Pure California: 100+ Reviews of the Best of “New” California; The Icons of Napa Cabernet, and Sandhi, A Name to Know.
by John Szabo MS with notes from David Lawrason
The theme of the report this week is pure California, the focus of the VINTAGES August 2nd release, and David Lawrason and I list our top picks (with significant alignment). Next week David will lead coverage of Alsace, the Loire Valley, Greece, and the best of the rest along with my picks (Sara d’Amato is in the south of France conducting serious research). I’ve also included a couple of outstanding Santa Barbara chardonnays tasted at the i4c last week, and I’ve finally managed to publish close to 100 reviews from landmark California tastings held last October in San Francisco, Napa and Sonoma. Find the best pinot, chardonnay, Rhône blends and so much more on WineAlign; fans of California wine, and I know there are many of you, will want to track these down. But wait, there’s more – check out this report on the very best of the best Napa Cabernets. Read on for all the gold.
A California Wine Summit
Before we get into the top picks from the VINTAGES August 2nd release, those deeply into California wines may want to consider searching further afield. I’ve published nearly 100 of my top picks (mostly current releases) from an extraordinary set of tastings held last October in California. The “California Wine Summit” was organized and hosted by the Wine Institute of California for a select group of international journalists (WineAlign’s Anthony Gismondi also attended), with the aim of sharing the radical changes and developments that have occurred within the California wine industry over the last decade or so.
These extraordinary tastings were compiled and led by some of California’s most respected critics, authors and winemakers, including Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle and his top chardonnays, Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, and her favorite Pinot Noirs, Patrick J. Comiskey, critic for Wine & Spirits magazine and terrific California blends, and a once-in-a-lifetime tasting of iconic Napa Valley cabernets led by master sommeliers Geoff Kruth and Matt Stamp. And those were just some of the formal tastings.
The New California Wine
Perhaps Jon Bonné has best captured the zeitgeist in his recently published book The New California Wine, which is “the untold story of the California wine industry: the young, innovative producers who are rewriting the rules of contemporary winemaking; their quest to express the uniqueness of California terroir; and the continuing battle to move the state away from the overly technocratic, reactionary practices of its recent past.” Fans of California wine are well advised to grab a copy of this book – it’s an accurate synopsis of what’s going down in the Golden State.
No stones were left unturned during the summit as we tasted through every notable grape variety and wine style that the state has to offer over the course of a week, with detailed information, expert comparative analysis and historical perspective provided along the way by the folks who know it best. Only one tasting failed to shine: “California does value”, the one area where even the best of the new California often falls short. Value is of course relative, though with few exceptions, compelling sub-$20 (CAD) wines are few are far between in my view. The majority of entry-priced brands, at least those we find on shelves in Canada, prey on the human weakness for sugar. But once again, sales figures are in diametric opposition with me, so what do I know.
Dollars aside, the new California (as well as the California that’s so old it’s new again, and the California that never followed fashions of any kind) has an extraordinary offering of wines on shelves now. If you’ve turned away from California for whatever reason, I’d suggest you give Ontario’s most important foreign wine supplier another look.
Set your WineAlign search parameters to “California” and pick your favourite grape/style to see what’s on top. Be sure to check “show wines with zero inventory” for the full list, as some wines have yet to reach our shelves.
The Best of the Best of Napa Cabernet
I’ve also posted a blow-by-blow report of a tasting of iconic Napa cabernets, including all of the rarities – it was the sort of tasting one hardly ever reads about, let alone participates in. The notes were edited only for spelling, making it a more intimate and unadulterated view of the moment, including some impressions that surprised even me.
Buyer’s Guide for Vintages August 2nd 2014: California
Alignment: Robert Mondavi 2012 Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley ($23.95)
John Szabo – One of the most reliable and consistent Fumé Blancs, not to mention the original, from California, Mondavi (and winemaker Geneviève Janssens) still leads the way and delivers wide pleasure at the right price. I like the balanced between tropical and orchard-citrus fruit, in an approachable, round and soft style. Best 2014-2018.
David Lawrason – In California’s Mediterranean climate it is difficult to make snappy, acid-driven sauvignon blanc. Robert Mondavi engineered a great alternative years ago by adding semillon and barrel ageing, and calling it Fume Blanc. It has been one of my favourite California whites ever since – uniquely spicy with intriguing green olive an evergreen notes.
