California Wines: Regions to Drink Outside the Napa Valley Box
“It wasn’t always like this. Before Paris, people didn’t drink our wine. I mean, my friends did. But you could hardly consider their palates discerning…” Chris Pine’s character Bo Barret says this in wine-inspired film Bottle Shock (2008) referring to the Judgement of Paris, the 1976 competition that meant a before and after in the history of Californian wine and around which the plot revolves.
Bo is the lovable, hippie-ish and carefree young son of Jim Barrett, owner at the time of the now iconic Chateau Montelena whose wines won against French bottles considered the pinnacle of vinous finesse. In the film, the late Alan Rickman played Steve Spurrier, the sommelier and ultimate French wine snob whose mind is ultimately changed by what he discovers in California. If they could change the mind of professor Snape’s wine doppelganger, they are undoubtedly magic.
It’s not only about big Cab Sauvs and the oaky Chardos
Over four decades later, few would question the world-class level of Californian wines, however across the pond, wine lovers’ perception of these bottles is often a bit dated. A study about Perceptions of American Wines in the United Kingdom indicated that consumption of American wines (mind you, 90% of it comes from California) only kicked off in the mid and late eighties.
Around that time, prestigious American wine critic Robert Parker was already a well established name and a known lover of Californian wines. As wineries followed up on his advice and picked riper grapes and gave stronger oak character to their wines, the ratings Parker gave them went up, and so did their wines’ tannins, bodies and overall intensity.
Parkerization Vs a Turn Towards the Subbtle
The phenomenon was nicknamed Parkerization and it resulted in a long-lasting trend of rich oaked chardonnays and mighty Cabernet Sauvignons which became so ubiquitous in California that consumers abroad soon came to associate the style with the region, a double-edged sword for marketing purposes. While those types of wines appeal to some wine drinkers, they’re not the only thing that the Golden State has to offer and in fact, some of its more subtle and restrained bottles are also incredibly exciting.
And just as some wines are the most commonly linked to California, when it comes to regions, Napa Valley is the area that comes to mind first. While Napa has earned its enviable positioning, many other AVAs (American Viticultural Area, think of it as the US version of an appellation) are worthy of attention.
While wines from lesser known AVAs are not easy to find in Ireland (and by not easy we mean borderline impossible), others do have a solid presence: look for wines from the Russian River Valley, Mendocino, Sonoma Valley, Los Carneros, Rutherford, Mendocino and Santa Maria Valley, just to name a few.
For tasting time, we have chosen three wines from California that show a different side of the Golden State and come from outside Napa.
THREE TO TRY
Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel 2010
€49.50 – Available at Terroirs
Deep and mineral, this earthy red is mostly Zinfandel, California’s flagship, blended with a small percentage of Carignan, Petit Syrah, Alicante Bouschet and Mourvedre.
Ripe cherries arrive with tannins of pure velvet, mellowed by over a year in American Oak barrels, mostly used for a less invasive presence of toast. Beautifully balanced and long-lasting.
Kendall-Jackson Vinter’s Reserve Chardonnay
Blend of various cool climate regions
€19.95 (on offer from €22.95) – Available at O’Briens Wine
A blend from selected Chardonnay grapes from some of California’s top cool coastal vineyards (Monterrey, Santa Barbara, Mendocino and Sonoma) is a perfect compromise between freshness and recurring to technique (fermented and aged in oak, lees stirring) to add complexity.
The result is a full bodied, aromatic golden Chardonnay that combines a nose of lemon curd, pineapple and passion fruit with a palate that has a gentle orange blossom character and notes of butter and almond.
De Loach Russian Rive Valley Pinot Noir
Russian River Valley
€32 – Available at Mitchell and Son
Influenced by the Pacific Ocean, the Russian River Valley AVA is one of the coolest in California, something that makes it optimal for Pinot Noir. This organic one is elegant and silky, with plenty of ripe red fruit and a refreshing acidity.
Juicy cranberries and baked rhubarb encounter a hint of spice and a delicate toasted note that reveal a subtle presence of oak.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.