Celebrating English Chardonnay
Liz Sagues, author of A Celebration of English Wine (Robert Hale, 2018), investigates the growing success of English Chardonnay English Chardonnay - Something to Celebrate? English Chardonnay: what a world away, in flavour as well as distance, from the gold-hued, oaky, vanilla-sweet examples that gave the grape such a bad reputation, prompted the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) movement and still influence those wine drinkers who have never realised that Chablis is made from Chardonnay. And Chablis is so much better a comparison for English Chardonnay than wines from hotter vineyards. Our home product isn't truly Chablis-like, even though some who make it hint at that. But it does share some characteristics, with a properly British individuality – after all, there can be very considerable similarity in the soils into which the vine roots dig. While English Chardonnay has the crispness of the French classic, there isn't yet the same stony minerality, and the scents and flavours more often evoke the flowers of hedgerow and meadow than tropical fruits. As befits so young an introduction, styles vary a lot, from the very light and almost tart to denser, riper wines. Oak rarely appears – generally, unless the cellar skill is very high, a good thing with such delicate raw material. Older vines, and a little more maturity before wines are sold, will surely raise the 'wow' level soon. Quite rightly, Chardonnay is called the chameleon grape, and England will as the years progress add more colours to the existing spectrum, though they will surely remain bright and fresh. To put the present story in context, a little history is relevant. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are now by far the most-planted grape varieties in England, a massive switch from the late 20th century, when Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner and Seyval Blanc filled the vineyards and the noble varieties were rare. But they were there: Sir Guy Salisbury Jones, the man who revived English commercial viticulture after WWII with his 1950s Hambledon vineyard, had Chardonnay vines. Ripening was a problem, though. Pathé filmmakers recording the 1972 harvest thought the berries were 'too small and too green'; Chris Foss, head of the pioneering wine department at Plumpton College, felt much the same about other plantings a decade later: 'Chardonnay berries were like frozen peas'. The revolution in vine choice has come about for two reasons. One is that noble varieties now ripen properly most years in England, because of the gentle rise in summer temperatures (global warming is less welcome for the weather variability and violence it also brings). The other, probably more influential, is the success of English sparkling wine, where the vast majority of Chardonnay grapes end up. Fizz needs acid, and England's grapes have that. But the increasing, and increasingly good, examples of still Chardonnay are proving that the destination should not always be sparkling. A good number of new entrants release still Chardonnay while waiting for their sparkling wine to be ready for the market – it makes budget sense. There are, though, going to be more and more producers for whom still wine is most important, and significant figures favour Chardonnay. London Cru's 2017 Chancery Lane English Chardonnay is on sale now at £18 per bottle.
Pale and Interesting
Our European buyer Jack Green reflects on the rise of Provence rosé to conquer the world's summer-drinking pleasure. St-Tropez State of Mind In this business we always have one eye on drinking trends, to see if we can spot what the next big thing will be. If you had told me ten years ago that pale rosé from Provence, or indeed anywhere, would be the wine in everyone’s glass, I’d have been surprised and intrigued. I’m sure anyone who has been to the south of France in the summer will say ‘come on, we’ve been drinking it for years’. What’s changing though, is countries outside of France are now cleverly producing rosé wines in the lighter, zippy style commonly associated with Provence. Even our winery London Cru made a rosé last year, which ended up being poured all summer at the Oxo Tower Brasserie in central London. What could be better? For me though, you have to start at the beginning: St Tropez, Provence. It was only when I visited the region for the first time last year, that I realised why Provence and rosé go hand in hand. Those long, hot summers that seem to go on forever, spent wandering the cobbled streets of St Tropez. Those lunches that start at midday and inevitably end up lasting until the evening, watching the sun setting over the Mediterranean. And, if you’re that way inclined, relaxing on your yacht on the calmest, crystal clear water you’ve ever seen. There is only one drink that seems to encapsulate all of this in one glass… a cold, crisp, pale rosé from Provence. Our absolute favourite Château in Provence is Château Minuty, which just happens to be a 20-minute drive from the centre of St Tropez, and one of the first of the 14 Châteaux be crowned Cru Classé along with its rivals Domaine Ott and Chateau Roubine. Our favourite location to enjoy a glass of Château Minuty is at the legendary Club 55. Famous for its fresh, seasonal produce, it’s hard to miss in St Tropez, right on the beach. But what if you can’t make it to St Tropez? Well, we have invited Sebastien Nore of Minuty to join us on the 17th July for a day of everything Provençal. First up, we’ll be enjoying a delicious, typical Provençal lunch, accompanied by our most popular rosé wines, M de Minuty and Rose et Or. Then, in the evening, we’ll be enjoying l’apero - Sebastien from Minuty will be pouring Château Minuty’s entire range, matched with typical snacks from Provence. As well as M de Minuty and Rose et Or, we'll also be tasting Minuty's white Blanc et Or and their exquisite super-cuvée 281. Tickets for both events are on sale now – don’t miss them.
