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Where once California’s wines were over-oaked, over-alcoholic and often overpriced, a growing number of producers are realising that bigger is not always better. Richard Woodard reports from the light side
Despite its growing share of the UK wine market, California is often viewed with suspicion by the trade. Wineries only become interested in the UK when they can’t sell all their wine at home, many say. And the wines that do cross the Atlantic are often out of tune with the UK palate and wallet: overripe, over-oaked, overpriced – and over here.
That’s a big generalisation, but, like most generalisations, there’s some truth to it. So can California change its ways and convince a cynical wine trade and public that it can do light and fresh as well as it does big and rich? And if so, what relevance has this to the restaurant, bar and gastropub sector?
Changing consumer taste in the US market, which still accounts for the majority of the state’s production, is helping. As people increasingly embrace unoaked Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio, export wines should be a better match for UK tastes.
‘The wines have followed the general world wine trend – they’re getting fresher and the wines taste like they’re coming from a cooler climate,’ says Hamish Anderson, wine buyer for the Tate restaurants.
Some producers learned that lesson long ago. Brown-Forman’s Fetzer Vineyards hasn’t oaked its Sauvignon Blanc for ten years, turning its back on the traditional, barrel-aged Fumé Blanc style still favoured by some.
The change is noticeable if you look beyond the well-known regions of Napa and Sonoma. Just as viticultural and vinification techniques are getting more sophisticated, areas that used to be considered marginal or capable of only bog-standard wines are coming to the fore. Alongside this, certain overlooked varietals are now emerging into the spotlight.
California has certainly bet big on Pinot Noir. Inspired by the positive spin the varietal received from the film Sideways, the state has doubled production in the past five years, but has still seen grape prices hit record levels. The result? Pinot plantings throughout California, with Kendall-Jackson alone planting nearly 2,000 acres in the past two years.
But what about quality? California’s past efforts with Pinot were rightly criticised, despite the discovery of cooler areas such as Carneros and Russian River Valley. Many wines overdid oak and extraction, losing varietal character in the process.
Now a new generation of Pinot Noir is also emerging, with greater plant density allowing lower yields, and Dijon clones adding quality and blending versatility. Sites are also being carefully chosen. Fetzer Central Coast winemaker Steve Peck recalls conventional wisdom suggesting that there was a ‘sweet spot’ for Pinot about 15 miles from the coast. But he is now sourcing fruit from Avila Beach, near San Luis Obispo and just a mile from the Pacific. ‘Now people are taking a little bit more risk, pushing Pinot Noir closer to the coast,’ he says.
Another area that’s rapidly building a reputation for Pinot excellence is Monterey County, about two hours’ drive south of San Francisco. In particular, wineries in Santa Lucia Highlands are overcoming early planting mistakes to grow some fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The area sits on an east-facing hillside and benefits from the cooling influence of the Pacific. The hot interior draws fog and cool winds from the ocean into Monterey’s Salinas Valley; the topography means that the vineyards get no sun later in the day as it sinks below the ridge above. It’s not uncommon in the growing season for the vines to get only four hours’ sunshine; temperature variations can be astonishing, with the valley’s southern stretches sweltering in temperatures of 41°C, while just 65 miles north it’s 13°C and overcast.
As such it’s hard to believe that the area was mostly planted to Cabernet Sauvignon in the early days. At this time, Monterey was a fruit factory for the big companies up north, who supplemented their Napa and Sonoma production with Monterey grapes. ‘For years, all of our fruit was going north,’ says Gary Eberle, oenologist and general partner at Eberle Winery, based in Paso Robles, in southern Monterey County.
‘There’s been the mistaken view in the past that Monterey can only make bell-pepper Cabernets,’ adds Gianni Abate, winemaker at Pinot Noir pioneer Morgan Winery, based in Santa Lucia Highlands. ‘People are now getting their wine heads screwed on and getting things to grow – and grow well. Also the vineyards are getting out of the frisky baby growth stage.’
These are young vineyards because so much land was planted to Cabernet in the past – ignoring the area’s cool conditions. At Hahn Estates, vineyard manager Andy Mitchell says Cabernet was only really good in very warm years – so it’s no wonder that Hahn has replaced most of it in its Santa Lucia Highlands vineyards, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In 1998, Hahn had no Pinot; by 2006, it had 150 acres in production, and that figure will soar to 420 acres when the vineyard transformation is complete in a few years’ time.
