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