Over-ripe, over-oaked and over here: Californian wines can be hard to love for those of us who like a little finesse and subtlety in our glass. California is the world’s fourth largest wine region, and wines by its big brands, whose bottles flood the shelves of our supermarkets and corner shops, are generally as synthetic as a C-lister’s smile.
In contrast, the state’s A-listers are super-charged, super-expensive wines made by hard-hitting producers. These dudes focus on macho fruit-bombs, so grapes are grown to über-ripeness to maximise their sugar and thus alcohol content – it’s not uncommon to find wines at a burly 15% abv. Ageing in oak gives structure to the wines but often masks more interesting flavours. Like Hollywood blockbusters, they’re big, bold, brash, often artificially enhanced and not to everyone’s taste.
But a new style of Californian wine is emerging from a generation of maverick winemakers who are taking more of an art-house approach and making fresher, more elegant wines. Grapes grown in cooler parts of the state are picked earlier and are treated more gently, bringing nuance and delicacy to the fore. These wines typically don’t come cheap but many still compare well to the Napa Valley big boys; careful shopping will reap rewards.
There’s never been a more exciting time to drink Californian wine; seek advice from a decent wine merchant, roll out the red carpet and get stuck in.
Richard Bruno, Santa Lucia Highlands Riesling 2015 (£8.99, nakedwines.com)
Full of ripe tropical fruits with a gentle lime-peel zest, this is off-dry and luscious without being cloying. It sings with on-trend Thai flavours and would sit nicely as a not-too-sweet partner with our passion fruit puddings.
La Crema, Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2014 (£14.99, robertandspeight.co.uk)
Made with a gentle hand on the oak, La Crema is rich and buttery but has a fresh lift, too. Drink it with the roasted cabbage steaks with hazelnut dressing, or a creamy chicken pie.
Moobuzz, Monterey Pinot Noir 2013 (£15, robersonwine.com)
Ripe red fruit, balanced with a pleasing streak of acidity. Firm up its soft edges by chilling it slightly in the fridge before serving it with our Maryland stuffed ham.
Karen Birmingham Lodi Zinfandel 2014 (£13.49, nakedwines.com).
For lovers of traditional Californian heft, this is rich and spicy but still has poise. Try it with our slow roast duck with sweet tamarind recipe.
Add to the library…
Exploring and Tasting Wine by Berry Bros. & Rudd (£20, Pavilion). Britain’s oldest wine merchant runs an award-winning wine school and its excellent Introduction to Wine course is covered in this book. Looking at the world’s classic grapes and key regions, it’s informative but not dreary and has great infographics. Follow the course cover-to-cover, or dip in and out at your leisure.