Which Californian Wines Should You Try Next?
The Resident’s resident wine taster, Wayne de Nicolo delves into Californian wines and offers his recommendations for Chardonnays and cabernet sauvignon…
The wine producing regions of California are blessed with ideal growing conditions, from weather to topography to soil – and of course skilled winemakers.
Nowadays they produce some of the finest wines in the world. But the picture hasn’t always been that rosy. Far from it.
The California winemaker journey began with the arrival of Spanish Franciscan missionaries in 1769.
They planted vines to produce wine for communion. When commercial production was established it was in the southern part of the state, but the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century brought huge numbers of miners to the north, and their thirst for wine caused demand in that area to rocket.
By the turn of the century Californian wines were being exported to many parts of the world, including England, and to Australia where wine production was also already well established.
However in 1920 progress plummeted like a brick in a down draft, thanks to the US ban on the sale of alcohol, which lasted until 1933. Before 1920 there were more than 2,500 commercial wineries in the US. Only about 100 survived Prohibition, and by 1960 that number had grown to just 271.
The pre-Prohibition levels of production were not reached again until this century.
Skip to recent times, and devastating wildfires broke out in the Napa and Sonoma regions in September 2020, after a period of drought.
They destroyed many vineyards, homes, tasting centres, warehouses and much else. Some wineries had to write off all their production due to smoke taint in the grapes.
Having survived such adversity during the last 100 years, the wines of California surely deserve their impressive status – and perhaps their sometimes wince-inducing prices too.
A recent tasting underlined just how good many of the state’s wines are.
I tried 54 of them and have selected 12 of the best, taking value for money into account as well as sheer quality for which of course the price rises, especially in the case of the reds.
I have focused on chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons because they are what the state is best known for and arguably the finest wines they produce.
Top Californian wines to Try
1 Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve 2019 (13.5%)
A perennial favourite and excellent value, this shows ripe peach and slightly tropical flavours with subtle oak. Will age gracefully. £16.14 from robertsandspeight.co.uk, £16.99 from simplywinesdirect.uk
2 Wente Riva Ranch 2019 (13.5%)
A well made wine with a rounded palate showing subtle hints of guava, peaches and pears. £18.80 from vinvm.co.uk
3 Truchard 2019 (14.1%)
Peachy, smooth and sophisticated, with a touch of oak. £26.20 from vinvm.co.uk
4 Paul Hobbs Crossbarn 2019 (14.5%)
A fine winemaker has produced a fine wine with an attractive biscuity nose and ripe citrus and melon notes. A good buy to lay down for a year or two to allow it to open up. £29.49 (6) from thewinereserve.co.uk, £27.95 for the 2018 (extra maturity a plus) from dunells.com
5 Daou Reserve 2019 (14.5%)
Smooth and richly textured, the palate revealing peach flavours. An elegant wine. £42.95 from secretbottleshop.co.uk, £45.90 from thevineking.com
6 Paul Hobbs Russian River 2018 (14.1%)
Here he is again. That’s because when it comes to quality Hobbs is one of the best winemakers in California. I reviewed the 2017 vintage in my September 2020 article, and this is every bit as good. Rich, ripe, buttery with notes of brioche and exotic fruits like guava and pineapple. £42.40 from vivino.com, £48.49 from thewinereserve.co.uk
7 Staglin Family Vineyards Salus 2019 (14.3%)
For me the outstanding chardonnay at the tasting. A rich, creamy and complex wine showing white stone fruit and buttery notes on the palate. A match for white burgundies at 3-4 times the price. £50 from thechampagnecompany.com, £50.28 from gpbrands.co.uk
At this stage of their development, all of these wines have significant tannins as is usual with the varietal. They will benefit from further ageing and should last easily until 20 years old, some longer.
By the time they are 10 years old the tannins will have faded. They can be enjoyed younger by decanting an hour or more in advance which will improve the flavours, as will drinking them with food.
1 Barnett Vineyards Spring Mountains 2018 (14.6%)
This has an inky colour and attractive chocolate and dark berry fruit flavours tinged with prune. £62 from fourcorners.wine
2 Chappallet Signature 2017 (14.5%)
Bold and complex, with restrained tannins, this is a cabernet in the classical style. £57 from fourcorners.wine
3 Corison 2018 (13.8%)
Under winemaker Cathy Corison this Napa Valley winery has a big reputation. Classic cabernet flavours of dark berry fruits, and a smooth mouthfeel. Impressive. £84.60 from robersonwine.com
4 Daou Soul of a Lion 2018 (15%)
Complex yet elegant, deep purple in colour with an appealing soft mouthfeel and black fruit on the palate. Keep if you can. £134.95 from secretbottleshop.co.uk It can also be bought in bond from various suppliers like cruworldwine.com and dittonwineandspirits.com for £103.33 which equates to about £126 after VAT and duty.
5 Staglin Family Vineyards 2017 (15%)
Delicious and distinguished, this has big, smooth, ripe black fruit palate and fine tannins. Simply superb. It is in the same league as Grand Cru class Bordeaux reds costing considerably more. Unsurprisingly Robert Parker has given it 97/100. The 2017 vintage is not yet available here, but the 2015 (as good a year) is available at corkingwines.co.uk for £187.67.