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.

 

Enticing & Exciting Modern Reds

We are so lucky to live in these times, I really believe that the quality of good wine has never been better than it is now, but that is sometimes easy to forget. Luckily I tried two very different red wines recently that really proved the point, they were rich and supple with great fruit and excellent tannin management. They appeared to be superbly made and to have had love and care lavished upon them and the results were enticing:

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A Fine Balance – why expensive wines and cheap wines often bore me

I am feeling increasingly marginalised in the wine world, my view of wine just does not seem to fit the modern market:

The Expensive Side

Books and critics, magazines and the twittering classes talk about the Cru Classés and En primeur Campaigns (what an ugly phrase), but to me that has as much to do with wine as investing money in Laithwaites. It is not really any longer about the wine, but the money and potential for profit. Much the same can be said about the sort of wine that the American magazines often discuss, these rich ‘collectors’ – the word means someone rich enough to buy a lot in this instance – smiling in front of their new purpose built cellar complete with a glass-walled showroom for their Petrus collection – that isn’t about wine either. Neither are the hugely expensive California Cabernets or Super-Tuscans anymore, they are all about esteem, branding, marketing and other people’s perception of your taste and wealth. It is the modern obsession with brand writ large and describing these as wine is a bit like saying that staying at the Peninsular Hotel in Hong Kong is travelling.

These wines can be great, but very few of us can afford to drink them and as they are more often bought for investment hardly anyone does seem to drink them, so in reality there is hardly any point to them from a wine perspective. That is why I mainly ignore such wines and focus on things that are more affordable and interesting – to me.

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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

Sad news from Napa

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of Aldo Biale. In partnership with his son Robert, Dave Pramuk, and winemaker Al Perry he was part owner and guiding force behind the wonderful Robert Biale Vineyards.

I would like to send my best wishes to the family and everyone involved in that great winery.

Aldo & Clementina Biale

I have a huge amount of respect for what Robert Biale Vineyards does and the people who do it. I had a fantastic couple of days there not so long ago and the night I arrived Aldo had just been taken into hospital, but I was able to meet Clementina his wife of over 50 years, who was a gracious and kindly lady.  You can read about my visit here.

http://www.robertbialevineyards.com/

Robert Biale – great wine on a human scale

I really enjoyed visiting the Napa Valley recently, I saw much and learnt a lot. I saw many wonderful wineries, but one of the absolute highlights was visiting a small family owned winery called Robert Biale Vineyards.

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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