On-Trade Sales Manager David Adamick investigates which wines match best with summer's seasonal flavours. You'll find all of the wines he recommends in our Savouring Summer Collection. Matching Summer's Seasonal ingredients with wine If you’d read my blog some months ago, you’ll recall my aversion to most, if not all things autumnal/hibernal and so will be relieved to learn that I’ve managed to emerge out the other end. Scathed, but still with the will to type. But what a bank holiday weekend that was. And on the assumption it’s put you in the mood also, here’s a seasonal food update on what you’ve got to look forward to: In-Season Ingredients: Veg: Asparagus New potatoes Lettuce Aubergine Radish Peas Cucumber Cheeses: Soft English cheeses Reblochon Bleu d’Auvergne Chablichou Fish/seafood: Crab Mackerel Halibut Tuna Salmon Meat: Pork Lamb The Wines: Given it’s still early season, produce is delicate, fresh and green, and therefore we’re looking for wines of a similar nature. These delicate wines also accompany easily crab and halibut, as their flesh is equally so. Here we’ll look for racy, vibrant green/yellow fruited wines such as Domaine des Cognettes, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie – all organically-farmed, hand-harvested fruit, with its invigorating aromas of green apple, sea air, fresh yoghurt and oyster shell; the palate is full of creamy minerality and saline briskness; elegant green fruit with good leesiness to add body and length. This is such an overlooked appellation when the wines are right, and they are certainly so when from this great, great producer. Graham Tatomer’s 2017 Steinhugel Riesling from the Santa Lucia Highlands is of biodynamically farmed fruit on predominantly slate soils also does well here – and easily. Fine-tuned, creamy minerality underpins some lovely, yellow and white stone fruit, and always with the ‘old-world’ structure Graham insists upon. Similarly, zippy rosés are more than appropriate and no less so when in fizz form: 2017 Domaine J Laurens Crémant de Limoux Rosé is both a new addition to Roberson and an indispensable option for the season ahead. The Limoux region’s calcareous soils are ideal for Chardonnay, making up most of the assemblage, with 20% Pinot Noir for colour, red fruit, white pepper and body. Up the ante then, with Chris Brockway’s 2017 Love Rosé: an unusual and fascinating co-ferment of mostly Valdigué (once known as ‘Napa Gamay’) with small percentages of Zinfandel and Trousseau. High aromatics of watermelon and grapefruit with Zinfandel spice and a slightly waxy texture from the Trousseau. And though it weighs in at a mere 11% alcohol, Love Rosé’s acidity, spice and body will have it stand up to heavier, oilier fish as mackerel and tuna. Equally suited and from the eastern face of Mount Etna, Sicily, is a wonderful rosato blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio from Cantine Murgo. Its brilliant, Provençale hue is of a properly dry rosé with lots of savoury red, pomegranate/currant fruit and white pepper. Absolutely perfect with ALL the above. Pork and lamb are quite simply at their best this time of year, and to keep things in line with the season’s produce we’ll stick with fresher styled reds: Jean-Paul Thevenet’s Morgon ‘Tradition’, Tatomer’s Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir and Chateau de la Bonnelière’s Chinon all have the structure, mineral core to drive their restrained fruit; no problem at all, either, to put on in the fridge for 25 minutes before serving as this will bring out that acidity just a little more to clean up fattier red meats as the aforementioned. Finally, though lamb dishes will go easily with just about any red wine, its added weight and oiliness tends to prefer a bit more guts in a red – though always wanting that acidity to keep the palate in shape. For this Domaine Maubernard’s 2013 Bandol is a perfect ticket: mainly Mourvèdre with a bit of Grenache, it is full bodied, spicy and big, but with lots and lots of minerality and structure to keep things on an even keel. Bags of dark, savoury, bitter/black fruit; a slight edginess that is wonderfully rustic and with a natural affinity to lamb. Given the small size and output of the appellation, the wines of Bandol are generally on the pricier side which is why we’ve chosen Domaine Maubernard as one of the best estates we’ve come across in a long time. Happy matching!
