There’s so much wine, and only so much time (and bodily constitution) to drink it. Even given that, I have to admit that California wine hasn’t received its fair share of my attention for the past couple of years. And the more I taste, the more I realize how varied Californian wine is (or has become). It’s not all jam and butter anymore, and I’m finding it easier to track down Californian wines to please my palate than even two years ago.
There’s no shortage of new Californian winemakers pushing boundaries with small operations (this article by Eric Asimov offers an informative roundup). Unfortunately, here in Quebec, the SAQ doesn’t seem to have caught on yet. But, as I discovered during a recent tasting with four Californian winemakers, from Chateau St Jean, Etude, Stags’ Leap, and Beringer, there are wines of interest to be found among the older, established producers as well.
The wines I tend to like are expressive without being overly extracted and aren’t too high in alcohol. There are some cooler sites and regions within California where it’s possible to make this kind of wine, as winemakers like Jon Priest from Etude (and Randall Grahm from Bonny Doon) are proving.
We tried four different Chardonnays and for me they fell into two distinct styles: the Chateau St Jean 2011 Robert Young Chardonnay and Beringer’s Luminus Chardonnay 2012 were riper and more aromatic, while Etude’s Carneros Estate 2011 Chardonnay and Stags’ Leap Napa Valley 2011 Chardonnay were more discreet and elegant. I particularly liked the Etude, which had the advantage of a cooler 2011 vintage and a site that’s visited by afternoon fog.
I was also impressed by the overall freshness of the Cabernet Sauvignon we tried next. In the past, many Californian winemakers tried to avoid any hint of “green” notes in Cabernet Sauvignon by letting grapes mature until they were overly ripe, which can make for hyper concentrated, almost jammy wine. Based on the Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted, not everyone is afraid of a little greenness anymore, which is a good thing in my books. There was still great concentration to these wines, but freshness as well. Unfortunately, though, the price tag of higher end Californian Cabernet Sauvignon ($49-$115 for the four I tasted) pushes it out of reach for many consumers.
The real treat was tasting a couple of older vintages (a 2002 Cinq Cépages from Chateau St Jean and a 1992 Private Reserve from Beringer), which showed the ageing power of California Cab. Both were holding up beautifully.
Unfortunately not everything we tasted is available at the SAQ, but here’s a couple that are.
Stags’ Leap, Napa Valley Chardonnay 2011 ($35 at SAQ)
Expressive, with apricot, pear, and floral notes. A touch of tart apple and citrus that keeps it fresh. Winemaker Christophe Paubert aims to protect the juice and retain the natural acidity of this wine.
Stags’ Leap, Napa Valley Petite Syrah 2009 ($40 at SAQ)
Paubert also shows his touch on this one, avoiding over-extraction, which can make for a very rustic style of Petite Syrah, and instead going for elegance. The result is concentrated without being overpowering, with flavours of blueberries, plums, and sweet spice and silky tannins. Balanced and focused.
Thanks to Treasury Wine Estates for the tasting.