What do we know about wine from California? If you had to ask me to name three things, I would have said: they’re big, they’re expensive and they’re not over here. I was in LA recently combining a visit to the in-laws with some research on behalf of World of Booze and found out that my preconceptions were two thirds wrong.
At the annual California tasting in London last year I was dismayed by how most of the wines I tried lived up to the big & dumb stereotype. I’d hoped for more (or less rather). When I spoke to a friend who knew a bit about Californian wine, he’d even written a book on it, he said that that’s the style, I’d just have to get used to it. Whilst I was in LA, I was keen to find out if there was an alternative. Knowing next to nothing about California wine, I asked for recommendations in two wine merchants, stating that I wanted something made from Rhone varieties for about $20.
From an old school shop, Duck Blind in Santa Monica, I bought a Punchdown Syrah 2010 and from the trendy Domaine LA in Santa Monica, I bought Lucques Rouge 09. The first reminded me of something very chic from the Northern Rhone but with a distinct Californian brightness about it. The second one reminded me of Beaujolais, really good Beaujolais at its most moreish, like something from George Descombes. This was the last thing that I expected to find in California.
I had unwittingly stumbled on a movement in California wines: low alcohol, low extract and lowish price. They call it In Pursuit of Balance. Actually the low price thing isn’t an intrinsic part of pursuing balance but I like to think that they are pursuing moderation in all areas. Later my wife and I took a trip with our friend Ari up to Santa Barbara to visit Qupé whose Grenache impressed me recently. Not everything was good but all their Syrahs were delicious and for the most part affordable.
Perhaps the best thing we had on our trip, however, was cheaper still, about $17 retail though we drank it at the Hungry Cat (great food, not so good service) in Santa Barbara. It was the Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2011 from Tablas Creek, a blend of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. This producer is owned by the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel fame and are famed for their pricey Chateauneuf-de-Pape-style estate wines. This is a new venture using grapes from other people’s vineyards as well as their own estate much as their parent company does in the Southern Rhone (see Cotes-du-Rhone challenge.)
So Californian wines are not necessarily big nor even particularly expensive but sadly most of these wines are not available in Britain. Oddbins have the more expensive wines from Tablas Creek at £38 a bottle. You can also buy some Qupé wines but by the time they’ve made it over here they go from $25 to £25.
These producers don’t care if we can’t buy their wines. They can sell everything without a problem to an eager home audience. Unlike the Australians or New Zealanders they’re not interested in the prestige of having their wines internationally available. We should care though because we’re missing out on some of the most downright delicious wines in the world.
Some tips if you’re in California:
Punchdown Syrah, Spicerack Vineyards, Sonoma Coast 2010 – This smelt of cloves, liquorice with a touch of coffee. It’s medium-bodied with some tannin and vibrant vein of acidity. The finish was long with a touch of vanilla. $26
Lucques Rouge, North Coast 2009 – A blend of Grenache, Syrah and some other things. It’s bright red and smells a little pooey. It’s light-bodied with bright fruit and a slight bitter taste. It’s not hugely complex but it is tremendously appealing. $20
Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2011 – Initially very dry and a little peachy and floral. After warming up a bit becomes fatter and honeyed with some length and complexity. Delicious. Approx $17 retail.
Qupé, Bien Nacido Syrah 2008 – Meaty nose, light body and then really fragrant with ripe fruit and some spiciness. Intense and long but also refreshing. Superb value at $25 from the winery.
In amendment to this article I am delighted to say that Divine Fine Wines in Birmingham (that’s Birmingham, England) sell Californian wines at reasonable prices including the Bien Nacido Syrah at £18.95