California Syrah – a winning speciality

Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley - photo courtesy of the vineyard.

Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley – photo courtesy of the vineyard.

I do quite a lot of teaching at The West London Wine SchoolWine and Spirit education Trust / WSET Courses mainly, but every now and again we hold a tasting debate there. What happens is that we choose a grape variety or style to compare in a tasting and then each of the school’s tutors champion a country or region that produces that style. It’s all good fun and I suppose that we shouldn’t read too much into the results, but recently we had a tasting debate on Syrah and the results were extraordinary, so I thought I would tell you about the wines.

I had decided to champion the Americas, while colleagues had each opted for other places; Jimmy Smith chose South Africa, Cherie Agnew is from New Zealand and decided to showcase the increasingly exciting Syrahs from her homeland, while Shane Jones, our resident classicist, took on the job of presenting Syrahs from France.

Whilst thinking about what actual wines to show, I decided to concentrate on just one area. We had already debated Syrah once before and I had shown one from Chile that was very well received, the delicious Errazuriz Aconcagua Costa Syrah  (while the winning wine that previous time was also one of mine, the magnificent Syrah du Liban from Domaine des Tourelles in Lebanon),  so this time I chose to focus on the United States as I have tried quite a few really exciting American Syrahs of late. After a little contemplation both of my wines came from California.

The rules were pretty simple, we each had to present two wines, one per round, with the first one selling for under £20 and the second between £20 and £40.

I will just go off on a brief tangent about the name of the grape – Syrah. The grape originates in France and is called Syrah, as far as I can tell, no one knows why. We do know though that it does not come from Persia and has no link with the Persian city called Shiraz at all. Until the 1970s the Australians called the grape Hermitage – after the Syrah wine of the same name in France’s Rhône Valley. There appears to be no earthly reason why the Australians took to calling it Shiraz, none I can find anyway, so it is possible they just didn’t know how to pronounce Syrah, a strinization of Syrah if you will. Or it was a memory of a famous late nineteenth and early twentieth century Australian fortified wines band – fake Port if you like – called Shirazo. Such has been the success of Australian Shiraz though that many people like to call it Shiraz, wherever it grows. I stick to the original, unless the label specifically states Shiraz.

I will only tell you about my wines, because for the first time in the history of our debates one country won both rounds and had the biggest swing from unfavourable views before the tasting began to favourable views afterwards. That country was the United States. Both my wines came from California and they won both rounds of the tasting and the overall swing.

California map QS 2015 watermarked

Wine Map of California – click for a larger view.

California is of course much more famous for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay than anything else. Pinot Noir has become big in recent years, since the film Sideways and more importantly since Californian growers worked out which sites suit that fickle grape. Syrah though has been creeping up on the outside for quite a while. Although a little has been grown in the state for as long as the California wine trade has existed, it was the Rhône Ranger movement of the 1980s that really put California Syrah on the map and plantings developed at a great rate during the 1990s. Sadly the economic downturn from 2008 onwards, together with increased popularity of cheaper Australian Shiraz, caused sales of California Syrah to pretty well crash.

Its popularity seems to have peaked, but that means that a lot of the bulk production and vineyards in less suitable areas have now disappeared, leaving California Syrah largely in the hands of the real specialists. Growers who love the grape and grow it in the perfect locations to produce a distinctive style and wines of great quality. It was this that I wanted to illustrate with my two wines.

My first wine was one that I have admired for quite a long time:

Qupé Vineyards and Winery - photo courtesy of the winery.

Qupé Vineyards and Winery – photo courtesy of the winery.

qupe-central-coast-syrah2013 Qupé Syrah
AVA Central Coast
Qupé Vineyards
Los Olivos, California

Bob Lindquist created and runs the wonderful Qupé Vineyards and is a real Syrah specialist, perhaps the leading one in the state. Qupé – pronounced kyoo-pay – is the Chumash word for the California poppy. The Chumash people are native to California’s Central and Southern Coast areas.

