from the US only need 75% to be a labelled as a single variety, most places are 85%) 16% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petite Verdot. As you might imagine the Pedroncelli family are Italian in origin and they have owned this land since 1927, obviously because of prohibition they had to wait a few years before they could make wine – honest officer. They consistently produce wines of very high quality, but which are affordable and very drinkable too. This is a lovely easy drinking, very fruity style of Cabernet, but it has a nice touch of acidity to balance the rich fruit together with very gentle oak which just softens the already smooth tannins, what’s more the fruit, rather than the normal blackcurrant of Cabernet, feels much lighter and plum and raspberry-like. A very happy bottle of wine that is marvellous value for money – 88/100 points.
So the next time you want something utterly delicious and rewarding to drink, have a think about California, there is fantastic quality there and often great value for money too.