South London wine expert Wayne de Nicolo is a big fan of Californian wines, believing they more than hold their own against some of the French classics. But they can be pricey… Here, he picks out some of the best affordable bottles from ‘the grape state’
Lead image: Tablas Creek
I am returning to the wines of California which I wrote about last October. This time my focus is on the more affordable ones, those below £50 a bottle. To call wines at anything like that price affordable might seem like an oxymoron, but try finding similar wines of the same quality from the leading Old World regions at these prices…
Of course those prices are also explained by the fact that the biggest market for its wines is an affluent one – the US itself, where sales of Californian wines in 2019 exceeded $43 bn.
That producers there can make so many deliciously fruity, lush and rich wines is mainly due to the exceptional climate. Most of the rain needed for good viticulture falls during the winters, while the summers tend to be warm and dry, allowing the grapes to ripen to their maximum potential (usually reflected in higher alcohol levels).
Naturally the skill of the viticulturalists and winemakers is also an important factor in achieving such high quality wines. One important technique much used in the making of Californian (and many other) chardonnays is malolactic fermentation, which involves the conversion of tart malic acid in the grape must into lactic acid during a secondary fermentation.
This is caused by a bacteria and can start naturally, but is often initiated by the inoculation of the must with the bacteria. The process softens the taste and texture of the wine and adds complexity. The use of high quality, unobtrusive oak is another factor.
The best affordable Californian wines
Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc 2014 (13.5%): An unusual and enjoyable wine made from vines propogated from cuttings taken at a famous vineyard in the Rhône, predominantly Roussane and Grenache Blanc. Has an excellent creamy mouthfeel with tropical mango and pear flavours.
£41 from qwines.co.uk
The Ojai Vineyard Riesling Kick On Ranch 2015 (13%): The aroma is the thing here; complex, seductive and classy. The palate is quite complex and textured, tasting of apple, peach and spice.
£28.16 or £25.60 if you buy 6, from tigervines.com
Calera Central Coast Chardonnay 2016 (14.2%): Made from excellent fruit, this is luscious and full, with flavours of peaches, pineapple and an moderate undertow of oak.
£27.99 from winebuyers.com and 9elmswines.co.uk
Calera Central Coast Pinot Noir 2016 (14.1%): Burgundy this ain’t! But it is nonetheless fine pinot boasting a velvety mouthfeel, and a hint of sweetness with cherries and strawberries to the fore.
£35.99 from from winebuyers.com and 9elmswines.co.uk
Rodney Strong Vineyards Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2017 (14.5%): Shows the ripeness to be expected from the high ABV. Creamy, rich and toasty. A very likeable wine.
£21.99 from waitrosecellar.com and the Foodhall at John Lewis Oxford Street.
Paul Hobbs Winery Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2017 (14.1%): Wow, what a wine; from a renowned maker. Rich and full with decadent white fruit and brioche flavours. Absolutely delicious.
£42.51 per bottle (12 bottle case) from thedrinkshop.com, £43.99 from drinkfinder.co.uk
The return of the wine trade tasting
I tried these wines at a trade tasting in a pleasant Shoreditch Hotel earlier this year. During the unavoidable hiatus in such events these days, it is perhaps apposite to reflect on what not only we writers but the wine trade as a whole, and indeed the wine drinking public, are currently missing – being continuously informed of new vintages, or even previously unavailable wines, that have recently come onto the market.
Trade and press tastings are the stomping ground of the wine writer, buyers for supermarkets, wine merchants, other trade buyers and sommeliers for restaurants, who will be there to find what they want to stock.
To assist them, importers, agents and PRs are on hand behind the tables pouring the product. A scattering of winery owners and winemakers will be there too, some having come half way round the world from countries like Australia, New Zealand and Chile, because London is the biggest wine market in the world.
Having examined, smelt and tasted the wines, you eject them into metal spitoons. Meanwhile you are chatting to, and getting background information from, the makers and reps filling your glass. They are usually most helpful, but in their enthusiasm to get you enthusiastic about their wine, some are inclined to say something requiring a reaction just as you fill your mouth.
So it helps to be a good nodder. And a good spitter. There are some real champion spitters out there. A beautiful clean, thin stream of wine heads, perfectly directed, from mouth to metal vessel every time. What this betrays, of course, is that they’ve been practising at home!
And with that I’ll lift my glass to the return of the trade tasting before we forget how important they are to those who love wine!