Are we California dreaming, or are top level Californian wines beating the socks off the French classics? It’s a controversial viewpoint, but one that has been proven in blind tastings. South London wine expert Wayne de Nicolo explains…
Lead image: Ferren Wines
I have long felt that the top level wines from California are among the best in the world. As befits wines of such quality the recent trade and press tasting of collectible wines from that state was held at the US Embassy in Nine Elms. What an imposing and impressive venue it is. Not many organisers of such tastings can secure a venue like that.
Yet most of these wines would still have sung out as very special even in a local church hall. Many of the big name producers’ wines were on show. They are wines that most of us can only dream about having in the cellar or under the stairs. That’s because they come with a health warning for your wallet.
A lot of the reds were in the £100-200 a bottle range. If that sounds expensive, the legendary Harlan Estate Red 2015 – which leading American writer Robert Parker has awarded a maximum 100 points – retails at around £1,200 a bottle, if you can find it. (Unsurprisingly, it was not to be found in the main tasting room, but I did manage a discreet tasting).
Undettered? You’ll have to wait another 8-10 years before it is at its best, which would be true of many of the other reds being shown. The chardonnays will be ready sooner, but will have years of good drinking ahead.
One needs to put those sort of prices into perspective. Apart from cult wines like Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle, the prices of most of the top Californians are easily exceeded by those from the big names of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany and Piedmont. Yet traditionalists will argue that Californian wines do not compete in quality with the best from those parts of France and Italy.
That ceased to be an objectively justifiable view in 1986 when a blind tasting was held in Paris pitting classed growth Bordeaux reds against highly regarded cabernet sauvignons from California, and high quality Cali chardonnays against fine white burgundies.
‘That ceased to be an objectively justifiable view in 1986 when a blind tasting was held in Paris pitting classed growth Bordeaux reds against highly regarded cabernet sauvignons from California’
In both categories (judged by members of the French wine trade), Californian wines took top place and overall did better than the French wines. This was a stunning result given the huge reputations of the competing French wines and the great difference in prices. Two of the Bordeaux reds were first growths (Mouton Rothschild and Haut-Brion) from 1970, an outstanding year.
Not surprisingly the results of what became known as The Judgment of Paris caused disbelief and dismay among the trade and wine lovers in France. The organiser of the event, English wine merchant Steven Spurrier, was even banned from the prestigious French wine-tasting tour for a year!
But this was not a flash in the pan. Spurrier organised a repeat tasting of the same reds 30 years later – most of the chardonnays would have been over the hill by then. Once again the Californians won, with the top four places going to their wines this time.
The best Californian wines to buy now
Back to the Embassy. Here are some of my favourites from the tasting. Some of the vintages tasted are not yet available in the UK so I have given details of where earlier ones can be found.
Hahn Family Wines Lucienne Smith Pinot Noir 2016 (14.5%) has a smooth, sweet cherry and raspberry palate. Compared to typical pinots this is voluptuous, made unashamedly and brilliantly in a New World style (£63 from ministryofdrinks.co.uk & castlenau.co.uk).
San Lorenzo The Pearl 2016 (15.5%) with Zinfandel, Petit Syrah and Alicante grapes is a sweet-fruited, super-ripe mouthful, as the alcohol level would predict. Will appeal to lovers of Barossa Valley late picked shiraz (the 2015 vintage is £60-68 from thewinereserve.co.uk & nywines.co.uk).
Staglin Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (14.9%) is from a highly rated organic vineyard boasting a winery that runs on solar power, this shows ripe, dark fruit flavours, complexity and good balance. It’s delicious (the 2012 vintage is £165 from bbr.com; the 2013 is £204 from winebuyers.com).
Inglenook Rubicon 2015 (14.5%) comes from a vineyard owned by Francis Ford Coppola. A rich yet still elegant wine with deep dark fruit, fine tannins and no rough edges, it is relatively mature for its age. This is a class act. The same can be said for the 2005 which was also on show, though more oak is evident on the aftertaste (the 2013 vintage is £150 from bbr.com)
Ramey Chardonnay Ritchie Vineyard 2014 (14.5% ) is from the Russian River Valley. An enticing mealy nose leads to a rich, mature, buttery palate. A lovely wine (£58-£76.50 from agwines.com & winedirect.co.uk).
Ferren Wines Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2016 (14.6%) & Ferren Wines Lancel Creek Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 (14.8%) – both of these are impressive. Made by winemaker Matt Courtney who used to work at another cult winery, Marcassin, in Sonoma, these chardonnays use top quality, ripe fruit. Both have a concentrated stone fruit palate with tropical hints (Sonoma Coast is £58 and Lancel Creek is £75 from justerinis.com).