They do make great wines in California, but to enjoy them you must take your timeby Barry Smith / November 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
Do they make great wines in California? It is the question still asked by traditionalists who never look beyond Old World wines. And I have some sympathy. We all know the cliché about over-ripe and over-oaked wines with high levels of alcohol. Sadly, the cliché is borne out by plenty of mass market, and some high-end, wines from Napa Valley. But the Napa wine industry is in transition.
We should remember the Judgement of Paris Tasting, organised in 1976 by Steven Spurrier, where Californian and French wines were compared in a blind tasting. A majority of French judges voted the 1973 Stags’ Leap the best Bordeaux blend over the 1970 Château Haut-Brion, and the 1973 Château Montelena the best Chardonnay. The world took notice and the French began to worry. Writing years later, Spurrier gave an explanation for this surprising outcome. In the 1970s, French winemakers had become complacent. By comparison, Californian winemakers were turning to new techniques and applying the science they had learned at the University of California, Davis. There was more attention to detail; drinkers were turning to California for cleaner, riper wines. But soon the pendulum swung the other way.
The French quickly picked up the new techniques. The introduction of the sorting table to eliminate poor quality specimens from the freshly harvested grapes happened after a fact-finding mission to California. In Bordeaux, they took note of canopy management and temperature-controlled maceration. Soon the French regained their edge.
At the same time, many younger drinkers began to tire of mass-market Californian wines, and went searching for something with a bit of edge. In Napa the hang time would take the grapes almost beyond ripeness, leading to lifeless wines. Now, things are changing and Californians are beginning to talk of terroir, a sense of place and tradition, and are keen to retain more vinous spirit. But attitudes have been slow to catch up and many well-made Californian wines are still overlooked. I recently suggested a Californian wine for the table at a dinner for academics only to be told by my neighbour: “I prefer wines with a little development.” He was unaware that Paul Draper’s wines from Ridge have always needed time. Made from grapes grown high on the Santa Cruz mountains, these wines are made in a French style, where ripening continues in the bottle. But it led me to think of other examples. Mayacamas winery, one of those featured in the Judgement of Paris, has its vines on a mountain above the Napa Valley floor, and takes a traditional approach to winemaking.
While in Napa, I recently tasted the 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was still bright and clear. On the palate, it was svelte with good acidity, and apple core finish. Another mountain vineyard is Chappellet. Their 2001 and 2002 Cabernet Francs were big wines, with great depth of aroma and flavour. Dark in character with traces of oak-derived coconut, coffee and tobacco they are a tour de force. Finally, we come back to the valley floor for Christian Moueix’s Dominus wines. These are French wines made in California. The vines lie at the foot of the Mayacamas range, and are dry farmed, meaning irrigation is not used unless absolutely necessary. The bunches are rinsed before being hand-picked, and are vinified in a naturally ventilated winery. The 2012 Dominus has a nose of perfumed violets. It is sleek with super-fine tannins. There is a rush of riper cherry fruit, which subsides leaving an almost nectarine finish with some nuttiness.
So, yes, they do make great wines in California, but to enjoy them you must take your time.