Bob produces three different Syrahs, with this, his Central Coast Syrah, being his entry level wine, being a blend from different sites with the Central Coast region or AVA / American Viticultural Area. Don’t let that fool you though, it is very good indeed. Actually it is only 98% Syrah with some tiny dollops of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Tempranillo and it is a blend of vineyard sites too. 63% comes from cool areas in Santa Barbara County and Edna Valley, while the rest grows in the warmer, Mediterranean climate, Paso Robles area.

The wine is a blend from different vineyards:
42% comes from the Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, originally planted by the last Spanish Governor of California in 1837.
35% from French Camp Vineyard in Paso Robles.
2% is from the Carriage Vineyard – which also has an inn – in Paso Robles
11% from the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard in the Edna Valley, which has been biodynamic sine 2009.
4% grows in the Ibarra-Young Vineyard in the Los Olivos District AVA.
6% from Chabot Vineyard in Santa Barbara County.

Remember, apart from  Paso Robles these are cool areas, suitable for Pinot Noir, so the wine is subtle and savoury, despite its 18 months in French oak – neutral so the flavour does not dominate, just adds smoky spice.

The nose is lovely, generous and ripe, with bright, vivid black fruit together with a lighter, fresher note of cherry, as well as dry spice and black pepper. The palate is very smooth, mellow and round with velvety tannins and plenty of blackberry fruit as well as that lighter, fresher, cherry character. There is a touch of vanilla and smoky oak too, so the wine might repay a little bit of ageing or serving with a rich meal – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £17-£20 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company, Eton Vinters and others – click here for other stockists.
For US stockists, click here.

My second wine was from one of my favourite seats and winemakers from anywhere:

photo-vineyard

Joseph Swan Great Oak Vineyard – photo courtesy of the winery.

Swan2008 Joseph Swan Great Oak Vineyard Syrah
AVA Russian River Valley
Joseph Swan Vineyards
Sonoma, California

Joseph Swan started making wines in the Russian River Valley in 1967. The estate is historic and before Swan was only owned by two generations of a single family from the early days of pioneer settlement right up to 1967. The house itself was surrounded by old Zinfandel vines and the estate continues to use these to make one of the very best examples of the grape. In the early 1970 under guidance from André Tchelistcheff  Swan decided to become a Pinot Noir specialist. Some local vineyards had historically grown some Pinot, but he was the first to really specialise in it and he was so successful that today there is a Joseph Swan clone of Pinot Noir. A couple of sites are a bit warmer though and lend themselves to Syrah instead. Swan produce two single vineyard Syrahs, Trenton Estate Vineyard and the Great Oak Vineyard. Joseph Swan retired in 1987 and passed the winery and estate over to his son in law Rod Berglund, who had worked with him for many years. I have met Rod and he is a charming, modest and fascinating winemaker, who puts all his success down to his vineyards – you can see a couple of short interviews I did with him here. Joseph Swan vineyards is a true artisan winery with a hands -off approach similar to classic winemaking in Burgundy and the Northern Rhône.

I cannot tell you how the wine was made I am afraid as the winery did not respond to any of my emails, but that doesn’t really matter. Suffice to say that it is was a real treat.

The nose is rich and savoury, with some pepper and smoke and earth and leather from the ageing – it is 2008. There is plenty of fruit though, blackberry, cherry and raspberry too, together with some mushroom notes. the palate was elegant and refined, not a blockbuster, but no wimp either. It was refined, silky and savoury, but still with a solid core of fruit. There are spices, herbs, leather, earth, mushroom, cherry, blackberry and yes, that brighter, lighter raspberry note too. The finish is wonderfully round and complete. A fine, fine wine that would go with all manner of meat and cheese dishes – 94/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £30-£37 per bottle from The Secret Cellar and The Tasting Room, further stockist information available from Fields, Morris & Verdin.
For US stockists, click here.

Both of these wines are superb, as proven by the fact that they won their rounds of the tasting debate. Both of them really impressed the tasters and made the whole room feel very positive about California Syrah. So why don’t you try them? I think you will really enjoy the wines, they are subtle, fine and beautifully made. So the nest time you deserve a treat, give them a go and let us all know what you think.