Hahn’s Pinots already show great character and, unlike many, they’re not all prohibitively expensive. Take Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir. It typically dips under £20 in the London on-trade, proving that California can do decent-quality, good-value Pinot, with a lightness of touch and fine fruit. With a Central Coast appellation, it’s probably the best-value Californian Pinot out there right now, and the range’s Pinot Grigio is almost as good.
Hahn winemaker Adam LaZarre contends that Santa Lucia Highlands produces a highly distinctive Pinot Noir, easily picked out in a blind tasting – but that doesn’t stop him sweating in the wine’s early stages of maturation. ‘For the first several months, it smells and tastes like peanut butter,’ he says. ‘You have this deep fear in the back of your mind that you’re going to end up bottling peanut butter Pinot Noir. Then you come in on a Monday – and there’s the cherry flavour.’
As an emerging region, Monterey is often forced to go the extra mile to find a market for its wines. Delicato Family Vineyards has just launched a UK on-trade-only Monterey range through Bibendum. The elegantly packaged Loredona includes estate-grown Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Pinot Noir, with on-trade pricing equivalent to an RRP of about £8. ‘I think Monterey answers the demand of the UK palate for a lot more acidic wines,’ says David DeBoer, vice-president international sales for Delicato Family Vineyards.
Further south but still in Monterey County, Paso Robles offers a contrast with meatier Cabernets, Syrahs and that quintessential Californian variety, Zinfandel. This is where Hahn Estates is now sourcing most of its Cabernet, with plans to make a top blend, a Syrah and maybe a Cabernet Franc in the future.
More colourful are the efforts of Four Vines, sadly not available in the UK, where an iconoclastic young producer with a far from traditional attitude operates – think wine industry meets South Park. Christian Tietje, self-styled ‘ZinBitch and maker of wine’, praises a fellow winemaker for ‘stickin’ it to the man’, saying: ‘People are starting to recognise Paso Robles. What it’s really all about is calcareous soils. Zin is phenomenal and the Spanish varietals kick ass.’
Four Vines is mostly about big wines, majoring on Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Mourvèdre and thick, unctuous Tempranillo: Tietje describes the philosophy as ‘taking dark, brooding grapes and mixing them rather than using them to darken lighter wines’.
However, it’s revealing of the changes sweeping California that the business is driven by a relatively bright and fresh Old Vine Cuvée Zinfandel and a no-oak, screwcapped Naked Chardonnay.
It’s a promising evolution, but pricing remains a concern. Anderson still bemoans the relative lack of mid-priced wines reaching the UK and says: ‘I think the biggest issue that California faces is not so much stylistically, it’s more changing people’s perceptions with the cost.
‘To my mind, they’re making quite a big effort with this at the moment. The goal is to source interesting wines costing restaurateurs £7-10, instead of £10-20. Then they’re going to get some throughput with the list and find a way for the consumer to work their way up to the more expensive wines.’
The cradle of the modern Californian wine industry and still home to some of its greatest wines; despite the many varietals planted, Cabernet Sauvignon remains its trump card
A diverse area with good conditions for many styles: stand-outs include Alexander Valley for Cabernet, Dry Creek Valley for Sauvignon Blanc and Russian River Valley for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
Another diverse area, this northern county is noted for Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, while Anderson Valley has emerged as a star for cool-climate grapes
Previously a grape basket for the north, now noted for excellent Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, plus Cabernet, Zin and Syrah further south in the warmer Paso Robles area.
Relatively cool area south of San Francisco Bay; famed for Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhône varietals
Cool area in northern Santa Barbara County, boasting highly promising Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
Planting the right clones in the right areas is now common – unlike in the past. Look for cooler areas, such as Russian River Valley, Carneros, Monterey and Santa Maria Valley – and vineyards within a stone’s throw of the Pacific.
Signs of change as even the US market starts to favour fruit over oak. Monterey Pinot Grigio is one to watch, while Sauvignon Blanc is getting fresher and Riesling is sought-after – but inconsistent so far.
Northern areas such as Santa Lucia Highlands specialise in Pinots Noir and Grigio, Chardonnay and cool-climate Syrah; further south, Paso Robles has good Cabernet and promising Rhône and Spanish varietals.
Its potential has been unrealised because of cheap imports of Australian Shiraz. But Syrah’s versatility means it can produce beefy, concentrated wines in warmer areas, or more elegant, peppery examples under cooler conditions.
California’s USP. Leaving aside sweet white Zin, it can boast brambly red fruits at one end or thick, concentrated, severely alcoholic power at the other.