The Cool Climate Challenge
As we prepare to release our brand new London Cru Chancery Lane English Chardonnay 2017 just in time for summer, our intrepid intern Aaron Gilling sat down with our winemaker Agustín González Novoa, affectionately known as Ag, the man behind this deliciously different expression of English wine. An interview with London Cru's winemaker on making English wine Aaron: So, the first question has to be: why an English Chardonnay? Ag: I mean, why not? Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape on earth. It grows anywhere. This is not a Napa or Australian Chardonnay but it is a superb cool climate wine. Think Chablis. Aaron: Just to confirm, this is your first English Chardonnay? Ag: Most definitely yes! I think there are may be a few other producers making this style of wine but not very many. And especially not from the 2017 vintage, we were very fortunate to be able to produce this wine. Aaron: Is this something that you are excited about as a long term prospect? How do you see this evolving vintage to vintage? Ag: Yeah sure, obviously we rely on the weather of the vintage. That's the beauty of wine; it's not the same every year. The aim is to be able to produce a wine that represents where it comes from and that represents the best of the vintage. Aaron: What were some of the key winemaking decisions you made to achieve this English Chardonnay? Ag: The picking time of the grapes is the most important winemaking decision you can make. Choosing the right date to pick makes all the difference. Additionally, the fact that I vinified everything separately at different temperatures to create 3 ingredients which were blended together was important. Some parts were fermented in oak, some in concrete, and it was all whole bunch pressed. But, really, the only recipe is that there is no recipe. It changes every year. The quality is in the grapes. Aaron: Any interesting evolutions from its initial vinification to bottling? Ag: Yeah sure, a little bit of the wine went through malolactic fermentation and that reduces the acidity. The wine still has a lovely fresh acidity, but we expect that from English wine. The real effect is that all of these bright fruit flavours are starting to be matched by other evolutionary aromas in the wine and this means it is showing complexity. I am very pleased with it. Aaron: Picking up on aromas a bit, how would you describe the bouquet of this wine? Ag: Well, it’s definitely got plenty of fruit, particularly pear and green apple, and this “pear drop” character that people keep telling me about – I’ve still never actually tried one by the way. But there are also lavender notes and more floral aromas, it’s not only fruit. Aaron: How do you see people enjoying this wine? Ag: I think it's a great summer wine. It's a light Chardonnay, but one with structure. It is the sort of Chardonnay to have with a starter or as an aperitif on a beautiful summer's day. But really I can see people drinking this any time. It's a very versatile wine. Chardonnay is the best style for this kind of versatility. Aaron: Do you have any food-pairing suggestions? Ag: Well, what Simon's eating would be ideal... **cut to RW Head of Consumer Sales Simon Huntington tucking into a sumptuous carton of Pad Thai from our staff’s favourite Fulham street food truck** [laughs] Aaron: [laughs] So Pad Thai from the food truck then? Ag: Exactly! But seriously, it is such a versatile wine that it would go well with most things, including but not limited to Pad Thai. It has this incredibly acidity which makes it a superb wine to pair with food. As long as the food is delicious, this wine will only make it better. Aaron: So what kind of wines do you enjoy drinking? Ag: Obviously it is a difficult question for a winemaker but I do have a special passion for Pinot Noir, and for Burgundy in general. I really like Chardonnays and enjoy making them. Making white wine in general is very rewarding because of the complexity of aromas you can develop. That’s what I enjoy, and I can’t wait for everyone to enjoy this unique expression of English Chardonnay. Aaron: Thanks so much Ag, we will have to get you a bag of pear drops sometime soon so you can finally taste this flavour in your wine! Ag: That would be very, very cool. Thank you! You can pre-order our Chancery Lane English Chardonnay 2017 now.
