California dreaming: the best wines from the sunshine state | Wine
Classics California Zinfandel, USA 2020 (£8, Marks & Spencer) A fun California wine fact for your next quiz night: If the region were a country (as a small, somewhat ambitious independence movement in the state would have it), it would be the world’s fourth largest producer of wine after the big three d Italy, France and Spain. It is therefore by far the largest non-European wine “country” and alone is responsible for 81% of the United States’ total wine production and a considerably higher proportion of its exports. And yet, for all its breadth, I’ve never really felt that its wines are treated with the same respect and affection given to wines from Australia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and the United States. Africa – not to mention the ones shown to big Europeans – on this side of the pond. Much of the problem is due to the quality and style of the big brands that are cheaper, sugary and artificial in state taste. Indeed, pleasure under £10 is very thin on the ground, with M&S’s juicy zinfandel of bramble jam and tea from M&S a rare exception.
Le P’tit Paysan P’tit Pape, Central Coast, CA, USA 2018 (£30.82, nekterwines.com) If the starting point, in terms of price, for good California wine is higher than any other wine country, it is at least a little lower than it was before – and the level of wines once you get to that point is very on par with the best in the rest of the world. Tasting a range of around 70 California wines available from independent UK wine shops recently, I was struck by the quality – and diversity – of California wines in the £20-30 bracket. It’s nobody’s idea of cheap, I realize, but then Alma’s luminous complexity of Cattleya Chardonnay, 2019 Sonoma County (£27.95, jeroboams.co.uk); the fragrant ripe red fruit of Varner Foxglove Pinot Noir, Central Coast 2017 (£19.25, bowlandforestvintners.co.uk); the spicy berry succulence of Qupé Syrah, Central Coast 2018 (£22, thewinesociety.com); and the meaty, peppery flavor of P’tit Paysan P’tit Pape are all at least as good if not better than comparably priced wines made from the same varietals in Burgundy or the Rhone Valley.
Montelena Calistoga Zinfandel Castle, Napa Valley, USA 2016 (£42, Grapesmith.co.uk) The other problem with California in the UK is that we tend to treat it (as I have here so far) as a wine monolith, whereas, as you would expect from a State of this scale, there are at least as many geological elements and climatic variations as there are from one region to another in France or Spain. Officially, there are now 142 American Wine Zones (the slightly less proscriptive American equivalent of French Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées), in California, covering approximately 800 miles from the deep southern San Pasqual Valley near San Diego to Willow Creek in far northern Humboldt County. Increasingly, over the past decade, some of my favorite California wines have come from Pacific coastal and/or high-altitude sites between those poles (see above). But my recent tastings have shown that there’s still a lot of interest in California’s classic and best-known region, the Napa Valley, where among some of the world’s most ridiculous over-the-top lifestyle products are distinctive, complex and convivial wines such as Le Zinfandel à l’Italienne from Château Montelena.
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