Wine of the Week 53 – a celebration of Albariño

Once again I was spoilt for choice, so have decided to have a pair of Wines of the Week.

They are both from different countries and different winemakers, but they are both made from the same grape – Albariño, although neither of them hail from that superb grape’s native country – Spain. The grape originates in Gallicia north western Spain, where it is famously used to make Rias Baixas wines – this is one of the very best you will find. This region is just above Portugal, which also grows the grape and produces superb wines from it, but the Portuguese call it Alvarinho – this is a superb Portuguese example, as is this.

Loving Albariño can be an irritating pastime as, like Pinot Noir, it can be so inconsistent and not always show its true beauty, but when it does it truly deserves to be included in a list of the world’s finest white grapes. Lower quality examples can be a bit dilute and lack minerality in favour of peachy fruit, so are always at least nice to drink, but at their best Albariños – like this one here – have poise, balance, purity and a thrilling quality.

By the way, if is is consistency that you are looking for with Spanish white wines, then I would recommend that you try a Verdejo from Rueda, this grape never fails to deliver and I wrote about a superb example here.

Good Albariño excites me and I have long thought it a shame that it has not managed to break out from the ghetto and become a true international grape variety. However, it seems that this might be about to change as I have recently tasted two really exciting and fine Albariños, one from New Zealand and another from California, neither of them are oaked.

The wine regions of Sonoma - click map for a larger view

The wine regions of Sonoma – click map for a larger view

Marimar Albarino2012 Marimar Estate Albariño
Marimar Estate, Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA, Sonoma, California

Marimar Torres is an amazing lady. Born into the winemaking Torres family of Spain, she is Miguel’s sister, Marimar carved out her own niche by relocating to California and establishing a boutique winery in Sonoma. The estate specialises in Chardonnay and Noir and the viticulture is entirely organic and moving towards biodynamic. Because of Marimar’s Spanish roots they also grow a little Tempranillo, which she blends with Syrah, and recently have planted a small parcel of Albariño. Originally Marimar planted the grape on the cool Sonoma Coast, but amazingly it was too cold for it to ripen properly – it was cooler than Galicia. After 4 years of trying there they gave up and grafted the same vines onto rootstock in their slightly warmer Don Miguel Vineyard in their Russian River Valley Estate. It is a true boutique wine with only 287 cases produced.
Albariño is an aromatic grape and the nose is richly exotic and fragrant with floral notes, pineapple, mango and some peach and nectarine too. It isn’t all fruit though, there is even a touch of something saline and mineral there.
The palate is quite round, but also delivers lovely acidity to offset the succulent fruit. Lovely concentration of fruit, peach and apricot, even peach stone at times. Touch of white pepper too. Lovely balance and tension between the freshness and the juicy fruit. A glorious wine, subtle and hedonistic at the same time. The finish is dominated by lovely tangy stone fruit and is very long – 93/100 points.
Try it with simply cooked fish and a salad, but the sheer weight of this Albariño will suit garlicky chicken well too.
Available in the UK for around £28 a bottle from Vintage Marque and Edgmond Wines. Further stockist information is available from Fells.
US stockist information is available here.
The second exciting Albariño that I have tasted recently is from an equally unlikely place, New Zealand.
NZ map QS 2011 watermark

New Zealand wine map – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Richard Painter, Te Awa's talented winemaker.

Richard Painter, Te Awa’s talented winemaker.

