California. Aside from conjuring up images of surfers, boardwalks, Hollywood signs and more, the state also brings up pictures of fertile land: oranges, peaches and grapes grow extremely well. Californian wine has been steadily developing itself to a near-Old World status in terms of perception and quality of wine ever since the great revival of the 1960s. Big names such as Robert Mondavi, Christian Moueix, Ridge and Stag's Leap have come to be known for producing some of the world's premier bottles, while the regions are household names: Napa and Sonoma Valleys, the Russian River Valley and Santa Barbara County, to name a few.
Californian wine brings more to a dinner than any other wine I have ever come across. In general the style has started to become more and more like the Old World quality due to the aging of the vines (the first being planted back in the 18th century by Spanish Missionaries), but the distinguishing characteristics still remain. California produces intensely fruity, strong wines that always excite. With a climate warmer than France’s and the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean so close to the vines, a unique blend of intense ripeness and New World exuberance with old vines can be produced.
Anyone interested in wine who is looking to impress should always, in my opinion, go Californian. It is possible to find spectacular wines for any budget, each as impressive as the next. Here are a few pointers and my most memorable Californian bottles:
Wild Boy Chardonnay, Au Bon Climat Winery, Santa Barbara County
This is a wine I have had many times as a less expensive alternative to something of the same grape from Burgundy. The wine-maker Jim Clendenen (who gives his name to the title…) is very fond of the Old World style and it shows in this base cuvee. The winery is based in and around Santa Barbara County, towards the south of the state; the very warm climate shows. The alcohol content is relatively high at 13.5%, but the intensity of the fruit (mostly lychee) balances this very well, as does the thick vanilla from the oak aging. It is fresh without food, but comes alive with a bird of some sort: I most recently enjoyed it with roast pheasant, and the flavours burst out with remarkable intensity. £10-15.
Pinot Noir, Au Bon Climat Winery, Santa Maria Valley
One of my favourites, this is the wine that started my fascination with California Pinot Noir. For the price it is exceptionally well balanced, structured and has more depth than one would find in many Burgundies in the same price bracket. Made by the same vintner as the Wild Boy, it is similar in that the alcohol is blended perfectly into the fruit. On the nose there is the dust farmyard one would expect from Pinot Noir, while the palate is a delicious blend of blackcurrant and blackberry: not acidic or jammy. It produces a lengthy and healthy finish that would perfectly suit a duck dish. £15-20.
Zinfandel, Ridge Vineyards, Lytton Springs
An absolute classic and a purely Californian grape. Normally Zinfandel can be overdone – too alcoholic, spicy, jammy, intense. This is not the case here: Ridge's vineyard at Lytton Springs in Northern California (a few hours north of San Francisco) has cultivated a spectacular wine in this, well suited for aging. I have tried both the 2007 and the 2008, and they are truly remarkable. Deep dark fruits and peppery spices dominate the nose, while sweeter blueberry notes penetrate the palate. Gripping and intense tannins lengthen the finish, making it more than a worthy substitute for a wine of Bordeaux stature and a perfect paired with beef. £25-35.
For more of Hugh's wine musings, visit his blog, It's in the Swirl.