The Wine Institute of California hosted this tasting that housed the largest offering of Californian wines available in Ireland. Among which there was some very high quality juice indeed.
The vine growing regions across the Californian landscape are as diverse in nature as the varietals they cultivate. Abundant sunshine makes for a long grape growing season and as mentioned the diversity of the terroir supports a multitude of varietals, as I had the pleasure of experiencing. From North to more Central, California's 800 miles of rugged coastline expose nearby vineyards to natural "air conditioning" in the form of fog and breezes, ideal for cooler climate liking Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The hillside vines at the Sierra Foothills are treated to a mixture of cold nights and cooling air and bright, unfiltered sun-conditions that hardy vines take to well. Old Vine Zinfandel reigns supreme, accounting for the majority of plantings, but some other trends are emerging. Italian super star Sangiovese has been challenged by its humbler kinsman Barbera. Sangiovese, lauded as an exalted alternative to the Californian Cabernet was planted in the elite soils of Napa about a quarter of a century ago. Today Cabernet has reinstated itself as the dominant Napa varietal and Sangiovese is used more commonly for blends. Meanwhile, Barbera, despite being grown in regions without the cache of Napa Valley, has grown in volume of production and in consumer taste.
The relentlessly high temperatures that occur in the Central Valley and more mainland California actually have a cooling affect of the Northern Coast. The high temperatures cause the summertime fog that hangs over the Pacific to be pulled into the narrower valleys between the coast and the Central Valley. The marine expanse of the San Pablo Bay north of San Francisco in particular encourages morning fog to cool down the Carneros region on its northern rim, and the southern ends of the Napa Valley and Sonoma's wine districts too. In fact in Northern California it is an almost invariable rule that the further north you travel, the warmer it gets.
Basically if Napa and Sonoma are the Bordeaux and Burgundy of California in terms of attracting all the attention and high prices, then the Central Valley is its Languedoc-Roussillon. Its workhouse region, producing a remarkable 3 quarters of Californian wine. San Joaquin Valley in particular fits this comparison, producing big, fruity reds from Zinfandel, full bodied Sauvignon Blanc a million miles away in style from grassy-herbaceous New-Zealand or Loire offerings. It is also the largest producer of White Zinfandel.
Californian Wine Regions of Note
- Napa Valley
- Los Carneros
- Lake County
- Santa Barbara
- San Francisco Bay
- El Dorado
- Lodi and the Delta
- Sacramento Valley
Au Bon Climat, Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara 2012
Bright aromas of red cherry and strawberry. Cherry is echoed again on the palate along with tart red plum. It’s bright, open and fresh in style, lacking in pretension.
Au Bon Climat, Chardonnay, Santa Barbara 2012
–Striking aromas of flint and citrus fairly jump at you from the glass and in the background a firm spice note from surlee barrel aging. On the palate there is citrus and round oakiness with a touch of vanilla. This wine needs a little time to open up to its full buttery complex self. A Very pleasing balanced finish. It will age beautifully no doubt. I watch it with interest.
Au Bon Climat, Wild Boy Chardonnay 2012
Despite its irreverent name this wine is made in a restrained style. There is a subtle nose of lemon and tropical fruit, rich on the palate, with creamy citrus fruit and well integrated oak. Though fuller than some European offerings, it demonstrates more than a nod to the French tradition of rather serious and refined chardonnays.
Frog’s Leap Rutherford Merlot 2011
My unsuspecting senses were hit with a surprising stalkiness on the nose, even qualities of green bell pepper. To which the proprietor explained the inclusion of 10% Cabernet sauvignon 2% Cabernet franc. 2011 was a challenging vintage especially when it came to Merlot. But this wine is rewarding. It is the freshest of Merlots, along with the minty, stalkiness on the nose there is red currant, plum and something darker. Clean but with a velvety finish.
Ramey, Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast 2010
Aged in new oak, this has had plenty of time to ripen. Buttery aromas of baked apple with citrus and hazelnut notes. Crisp lemon merging with green apple flavours on the palate along with a bright acidity, well integrated oak, and notes of minerality. Well balanced and firmly structured with a lingering aftertaste.
Concannon Petit Syrah 2008
This had good upfront fruit of black and red berries with a spice that crept up and added to the complexity and structure. Well balanced medium to med/full bodied wine with soft, full tannins. Very good for its price point.
Joel Gott Zinfandel 2012
Lighter in body than expected, lively bright red fruit on the nose and palate. Soft round mouth feel with a hint of spice that saves it from being too jammy.
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Sources: Jancis Robinson