Hahn 2012 S-L-H Estate Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County ($32.95). David Lawrason – Hahn has emerged as dominant player in Monterey with huge vineyards and polished fruit driven style of wines. This is unabashedly big, generous and fruit driven – as so many chards are in California – yet it retains a sense of composure
Alignment – Napa Angel 2008 Aurelio’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($62.95)
John Szabo - Chilean vintner Aurelio Montes’ Napa project is a particularly dense and full cabernet sauvignon, with tightly knit dark fruit and chocolate flavours, unsurprisingly, similar in style to his top wines from Chile. This is mature and drinking well now. Best 2014-2022.
David Lawrason – If you detect a certain Chilean bloom and piquancy in this delicious, sensuous Napa cab it is due to the fact that it is made by Chilean Aurelio Montes (who makes some of grandest reds of Chile’s Colchagua Valley, including Purple Angel). This is excellent, collectible an drinkable cabernet – complete, profound and deep.
Grgich Hills 2010 Estate Grown Zinfandel, Napa Valley ($48.95). John Szabo – Biodynamic estate Grgich Hills rarely disappoints with any of their wines, which remain, relatively speaking, fairly priced within the Napa Valley context. This is an unusually aristocratic version of zinfandel, with fruit so very lively and vibrant – a difficult thing to achieve with zin in the Napa Valley. Best 2014-2020.
Beringer 2007 Bancroft Ranch Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Bancroft Ranch Vineyard, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley ($79.95). John Szabo – The Bancroft Ranch wines are often among my favorites from the vast Beringer portfolio, which for me has more distinctive character than the (more expensive) Private Reserve, of which this cabernet is often a notable component. This 2007 has evolved nicely into a dusty-grippy, savoury and dark fruit flavoured wine with a nice streak of scorched earth and minerality from the volcanic soils of Howell Mountain. Best 2014-2020.
Seghesio 2012 Zinfandel Sonoma County, California ($29.95). David Lawrason – I am not at all happy about the sweetening and mocha-fication of California’s commercially priced zins. To rise above the soup you need to raise your price ceiling and focus on classic producers like Seghesio – a family with zin its veins for generations.
Sandhi: The California Wines You Want to Get to Know
It wasn’t my first exposure to the wines of Sandhi in Santa Barbara County – one, the Sandford and Benedict Vineyard bottling, had been selected by Jon Bonné for his tasting of top Chardonnays during the California Wine Summit. But it was a pleasure to sit and taste a few more wines with co-owner Rajat Parr during the i4c weekend in Niagara. Sandhi, which mean “collaboration” in Sanskrit, is a joint venture established in 2010 between Parr, then, and still, wine director of the Michael Mina restaurant group, partner in San Francisco’s landmark RN74 and one of the US’s most recognizable wine figures, Charles Bank, the former owner of Jonata and Screaming Eagle, and winemaker Sashi Mormann. The winery is focused on small lots of chardonnay and pinot noir from select vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County, particularly the cooler stretches of the AVA a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.
I was delighted but not surprised to find that Parr, an outspoken advocate for balanced, moderate alcohol wines in his buying role for Mina, has upheld his position for his own production. The Sandhi wines are all about finesse and freshness, structure and balance, well articulated without attempting to replicate European wines- the fruit is still Californian, as it should be. Sandhi wines are available through the Trialto Wine Group across Canada, as are Parr’s other joint ventures, Domaine de La Côte, also in Santa Barbara (check out the excellent syrah), and Maison l’Orée in Burgundy.
Two to Try:
Sandhi 2012 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, California ($48.00). A vibrant, moderate alcohol, terroir-driven chardonnay. Flavours are in the ripe orchard and even lightly tropical spectrum, though this is all about the zesty acids and firm structure, including a pleasantly chalky, tacky mineral texture.
Sandhi 2011 Rita’s Crown Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County, California ($78.00). A wine of serious depth and complexity off the charts; the balance is pitch-perfect, on the upper end of the intensity scale, with terrific length. Really top-notch stuff for current enjoyment or mid-term hold. Tasted July 2014.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo MS
From VINTAGES Aug 2nd:
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