Friday, 20 July 2012

It's not the economy, stupid - it's the doughnut

US wines in the UK have a problem and it's the doughnut.  Nothing to do with Krispy Kreme, but a metaphor for the US wines we see here:  lots of stuff at rock bottom prices and plenty of highly priced wines, but nothing in the middle.

When we talk about wines from the US, we really mean California, as the Golden State accounts for over 90% of the entire country’s wine production.  And for most wine consumers, their experience of Californian wine is at the cheap (and possibly cheerful, depending on your taste) end – Blossom Hill, Gallo, Echo Falls and their imitators.  These are the high volume powerhouses who have driven the US to 2nd place in the league table of wine exporters to the UK behind Australia, ahead of Italy and France.  The wines are straightforward, fruity and easy-drinking, often with a little sweetness (sometimes rather more than a little) to help them along.

On the other side of the doughnut, the US is a great country to head for if you have a banker’s bonus burning a hole in your pocket.  California is awash with trophy wines that will make quick work of emptying your wallet.  Screaming Eagle Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 had a release price of $1,500 a bottle.  But the production of just 800 cases plus a perfect 100-point score from influential US critic Robert Parker means even that eye-watering price is purely academic – you would need to spend very much more than that to track down a bottle.

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth recently about the high price of Bordeaux’s best wines in recent vintages, but the Bordelais are late to the game in reality.  It is California that has been showing the way for years when it comes to creating icon wines with price tags to match.

The wines that are missing, the middle of the doughnut, are those that cost around £8-15, of which there are precious few in this country.  And this price range is exactly where interested and engaged wine drinkers tend to spend their money.  With nothing to speak of from California, that wine budget will head instead for other countries with plenty to offer.

So what can I recommend to the curious yet not flush with cash wine drinker who wants to engage in some California dreaming?  Not a great deal, to be sure, and the usual upper price limit is rather stretched, but here goes.

Au Bon Climat Chardonnay Santa Barbara County 2010 - £20.95 from Berry Bros & Rudd
A standard-bearer for high quality Californian Chardonnay, this is as good a place as any to start our Californian wine tour.  There is oak (Americans do love a bit of oak), but it is always in a supporting role and doesn’t dominate the fine fruit.  This is never less than a pleasure to drink.

Qupé Roussanne “Bien Nacido Hillside Estate” 2008, Santa Maria Valley - £30 from Majestic Fine Wine
Roussanne is a classy variety whose home is the Rhône Valley in France.  It makes wines with weight and body, but also with herbal lift and subtle aromas of stone fruit. Qupé have fashioned a complex, satisfying wine from it here.

Ridge Lytton Springs 2009 - £26 from The Wine Society
Paul Draper, philosopher turned self-taught winemaker, has a suitably laid-back West Coast vibe to his winemaking.  He relies on natural or wild yeasts (the microflora in the air and on the grape skins, as opposed to commercially available specially selected yeast strains) and will let fermentations continue (or indeed stop and start) over months rather than the usual 2-3 weeks.  His wines, as a result, have wonderful depth, personality and finesse. 

Zinfandel is renowned for making thumping great wines big on colour and alcohol and ripe (or over-ripe) fruit.  This Zinfandel-based blend, however, is positively light on its feet, with wild strawberry in amongst the dark brambly fruit and great freshness despite 14.5% alcohol.

Frog’s Leap Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 - £47 from The Wine Society
We are straying into icon (is that one word or two?) wine territory here.  There is no doubting that Californians tend to like plenty of oak and alcohol in their wines, so if that’s your bag, then explore away.  This wine, however, bucks that trend with 13.5% alcohol and very little new oak – and, like Ridge, uses native yeasts.

At eight years old it is just getting into its graceful stride.  The fruit is maturing and moving away from primary, fresh fruit flavours to aromas of tobacco leaf, spice and preserved fruit.  The texture is velvety and the flavours linger long on the palate – a real sensory pleasure.

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