Champagne's Particular Prestige
Private Client Sales Manager Paul Williamson investigates the continuing appeal of prestige cuvée Champagne. The Appeal of Prestige Champagne is a fascinating thing. A sparkling wine first created by mistake, produced in a region with a climate not entirely ideal for growing grapes. Yet if you asked anyone to describe what Champagne means to them, most responses would be associated with quality, prestige and celebrating good times. The recent explosion in popularity of Prosecco has done nothing to dim the appeal of Champagne, if anything it has highlighted the sheer class with which Champagne continues to imbue. Another fascinating aspect in the world of Champagne is the rise of 'Grower Champagnes'; small, artisanal producers creating beautiful, terroir focussed wines in a way which reflects a Burgundian raison d'etre. We are big fans of the complex styles and techniques that these growers bring to the genre, in fact we import directly from two fantastic producers, Egly-Ouriet and Champagne Dosnon. There is no doubt that the big name, Grand Marque Champagne houses have become a little nervous by these external forces stretching the market and appeal away from their big brands. However there is one sub-sector of the fascinating Champagne scene that continues to appeal, and which is even growing in popularity all of the time, that is the Prestige-Cuvée. These are the top wines of any producer, the utter epitome of the style and class of Champagne. Prestige Cuvées are often released onto the market with a fanfare and with big marketing campaigns to back it up. Some may think that this world of prestige and grandeur would not appeal to the Grower Champagne lovers, those who appreciate the craft and graft of the small producer, but the opposite is true, the two products are not mutually exclusive. I don't know anyone who would turn their nose up at a glass of aged Dom Perignon or Krug Grand Cuvée. The thing is, Prestige Cuvées represent all that is brilliant about Champagne. Generally, they are made from a producer’s best plots of vines, produced only in top vintages and are kept in the cellars for longer than normal to be meticulously crafted and matured to perfection. They are often richer and more complex than your average bottle of Champagne and when all the best factors come together they can be the most stunning and divine vinous creations imaginable. These Champagnes can be brilliantly age-worthy, continuing to gain complexity and texture in the bottle for decades. As a consequence of the relatively limited amount of production of these top wines, and because they get drunk frequently, demand begins to outstrip supply. Buying on release can be the most economical way of getting your hands on them. For example, the current market price for the magnificent 2002 Krug is more than 40% higher than when it was released 2 years ago. Two recent releases that are worth highlighting are Bollinger R.D. 2004 and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2007. Both classic examples of their house style, and well worth adding to any collection. In the near future we are also expecting to hear news about the highly anticipated 2008 Louis Roederer Cristal release and Salon 2007, all of which collectors will be scrambling for. If you would like to receive information about any of the recent and upcoming releases, please don't hesitate to get in touch. Paul Williamson Private Client Sales Manager 020 7381 7881 email@example.com
The New California, Revisited
Head of On-Trade Keith Kirkpatrick takes a trip through the Californian wine scene, five years after the publication of a influential book by Jon Bonné drew the world's attention to the revolution transforming the state's wines. California's New Wines Five years ago, in 2013, the then wine editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, Jon Bonné, published his eagerly awaited new book; ‘The New California – A Guide To The Producers And Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste’. ‘What book, by who?’ you say. Well, you may not realise it, but this book has had a great impact on how you buy your Californian wines, either as a retail customer or restaurant diner. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the book was eagerly awaited within the wine trade, certainly within the walls of Roberson HQ. For a few years prior to the book’s release, we had been watching what was happening in California, a growing band of new producers keen to talk about where their wines came from, the specific vineyard sites with their specific terroirs, even particular blocks or rows of vines within a specific vineyard. They wanted to talk openly about their methods in the vineyard and the winery, what they were doing to bottle a wine that was a true reflection of a particular grape grown in a particular location. They were not talking about how many millions they had spent on a new winery, who their billionaire backers were, how many people were on their waiting list, not trying to keep the source of their fruit a secret, or how much wine they actually made, not keeping the winery door closed to prevent prying eyes from seeing the array of expensive technology fashioning a made to order product with various constituent parts added or removed. We like to seek out the former and politely decline the advances of the latter. First