Mild frontier: the new California
For a long time, Californian wine has been split into two camps. In one sit entry-point brands such as Blossom Hill and Barefoot, in the other top-priced Syrahs and Zinfandels with high alcohol, high extraction and high points from über-critic Robert Parker.
But now a new – or, in some cases, not so new – style of wine is moving into the middle ground and has captured the imagination of sommeliers, journalists and UK importers alike.
Wineries across the state are producing wines that defy critics such as Parker and Wine Spectator – who have encouraged the production of what some would call overblown reds with their high scores – to produce wines that return to gentler techniques, explore lesser-known grape varieties and emulate more restrained European styles.
Dubbed The New California Wine by wine writer Jon Bonné in his book of the same name, these producers include: Sonoma’s Kutch, a Pinot Noir specialist; Big Basin Vineyards, which experiments with grapes such as Riesling, Roussanne and Mourvèdre; Napa icon Cathy Corison; and a group of 33 wineries banded together under the name In Pursuixt of Balance.
Kensington shop Roberson Wine has beefed up its Californian offer enormously over the past few years as sales of new-style wines have taken off both with its restaurant clients and in-store.
Senior buyer Mark Andrew, who is positively evangelical about the movement, says: “We have been selling American wine for 25 years and it has only been since we really stepped up our focus on these fresher, more vibrant and what we would think of as more balanced wines in the past couple of years that we have seen a significant and positive response from our customer base.
“These guys are making wines that are real wines. Not scientifically made, but honest, rustic, absolutely delicious Californian wines that retail for £10-£50.
“Personally I think the real sweet spot is £20-£40 – the bang for buck is absolutely incredible with amazing complexity, interest and potential to improve with age, and pound for pound against their Italian counterparts they do really well.”
Andrew describes an “arms race” in the 1990s and noughties, in which commercially savvy American producers, noting that high scores from Parker and other wine critics quickly translated into sales, used technology to step up the extraction, juiciness and oakiness of their wines, with the side effect that both alcohol levels and prices soared.
“Californian wine had become something in which sommeliers weren’t particularly interested,” he says. “The wines were not exactly food- friendly. They weren’t even built to age and develop or get complexity – they were built to impress immediately.
California slipped out of the international consciousness and, as far as the British market was concerned, just meant big, heavy, over-oaked and incredibly expensive.”
The first green shoots came as some new, younger producers grouped under the banner of wineries that had never jumped on the “technocratic” bandwagon, but continued to make more restrained, elegant wines, such as Napa’s Corison and Ridge Vineyards in Sonoma.
The movement gathered pace when sommelier Rajat Parr founded In Pursuit of Balance.
Andrew says: “It celebrates wines that are terroir-driven, not technocratic; natural acidity rather than added acidity; farmed responsibly rather than commercially; wines that have freshness and complexity and longevity as part of their make-up and are not built solely to blow your head off and impress you out of the barrel.”
Of course, the new wines had their critics – led by Parker himself – who accused them of being anaemic and lacking concentration.
“Regardless of what the critics thought, the wines really struck a chord with restaurateurs and sommeliers in the States. Then an international audience of sommeliers, journalists and importers like ourselves saw a new dawn for Californian wine. Before I had been incredibly bored by it for a long time,” says Andrew.
Flint Wines is another importer that has been busy signing up “new” Californian wineries over the past 18 months. Director Jason Haynes says: “Some of the old-school American wines which were huge just weren’t very food-friendly at all. A lot of the wines we have taken on are part of In Pursuit of Balance and have a certain restrained acidity and freshness, which we like and which work well with food.
“Price-wise they have been pitched really well. One or two of the old Napa growers would almost put their fingers in the air and see what they could get away with, but there seems to be a real understanding of what prices will work and what prices are just too high for the market.
“A lot of the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are pitched just under village Burgundy and that seems to work,” he added.
Sam Jackson, owner of independent retailer Chester Beer & Wine, has been less impressed with European-style wines from California.
She says: “I felt the wines I tried needed a bit more work. They missed something in translation – they were trying to emulate European wines but it wasn’t quite working. The wines that work best for us are more New World- style, with softer tannins and more fruit-driven.
“There is a lot of work to be done in this country just raising awareness of Californian wine in general.”
John McLaren, UK director of the Wine Institute of California, says: “Winemakers have jumped out of the box and started doing things that are maverick, creative and more what people expect of California and Californians. And it is not just one or two people, but lots and lots all doing the same thing inasmuch as they are doing things differently. And importers are doing well with it. This isn’t one of those times when something starts and everybody gets very worked up about it but it doesn’t add up commercially. This is not all California has to offer, but it is a new string to the bow.”