Left Field Albarino2014 Left Field Albariño
Te Awa Collection
Hawke’s Bay, New ZealandTe Awa is another enterprising winery, this time based in the Gimblett Gravels zone of North Island’s Hawkes Bay region. They produce an exciting range of wines, but also like to show their whimsical side in their Left Field range of less usual grape varieties that are not always grown on their own vineyards. They augment these wines with a wonderfully irreverent set of labels, which you must read. The Albariño fruit was sourced from a small vineyard in Gisborne, which again shows that you do not want too cold a place for Albariño to thrive – Gisborne is pretty warm and is regarded as great Chardonnay country. Again it is an experimental lot with just 250 cases produced.
There is a startling purity to this with like juice and pumice notes together with some honeysuckle and orange blossom on the nose.
The palate is lean and clean, like a lunge with a foil, with acidity rather than weight to the fore, but the fruit is delicious too, sort of dancing on your senses with delicate flavours of melon, peach and nectarine. Another gorgeous wine and clean as a whistle, grab some while you can – 92/100 points.
This lighter, zestier style would suit shell fish and tapas very well as well as all manner of lighter dishes.
Available in the UK for around £13 a bottle from Stone Vine & SunTaurus Wines and The Halifax Wine Company. Further stockist information is available from Hatch Mansfield.
Both these wines are really fine examples of Albariño and show that this terrifically exciting grape is finally on the march.

Wine of the Week 46 – it’s Zinfandel, but not as most people imagine it

Zinfandel is a wonderful grape variety, that is pretty hard to pin down – in many different ways. What it actually is and where it comes from has taken a very long time to get straight. The grape is often regarded as America’s own grape, but if any vine can make that claim it is actually the wayward Norton. Of course Zinfandel made its reputation in California, but it was a long time coming. For much of its time there Zinfandel has been regarded as a very inferior grape indeed and it has only been in the last 20 years or so that it has received the attention that it deserves.

Zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley.

Zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley.

As far as we can tell, the grape that became Zinfandel was taken to the eastern United States from Europe in the 1820’s – long before the annexation of California. Records show that it was taken from the Austrian Imperial nursery in Vienna to Boston and was originally sold as a table grape in New England, but destiny called when cuttings were shipped to California to take advantage of the boom caused by the Gold Rush in 1849. That was all we knew until the 1990s when DNA testing discovered that Zinfandel was identical to the Primitivo that is widely used in Puglia, the heel of Italy.

Plavac Mali vines in the amazing Dingac vineyards on the Pelješac Peninsula.

Plavac Mali vines in the amazing Dingac vineyards on the Pelješac Peninsula near Dubrovnik in Croatia.

Further investigation and DNA work then discovered that Primitivo/Zinfandel were one of the parents of the Plavac Mali grape which is used on Croatia’s Dalmation coast. The other parent was Dobričić, an incredibly obscure Croatian grape that only grows on the Dalmatian island of Šolta. This find narrowed the search down and in 2001 a vine that matched Zinfandel’s DNA was discovered in a single vineyard in Kaštel Novi north west of Split on the Croatian coast. The vine was known as Crljenak Kaštelanski, or ‘the red grape of Kaštela’. In 2011 the researchers discovered another match, this time with a grape called Tribidrag which is also used on the Dalmatian coast. Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag are as alike as different clones of Pinot Noir, or Tempranillo and Tinto Fino, but  Tribidrag is the more common name, although not much of it is left, so it too is obscure. However, records show the name has been used since at least 1518 and what’s more, Primitivo derives from the Latin for early, while Tribidrag derives from the Croatian for early – they are both early ripening grapes.

Ok, so the roots of Zinfandel are sorted, but then we have the the worry as to exactly what sort of wine Zinfandel makes. Many UK consumers assume that Zinfandel primarily makes sweetish rosé, white Zinfandel, but most of the books and wine courses tell us that it makes high alcohol (15% and more), rich, dry, spicy red wines with rich dried fruit – prune and raisin – characters. That can certainly be true of the old vine Zinfandels that are produced in the hot Central Valley areas of Amador and Lodi, but there is another, totally different style of Zinfandel in California too.

This style comes from cooler production areas nearer the coast and is more elegant – by which I mean less powerful, less of a blunt instrument, instead it has delicate fruit characters, normally red – raspberry in fact – together with some freshness too. I recently tasted a delicious example, that is very good value for money, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

California map QS 2015 watermarked

The wine regions of Sonoma - click map for a larger view.

The wine regions of Sonoma – click map for a larger view.