Steps and First Successes In late 2011 we had taken our first tentative steps towards becoming a multi award winning US specialist, shipping at first a small amount of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Jamie Kutch in Sonoma and Bergstrom in Oregon. At this time, in many restaurants, you would find these wines listed under a very generic heading such as ‘USA’ or ‘New World’, usually on the last page of a wine list. The front pages of the same list would be subdivided in to the various villages of Burgundy, the left and right bank appellations of Bordeaux, the DOCs of Spain and Italy. This careful and detailed categorisation was used to emphasise the particular character and nuance of the wines from each village, so why were the wines of the US not treated the same, did people not care, or did they just not know enough about them? It will come as no surprise to anyone that has tasted the wines of Kutch and Bergstrom that they were universally adored by our restaurant clients from the moment they arrived in the UK, and despite their lowly placement at the tail end of the wine list the wines sold incredibly quickly, no doubt due to excited sommeliers keen to show off their new listings that offered a quality and value that had not been seen from the US before. The wines sold out, we shipped more stock, sold out again and shipped again. It was clear that we needed more wine, the restaurant trade was ready to embrace the new wines coming from the west coast of America. So, a couple of months before Jon Bonné’s book was due to hit American bookstore shelves in late 2013, we embarked on a whirlwind tour of California, squeezing in visits to as many producers as possible. The post trip debriefs were intense and agonizing, we wanted to bring in so many of the wines but had to at least try and be selective. In the end we brought in around 15 new agencies and dozens of new wines, still a lot, but they were all producers that had exactly what we wanted, wines that spoke of were they were from, the right grapes grown in the right location, farmed in the right way and bottled as an unadulterated and pure expression of themselves. The wines arrived. Now we had to sell them, get them in front of as many people as possible. With ‘The New California’ about to be published in the UK, why not invite the author to launch his book at a joint event? It made perfect sense, all of our new producers were featured in the book, we can open all the wines and you wouldn’t just have to believe what we were telling you, this award-winning writer is saying exactly the same thing, and he is here in the room to tell you. While we’re at it, let’s get as many of the winemakers as possible over here for a few days, so they can pour their own wines and tell you their story. On the 22nd of April 2014 we hosted ‘The New California’ tasting with Jon Bonné and a bevy of Californian winemakers, happy to finally have the chance to show their wines to an enthusiastic audience in London. It was a resounding success, wine buyers from all parts of the trade were amazed by the quality, authenticity and diversity of the wines, and most importantly by the obvious differences between, for example, the Pinots made high up in the hills over the Pacific on the extreme Sonoma Coast to those made in the western edges of the Sta. Rita Hills, or a Cabernet made in the Santa Cruz Mountains compared to one from Napa’s Rutherford bench. All excellent wines in their own right, but each had their own identity, the wines from each region and sub region were different, but not because of the winemaker or their winemaking techniques, here was confirmation that California had ‘terroir’. In the years that followed, another dozen or so agencies have been added to our portfolio, all are producers that make wines that you want to actually drink, not just taste, spit and apply a score out of 10, 20 or 100, whatever your preferred method. I prefer the method of how much of the bottle is gone by the time dinner is ready, and we have a lot of wines scored 75cl in our range. The California Wine Market Develops We’re by no means trying to take all the credit, but due to the activity of Roberson and a few other UK specialist importers, the way that US wines are represented on restaurant wine lists bears absolutely no resemblance to how they were just a few years ago. The wines are now often afforded the same luxury as their European peers, you may find Sonoma subdivided between Coastal or Valley, Alexander Valley or specific parts of the Russian River Valley, maybe even a feature on the vineyards located in the Petaluma wind gap. Is your Napa wine from the south, the mountains, if so which range, or the far north? Santa Barbara, is that Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon or Highlands? This is ultimately great for the producer, importer, restaurant, wine drinker and retailer. The path followed by wines from newly discovered, temporarily trendy or in California’s case, re-invigorated, wine regions goes like this: sommeliers get excited by something new that offers amazing quality and value compared to what has gone before, the restaurant customer gets a greater understanding of the region/wines and can decide on their preferred style, they then confidently go out and buy from their local wine shop, the importer needs to place another order, the winemaker