In the past, California’s wines had a reputation for being over-oaked and over-ripe, but drinks writer Peter Ranscombe finds high-end bottles with a sense of place.
Making wine is all about finding the right balance: a balance between what goes on in the vineyard and what goes on in the winery; a balance between the science of fermentation and the art of blending; a balance between the fruit flavours of the grapes and the spicy notes of the wooden casks in which the juice can age.
Over the years, Californian winemakers became known for picking grapes when they were over-ripe and being heavy-handed with their use of new oak barrels, resulting in wines with jammy flavours and more vanilla than a tub of ice cream.
Fast-forward to the present day and Northern California is full of talented vintners who want to capture a sense of place in their wines, using the elements that make their vineyards special, to craft drinks that reflect their soils and climates.
Escape from the hot central valley and head north across the Golden Gate Bridge and you’re into the beautiful countryside of Napa and Sonoma, with a wealth of different styles from which to choose.
California isn’t just about full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon or creamy Chardonnay either; the state boasts a wide range of varieties from Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc all the way through to Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel. Buried beneath the mountainside above Calistoga in Napa lie the caves of the Schramsberg winery, the first in California to make sparkling wine from the noble Chardonnay grape.
Hugh Davies, the son of founders Jack and Jamie, makes vintage wine to capture some of the characteristics of each season, rather than blending wines from different years to smooth out variations in a non-vintage bottling.
His 2013 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs (£28, Vineyardcellars.com) is packed full of green apple, pear and lemon flavours, with the concentration of the fruit standing up to the fresh acidity.
Further south in Carneros, another family descended from German immigrants, the Schugs, are making Pinot Noir in a distinctly European style. The red fruit flavours in the 2014 Schug Carneros Pinot Noir (£30, Wine Treasury) are crisp and clear, with enough refreshing acidity to even pair with an intensely-spicy Mexican lunch.
Pinot Noir is also the order of the day at Littorai, a vineyard and farm founded by Ted Lemon, one of the leading figures in the biodynamic movement.
Farming biodynamically – by not using factory-made chemicals but instead producing natural alternatives to ward off pests – comes at a price and the 2014 Littorai The Haven Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (£79.62, Fine Wine Company) is by no means cheap, but it does offer oodles of intense red cherry and red plum flavours, along with firm but velvety tannins and a long fruity finish.
For those seeking a red with more body, look no further than the 2013 Seghesio Sonoma County Old Vines Zinfandel (£47.99, The Wine Reserve), with its smoky, roast meat and cherry notes on the nose and velvety vanilla and bramble flavours on the tongue.
And for something lighter and whiter, try the 2013 Ramey Ritchie Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay (£31.99, AG Wines). Back in the 2007 vintage, 65% of this wine was aged in new oak, but that’s now down to 30%, revealing more of the zesty lemon and grapefruit freshness, balanced by creamy butter notes.