 

Zin2013 De Loach Heritage Reserve Zinfandel
De Loach Vineyards,
Russian River Valley, Sonoma
California
100% Zinfandel aged for a few months in American and Hungarian oak barrels. The grapes mainly come from De Loach’s own organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards, with some fruit from other, warmer areas of California. Sonoma’s Russian River Valley has a long slow even growing season that seems to coax real elegance out of Zinfandel, making the wines quite different from the usual take on the grape. The alcohol is a modest 13.5%.

The colour is a lovely deep, but bright ruby red, while the nose is scented and lifted, offering rich, intense raspberry together with black pepper, smoke and vanilla. The palate is medium-bodied, but is richly textured with rounded ripe fruit filling the mouth with flavour. Those flavours are raspberry and cracked pepper spice together with some cherry and blackberry too. While this is not the most complex Zinfandel in the world, the tannins are soft and velvety and while the fruit dominates from start to finish, making the wine juicy and soft, there is a lovely seam of freshness in the wine, that makes it deliciously drinkable too – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £11 a bottle from Eclectic Tastes and Exel Wines, further stockist information is available from the UK distributor, Liberty Wines.
US stockist information is available here.

If your experience of Zinfandel makes you think they are all huge monsters with high alcohol, this gives a totally different take on the grape and is superb value for money too. A very food friendly wine, this is perfect with almost anything, from burgers, pastas and pizzas, to Sunday roasts and finer fare.

Wine of the Week 37 – a terrific & Great Value California Cabernet

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.

California map QS 2015 watermarked

Wine map of California – click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.

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:

Napa map 2015 watermarked

Wine map of The Napa Valley – click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.

Napa Valley - high above the fog line.

Napa Valley – high above the fog line.

Cain-Five-2004-bottle-lg

2008 Cain Five
Cain Vineyard & Winery
Spring Mountain District A.V.A.
Napa Valley
California

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.

UK stockist information is here.
US stockist information is here.

At about half the price we tasted the very nearly as fascinating:

Napa Valley - looking West from St helena towards the Mayacamas.

Napa Valley – looking West from St helena towards the Mayacamas Mountains.

BLX_NVCab_new pack hero_HR_nv2010 Beringer Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Beringer Vineyards
Napa Valley A.V.A.
California

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.

UK stockist information is here.
US stockist information is here.

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:

Napa Valley vineyards.

Napa Valley vineyards.

3vineyard-cab-sauv2012 Pedroncelli Three Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
Pedroncelli Winery
Dry Creek Valley A.V.A.
Sonoma
California

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.

UK stockist information is here.
US stockist information is here.

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.

 

Cakebread – a great Napa winery

Wine makers and winery owners are usually engaging and interesting people and I have been fortunate enough to meet quite a few in my career. However one of the most agreeable and charming I have ever met is Bruce Cakebread, President and C.O.O. of Cakebread Cellars – the winery that bears his family name.

I was thrilled to meet him in Napa last year, I have always loved Cakebread wines, so a it was great to put a personality and a face to the wine. Bruce not only runs the family winery, but is also president of the board of directors for the Napa Valley Vintners.

Bruce Cakebread

I have been lucky enough to bump into him a couple of times since then and his wines always impress me with their finesse and elegance, so I thought it was about time that I told you a little about them. Continue reading

Return to Sonoma – the Russian River Valley

I have been hugely impressed and very excited recently by an array of wines from California’s Sonoma Valley.

The wines that I tasted were all very good and the people who made them interesting and dedicated, but what also made them fascinating to me was the chance it gives to really get to grips with understanding wine, winemaking and growing conditions.

This is because as a European I can look at the variety from Sonoma with a much more open mind than I can Burgundy, for instance. I can taste the wines and really get a grip on what makes them different and why – with no preconceptions as to what they should be like. Continue reading

Domaine Carneros – haven of calm and elegance

Whilst in the Napa Valley I was fortunate enough to be invited to visit Domaine Carneros. This is a dramatic and beautiful winery surrounded by vines and perched on a hill overlooking the rolling Carneros countryside.

It was created in 1987 as a partnership between US wine company Kobrand and Champagne Taittinger. Indeed Claude Taittinger had been looking for a suitable site for a Californian sparkling wine vineyard since the 1970s. Continue reading