is happy see their wines being recognised and appreciated for what they are. California is not a new discovery, nor is it temporarily trendy, the re-invigoration is permanent, and the wines are here to stay, but is there a danger of it all getting too confusing, too intricate? If the swing from generic ‘USA’ to pages of sub AVAs on a wine list is tipping you over the edge, fear not, there may be over 200 wines from the US available on our website, but we are here to help you find your ideal wine. The New California, Re-explored There is still great value to be found in Monterey, Contra Costa and Amador, all regions that are little known, but there are plenty of substandard examples on the market from these parts, so you’ll need to be steered in the right direction. Santa Barbara and Sonoma are a source of beautiful, profound wines with nuance and style. The Santa Cruz Mountains and Napa are where you will find classically styled and structured wines, but all of these regions are capable of producing wines which define California and its individual terroirs. Starting in the South and moving North, here are some top picks, all great examples of what each region has to offer. Just to the north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara County is home to the Santa Ynez Valley. The rest of the California coast is pretty much all North to South mountain ranges, but here the mountains make a sharp turn to run west to east and these transverse hills provide a corridor for cool winds to be sucked in from the Pacific year-round, up through the Sta. Rita Hills towards Ballard Canton and Happy Canyon. So, despite being much further south, this region has a much cooler climate than regions in Northern California, lending an elegance and fresh acidity to balance the fruit intensity of the wines. At the very western edge of the valley, just a few miles from the sea, you will find the vineyards of Sandhi and Domaine de la Cote in the Sta. Rita Hills, benchmark Chardonnay and Pinot Noir of a quality to rival any produced in Burgundy. Introduce yourself to winemaker Sashi Moorman’s wines with the Sandhi Santa Barbara Chardonnay before exploring the single vineyard Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay and the Pinots of Domaine de la Cote, Bloom’s Field and La Cote being two excellent examples of the individual nuances of different vineyard sites. Moving inland, where the temperature rises as you move away from the sea, you will find the landscape and planted grape varieties change, but the constant cooling wind is still there. From the John Sebastiano Vineyard, try the excellent Piedrasassi Sebastiano Vineyard Syrah, or if you’ve been a fan of Austrian wines in the past, you must check out the Tatomer John Sebastiano Gruner Veltliner. Graham Tatomer also has some Gruner in the Kick-On Ranch Vineyard which lies just outside the Sta. Rita Hills, on the way towards the Santa Maria Valley, fruit from these two vineyards is blended into the deliciously fresh and textured Tatomer Meeresboden Gruner Veltliner. Driving North from Santa Barbara County, the temptation is to just keep going, history may tell you that many of the wines from the Central Coast are generic, a bit overdone and boring, it seems too hot and geographically sprawling to be interesting. But If you head up in to the hills to the west, where the abundant sunshine is tempered by some elevation, limestone soils and cool winds crossing the mountains, you will find plenty of quality, and quite often at a bargain price. From vineyards dotted along the route you’ll find the refreshingly light but fruit packed Jackhammer Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, both made without the use of any oak, or if you prefer a little bit of buttery vanilla but not too much try the Moobuzz Chardonnay and Pinot from Monterey County, these wines deliver a lot of reward for a small trade up from your average supermarket offering. Continuing north, just as you reach San Jose and San Francisco, you will see the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west, this region is home to some of California’s most historic vineyard sites, a complex mix of soil types and micro climates that are perfect for producing great Cabernet, Pinot and Chardonnay. Ask most people to name where you’ll find a great Californian Cabernet and most, if not all, will instantly reply Napa, but in the Santa Cruz Mountains you will find classically structured wines with the potential to age for decades, true expressions of the right grape grown in the right place. You’ll not get much more classical and structured than Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon, while new producers such as Jason Charles are doing their bit to lift these wines out from the shadow of Napa, his Vinca Minor Cabernet Sauvignon shows drinkability in youth but still has that Santa Cruz structure as its signature. You’re also in the right place for a Chardonnay fix, whatever your preferred style, Arnot-Roberts Trout Gulch gives you a wine with intensity, precision and tension, while Mount Eden is richer and broader. Heading inland from San Francisco, you’ll find more wine producing regions which are either unfashionable or relatively unknown in the UK. Much like the Central Coast, some of these areas have been know in the past for mass production and dubious quality, but again if you look to the hills or for a producer with the right history and philosophy, there are many bargains to be had. In Contra Costa County you will find Viano Vineyards, a Piemontese family that arrived in California in 1920 to farm vineyards planted in the 1880s. Never tempted by the technology of mass production or the desire to change the style of the wines to chase sales, they do not irrigate or use any chemical treatments on their land, all the while retaining a traditional and thirst quenching style suited to any occasion, their Cabernet Sauvignon and Hillside White are two of the best value wines in the whole of California. Next, in to Green Valley in Solano County, a tiny strip of viticultural land where Chris Brockway sources the fruit that goes in to his Love Red. The vineyards here are cooled by the breeze coming off San Pablo Bay. A longer than expected growing season and old vine Carignan and Syrah of over 50 years of age guarantee quality grapes, but being a small unknown AVA means the fruit prices here are significantly lower than in the neighbouring Napa Valley, so this wine reaches you at a price way below what you might expect for its quality. Further inland still, Amador county is home to many a great value wine and a traditional home to Zinfandel, the grape that has unfortunately become a bit of a caricature, its image ruined by lakes of undrinkable, high alcohol supermarket plonk. But, as ever, if you know where to look you will find joyous, fresh, fruit driven wines that will have you coming back for more. Sobon Estate is sustainably farmed and all their wines display the smoky, darker red fruits you would expect from Zinfandel, soft tannins and plush texture, but it is all done with a fresh natural acidity and moderate alcohol. If you love Zin but have been let down on too many occasions, try the Shenandoah or Rocky Top bottlings. And so, back west to the Napa Valley, California’s most famous and name checked wine producing region. Here we find wines with an abundance of up front fruit, plush texture and deep flavour, but quite often too much of all of these, along with excessive alcohol. It would be very easy to assume that everything from here looks the same, tastes the same and comes in the same heavy bottles and handmade wooden cases. But not so, try the Watson Ranch Chardonnay from Arnot-Roberts, a hillside vineyard at the southern tip of Napa that is exposed to the cool air coming off the bay, the wine has fresh acidity and some delicate nuance, but its backbone is broad, structured and textured, absolutely classically styled chardonnay, just without the slap dash make up that is applied to many a Napa Chard. Similarly, the Linda Vista Chardonnay from Matthiasson is a fresh and ethereal wine, but a little leaner than the Watson Ranch, you could say it’s a Puligny as opposed to a Chassagne. For the Cabernets, you’ll find the style you like in either Corison or Matthiasson. To continue the French analogy, if you like Pauillac go for Corison, or if it’s St. Julien go for Matthiasson. If it’s neither of these and you actually prefer St. Estephe, go back to the Santa Cruz Mountains and Mount Eden and co! As an introduction to Napa, you could not do much better than to explore the Wines of Hunt & Harvest, a Cabernet, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc made by Long Meadow Ranch, a trio of wines that give a true expression of what Napa wines should be like at a price that is not prohibitive. Finally, for something truly special, venture up in to Mount Veeder to the west of Napa where you will find the historic Mayacamas Vineyards. The current owners took control from the 2013 vintage and they have had an immediate effect on restoring the wines to their previous glories from decades past. Their first year at the helm and the 2013 Cabernet is already one of the best Napa Cabernets I have ever tasted, the 2014 is yet to be released, but it is even better again. On the other side of Mount Veeder, you enter Sonoma. This is a region littered with great wines, but the problem is that it is such a big region, the Sonoma Coast AVA covers almost 750 square miles, far too big to give the wines a common identity. So, you need to break it up in to smaller chunks. On what you might call the extreme Sonoma Coast, you will find wines that are made within a few miles of the sea, climates so extreme that you are at the very edge of where it is possible to ripen grapes. When conditions are this hard and the growing season so long, you find fruit in small compact bunches, packed with flavour, sweet and savoury, complex and framed with a fresh acidity retained by the cold winds and fog. Anything from Hirsch Vineyards, for example the San Andreas or West Ridge Pinot Noirs, or Jamie Kutch’s Sonoma Coast or Falstaff Pinots will give you an unforgettable experience of what is possible when vines are pushed to the limits of survival. From further south, in the area know as the ‘Petaluma Wind Gap’ due to the channel of cold air sucked in from the Pacific (just as happens in the Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara), you will find vineyards capable of producing world class, elegant and nuanced wines, Wind Gap Armagh Vineyard Syrah or Gap’s Crown Pinot, and Arnot-Roberts Clary Ranch Pinot Noir are three to look out for. Happy exploring!
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