Since the late 1700’s when Spanish settlers first introduced vineyards to California, winemaking has been big business for the Golden State. Three hundred years later, what can the next generation of winemakers bring to a region known for making ‘big’ wines with personalities to match?
Lying inland of the Pacific coast around San Francisco, California’s wine
region has long been defined by a particular style. Often described as hedonistic, generous, fruit-filled and lush, its wines generally give immediate drinking pleasure, unlike many European offerings that require ageing to achieve their potential. Alcohol levels are generally higher here, especially among ‘traditional’ Californian varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
In recent years, however, a conventional Californian style has become harder to identify, as the next generation of winemakers take the ‘New California’ in a different direction. This is not simply a whim; its necessity is bourn out by the facts. For example, Chardonnays from the famous Napa and Sonoma Valleys were once some of California’s most sought-after wines, but now less that 15% of the region’s Chardonnay comes from these areas, suggesting that wine-drinkers are searching for something new.
Unlike in much of Europe, there are no restrictions on grape varieties or production techniques in American appellations - they simply identify an area as distinct from others, based on factors such as climate, soil and elevation. This gives producers the freedom to try innovations such as plots of experimental grape varieties. These are not only altering the wine landscape but have led to recent successes, such as Pinot Noir.
Interest in Italian varieties such as Nebbiolo and Sangiovese and even cooler climate grapes like Riesling is also increasing. The surge of new varieties has been gaining momentum since it began in the 1980’s when a group of winemakers christened ‘the Rhône Rangers’ first brought Rhône grapes and winemaking to the region.
New grape varieties bring with them new vineyard exploration. In order to grow their Riesling successfully, winemakers are pushing further north and into cooler areas, such as Mendocino and Lake County. They have also discovered that the wines produced here are proving popular due to their lower alcohol levels.
By applying the latest techniques, winemakers are increasingly able to lower the alcohol in wines across the region to meet the requirements of today’s wine-drinker, creating the possibility of a refined and elegant Chardonnay from California. With this continued innovation balanced by respect for the traditions that made California great, the new generation look set to ensure the region’s status as a definitive fine wine producer long into the future.
Wente, Take Seven Small Lot Red 2007 Central Coast, California
A very enjoyable red that’s made from seven grape varieties, hence its name. Dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Barbera, this wine also has Syrah, Tempranillo, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah and Counoise grapes added to the blend, giving a rich, firm and structured, fruity red. Try with red meats.
Morgan Twelve Clones Pinot Noir 2007 Santa Lucia Highlands, California
An excellent Pinot Noir that shows just how good Pinot from this part of the world can be, combining elements of the new and old World Pinot styles. With fruit grown in the highly rated Santa Lucia Highlands region it has intense, bright, cherry and red-berry fruit flavours. Enjoy this with roast veal or pork.
Bonterra Organic Sauvignon Blanc 2008 Mendocino County, California
A style of Sauvignon Blanc that combines Sancerre’s minerality with the ripe fruitiness of Marlborough. This orgainc wine shows fresh and vibrant aromas of kiwi followed on the palate by layers of grapefruit, gooseberry and lemon grass flavour. Enjoy this brilliant wine with Greek-style salads or wraps. Exclusive to Waitrose.
Calera Viognier 2008 Mount Harlan, California
Perfumed, with intense freesia and apricot notes on the nose and rich on the palate, underscored by delicious peach fruit – so far, so Viognier – but what turns this organic white into an A-List, red carpet strutting, paparazzi-chased Superstar is its fine acidity and complex minerality.