Posts Tagged California

Time to flag up some star American wines

First published in The Irish Times, 1st July, 2017

Tuesday is July 4th – American Independence Day – so today we celebrate one part of the United States of America. I have recently returned from a memorable visit to California, my first in more than a decade. I had forgotten how stunning the wine country is, from the wild coastal regions to the lush green (this year) of Russian River, and the Sonoma and Napa Valleys.

I was also smitten by the excellent food from this multicultural part of the world. It has not only a bewildering array of local fruit, vegetables and salads but also just about every nationality using them to produce wonderful food.

The wine is pretty good, too. We don’t always see the best of California in Ireland. Our supermarket shelves have plenty of the lesser white Zins and inexpensive sweetish red wines. But California produces a huge number of fascinating wines, and with a little effort you can find some of them over here.

Some are made in tiny quantities and never leave California. It is worth remembering that if we ever had Calexit, California would be the world’s sixth-largest economy, and fourth-largest wine producer. But several importers are working hard to improve their range, so keep an eye out in the coming months.

On my visit, apart from the well-known international varieties, and California’s own Zinfandel, I tasted Counoise and Gamay, Ribolla Gialla and Friulano, and much more besides. All this alongside some exquisite Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The best Californian wines are not cheap, and as I wandered around the duty free at San Francisco airport on my way home I spied plenty of Napa Cabernets costing €150-200. But on the same shelves the equivalent from Bordeaux came in at €300 or more. The Chardonnays, Pinots and other wines at €50 may not be everyday wines, but they are no more expensive than their equivalents in Burgundy and other parts of the world.

Californian Chardonnay can be wonderful. Forget about the big, sweet, oaky wines you may have tried in the past, and some of the more recent anaemic, unoaked versions too; I took part in a tasting of six Chardonnays, all of which would stand comparison with high-quality Burgundy, combining a judicious use of new oak, real terroir and complexity.

Look out too for the excellent Chateau Montelena Chardonnay (Searsons and other independents). Californian Pinot Noir has also improved hugely. Cooler sites in coastal regions now produce exciting wines with real elegance and style, while wines from warmer vineyards can have rich, lush dark fruits. You wouldn’t mistake either for a Burgundy, but they have a lovely Californian character all of their own.

Bottles of the Week

De Loach Heritage Reserve Pinot Noir 2015 13.5%, €24.99

Lightly smoky red and black cherry fruits with a refreshing bite.
From Donnybrook Fair; Redmonds; Martins; Searsons

Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Barbara 13.5%, €37

Soft, complex, spicy, developed red cherry fruits with a lovely mineral tanginess.
From Berry Bros & Rudd; 64 Wine; Baggot Street Wines; Green Man; Terroirs

Ramey Chardonnay 2013, Russian River 13.5%, €49

Medium-bodied succulent peach and apple fruits, with a subtle kiss of vanilla oak. Lovely wine.
From Berry Bros & Rudd; 64 Wine; Baggot Street Wines

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The Mighty Zin – sun-kissed California in a Glass

The Mighty Zin – sun-kissed California in a Glass

First published in the Irish Times, 19th March, 2016

I have always had a soft spot for the wines of California and Zinfandel in particular. Fresh out of college, I spent six glorious months in San Francisco. I spent a lot of time travelling up and down the nearby Napa and Sonoma Valleys, and even more time drinking the lovely ripe- fruited wines that sold at ridiculously cheap prices. Many of these would have included Zinfandel in their make-up without mentioning it, but for a few dollars more you could buy a varietal Zin. These were rich, soft and powerful with an accessibility that made European wines seem sharp and unappetising. My tastes have changed over the years, but I still enjoy a good Zinfandel.

Zinfandel comes in three colours. You will find the odd genuinely white wine, stripped of both colour and flavour, but the majority of white Zinfandels are sweet rosé wines. Some mock them, but they provide many with an introduction to the pleasures of wine. Red Zinfandel is more serious, varying from rich and powerful to a more elegant style. All tend to have very ripe tannins, making them disarmingly easy to drink young, yet the best have the ability to age.

The variety first appeared in the mid-19th century. Many theories were advanced as to its origins but in the 1990s DNA proved that the Primitivo grape of Apulia (or Puglia) of Italy, was identical to that of Zinfandel. Many argued that the grape must have been brought over by Italian immigrants, although it predated them by several decades.It did not take Italian producers long to claim Primitivo as the original of the species, and to begin labelling their wines (particularly those going to the US) as Zinfandel. However, the trail continued to Croatia, where eventually a team of American and Croatian academics proved that an almost extinct variety called Crljenak Kastelanski was identical to both Primitivo and Zinfandel, and the parent of both.

There are plenty of very good small boutique Zinfandels produced in California, typically made from gnarled century-old vines that somehow survived prohibition.Most of these are snapped up by American enthusiasts before they can make their way over here. My favourite producer is Ridge, available through If you come across it in a restaurant, Frog’s Leap, imported by Berry Brothers & Rudd, is very good too. Beware mighty Zin though. This variety can reach heady port-like levels of alcohol – 16 per cent or more is not unusual.

The soft tannins and supple fruit make Zinfandel a good match for many foods, including most red and white meats. The richer style partners very well with grills, barbecues, spicy food (Mexican in particular) and rich robust stews.

Image 6De Loach Heritage Reserve Zinfandel 2014, 13.5%, €18.99
Generous and harmonious with mellow cassis and gentle spice.
Stockists: Blackrock Cellar; Clontarf Wines; Florries; Lotts & Co; On the Grapevine; McHughs; Red Island; Sweeney’s; World Wide Wine.

Image 2Gnarly Head Zinfandel 2013, Lodi, California, 14.5%, €18.99
Powerful and rounded with ripe dark fruits and a touch of vanilla.
Stockists: Donnybrook Fair; O’Briens; O’Donovan’s; Kelly’s; Jus de Vin; Baggot St Wines.

Image 1Paul Dolan Organic Zinfandel 2011, Mendocino,14.5%, €29.99
From organic and biodynamic vineyards, a rich wine coming down with ripe blackcurrants and plum jam.
Stockists: Redmonds; Fallon & Byrne.

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