First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 7th September, 2019
For many wine drinkers here in Ireland, California starts and ends with two valleys, Napa and Central. The former is the Rolls-Royce, producing plush, expensive Cabernet Sauvignons that rival the best of Bordeaux in both quality and price; the latter is the engine room that provides much of the juice used to make the blush Zinfandels and other inexpensive jug wines that line our supermarket shelves.
Until recently there was very little in the middle ground between the two, where price and quality meet. O’Briens deserves credit for introducing a range of medium-priced California wines, and Marks & Spencer has the very quaffable Craft 3 Zinfandel (€15). Some of the larger producers, such as Gallo and Jackson Family Wines, have attempted to plug the gap too.
But somehow the excitement was missing – none of those smaller maverick producers making wines that make you sit up and take notice, and very few elegant, delicate wines that charm and seduce. Yet I knew they were there; on a visit with Wines of California a few years ago, I tasted some world-class Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah from cooler coastal regions, and I was bowled over by a new wave of exciting small-production wines made from every conceivable grape.
Demand for these wines in California is high, so until recently the producers were content to sell everything locally. But now, thanks to a few intrepid importers, all has changed. Some of the wines are really offbeat, such as the Parts & Labor below, made by Kenny Likitprakong, which includes an eclectic mix of Syrah from Potter Valley, 100-year-old Carignane from Redwood Valley, Grenache from Arroyo Seco and Barbera from Mendocino.
In the hills around the Sonoma Valley, along the Sonoma Coast, north into Mendocino, and south along the Central Coast, the climate is cooler, and has proven ideal for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. The climate and soils are different, and therefore so too are the wines, but some of the wines are exquisite. Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman make some of the most exciting and talked-about wines at Sandhi and several other wineries. Wines from Anthill Farms, another favourite producer of mine, are now available in Ireland for the first time.
In addition to the wines below, look out for names such as Pax Cellars, Steve Matthiasson, Domaine de la Côte, Broc Cellars, Hirsch, Schug Carneros, Orin Swift, Kosta Browne and Calera. If you do fancy trying a top Napa Cabernet, then there is no better than the Corison Cabernet 2014 (€119 from Green Man Wines), although others would prefer Louis Martini, Duckhorn, Dominus and Opus One.
Viano ‘Hillside’ Red NV, Napa Valley
An organic field blend of Zinfandel and Gamay; peppery, grippy, light-to-medium red fruits, with a touch of spice. Pair with grilled beef or pork, or roast Mediterranean vegetables.
From: Deveneys, Dublin 14; stationtostationwine.ie
Folk Machine ‘Parts & Labor’ Red 2016, California
Fresh juicy ripe damson and blackberry fruits with a lovely sweet/sour edge. Try this with grilled ribs, or maybe macaroni cheese.
From: The Coach House, Dublin 16, thecoachofflicence.ie; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com; First Draft Coffee & Wine, Dublin 8, firstdraftcoffeeandwine.com; Redmonds, Dublin 6, redmonds.ie; stationtostationwine.ie
Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Santa Rita Hills
A soft sweet fragrance; succulent seductive ripe dark cherries and plums, with hints of spice; a wine of real depth and substance that opens out as you work your way through the glass. Try it with roast duck.
From Deveneys, Dublin 14; stationtostationwine.ie.
Anthill Farms Syrah 2016, Campbell Ranch Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
Medium to full bodied with violet aromas, ripe dark fruits with subtle spice, and some fine cool tannins on the finish. Lovely with food – perfect with a roast of pork, or lamb.
From: Mitchell & Son, Dublin 1, Sandycove, Co Dublin, and Avoca, Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow, and Dunboyne, Co Meath, mitchellandson.com; Ely Wine Store, Maynooth, Co Kildare, elywinebar.ie; the Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie