September is California Wine Month, the seventh consecutive year declared as such by California's governor. While a significant amount of the wine bears the generic "California" designation, the state is awash with diversity when it comes to wine. Maybe this is a chance to explore some of the less well-known sub-regions and AVA designations. Come take a little trip through the great state of California with me...
California wines account for over 90% of all wine produced in the United States, and is in fact the 4th largest wine producing region after France, Italy and Spain. While there is a significant amount of wine brands labeled simply "California," there are over 100 different official designated viticultural areas (called AVAs) within the state. Exploring these different AVAs is a great way to get to know the region and the tremendous diversity that exists within the wines.
Wines labeled "California" are typically blends made from grapes sourced throughout the state. Some are excellent, but far too many are overly ripe faceless fruit bombs, not necessarily poor quality but dull. These "generic" wines tend to be about consistency of flavor and varietal expression rather than manifesting a specific terroir or particular vintage. The smaller the designated region typically the more you begin to see real expressions of individual terroirs.
For example, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wine will always be more specific in its identity and flavor profile than a wine labeled California Cabernet Sauvignon. Even within Napa Valley terroir identities become even more specific with wines labeled Spring Mountain, Oakville or Rutherford.
Napa and Mendocino County are both within the Northern California Coast Region but they couldn't be more different in terms of terroir and micro climate. If Napa excels with its full-bodied Cabernet wines, Mendocino (particularly Anderson Valley) is one of the top California places to seek out elegant Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and sparkling wines.
Travel further south to the Central Coast and you are into even more diversity. Here the warm Paso Robles area is renowned for its Rhone varieties and robust wine styles, while close Santa Barbara and the Santa Maria Valley, cooler micro-climates, shine with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
These are just snippets of the diversity and varied wine expressions available within the state of California. Huge investments in soil and climate studies over the past decade have resulted in a much greater understanding of the terroir diversity within the state, and has encouraged a greater winemaker interest in crafting wines that best express individual terroirs.
Unfortunately many of these wonderful terroir driven wines stay within the state's boundaries. But, there is hope. As inter-state shipping laws continue to liberalize, as internet wine shopping becomes routine, and as smaller producers harness social media as a marketing tool, these wines typically produced in smaller volumes are appearing more and more often on our radar and within our reach.
Exploring the many sub-regions of California over the past few years has really given me a better appreciation of the diversity of the region when it comes to wine and a much greater love of what it has to offer.
Please find below my tasting notes on a few of the wines that I particularly like.
A Few California Wines to Try
• 2009 Jorian Hill Viognier, Santa Ynez Valley, $30 - From the Central Coast region. Rich and layered showing aromas and flavors of tropical, stone and citrus fruit. Despite the richness, it is not heavy on the palate. Fresh acidity adds a lovely vibrancy. Fleshy yet juicy texture and lively on the palate. Quite persistent flavorful finish.
• 2010 Qupé Marsanne, Santa Ynez Valley $17 - Also Central Coast region. Marsanne is a traditional white Rhone variety. I've enjoyed this wine for a number of years. A delicious compote of zesty citrus, orchard and stone fruit with a compelling spicy touch. Lovely combination of ripeness and vitality. Reasonably long fruity finish with hints of spice.
• 2009 Stuhlmuller Vineyards Chardonnay, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, $24 - It is so easy to tire of Chardonnay. This is really quite lovely. Fairly full-bodied and barrel fermented and aged — yet shows restraint. Ripe fruit, creamy and refreshing flavors — citrus, orchard, melon. Very long smooth finish.
• 2008 Goldeneye Pinot Noir, Anderson, $55
• 2007 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, $60 - Silver Oak is well renowned for its excellent Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines. For that reason I choose its less well-known Cabernet, from Alexander Valley in Sonoma. While their 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is still far too young to fully enjoy, this Alexander Valley example is truly lovely. Ripe black fruit flavors and aromas, noticeable tannins but they are supple and almost silky — not something I associate much with cabernet Sauvignon. Rich, juicy texture. While drinking nicely this is a wonderful wine to gift or cellar for 5+ years. .
• 2008 La Follette Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, $30 - Sonoma coast is the western part of Sonoma County and benefits from cooling breezes from the Pacific. It is developing quite a reputation for Pinot Noir. La Follette is quite a delicious. Generous on the palate showing ample ripe black fruit — yet it is also wonderfully vibrant and focused. Silky tannins, yet nicely taut. Long, finish showing complexity and richness.
2007 Bonny Doon Dewn Bien Nacido Syrah, Santa Maria Valley, $40 - From the Central Coast region, the Bien Nacido vineyard well know for excellent wines. What I love about all Bonny Dopon Vineyard wines is how Randall (Grahm) manages to seamlessly combine juicy ripe fruit with a savory, earthy minerality. This wine has purpose. Evident, but supple tannins frame the wine. It is bright, rich, juicy, savory. A wine to savor slowly. Very long finish,
2008 Patz & Hall Jenkins Ranch Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast - Another gem from Sonoma Coast. Possibly a slightly warmer site with very ripe cherry, red berry and plum fruit flavors, and a generous warming mouthfeel are very well balanced by the refreshing bright acidity. Notes of spice and vanilla add complexity. Fairly substantial on the palate but well focused.
Until next week, enjoy!
Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant.
(Images: Mary Gorman-McAdams)