Wednesday, 3 December 2014

California Dreamin'

Inspired by Simon's recent blog on Zinfandel a few weeks back, I thought it was about time for me to blog about Californian wine. It has been suggested that I might be a fan of Californian wine on the odd occasion and it must be known that I wasn't at all until about a year and three months ago. Sadly, because of the import costs, taxes and therefore retail prices of Californian wines, we aren't readily exposed to quality producers in the UK, so I had drawn my own assumptions that all Californian wine must be as disappointing as the dross I had previously found in my local supermarket. This blog is my discovery of Californian wine.

I have to pause for a moment to say it was absolutely the trip of a lifetime - From seeing Cirque du Soleil and Penn & Teller in Vegas, to swimming with dolphins in San Diego, to taking in the sights, sounds and attractions of LA, followed by the Santas (Monica, Barbara and Maria), Malibu and staying with Rachael's great aunt Sue and uncle George in the Pacific Palisades. Then a complete contrast - the serenity and beauty of the landscape and wildlife driving up the stretch from San Luis Obispo, through Morro Bay, Cambria and Big Sur to Carmel. Finally, there was a half-week of gorging on Michelin-starred delights and watching the Americas Cup in San Francisco. It was just incredible. But the best and most surprising part was honestly the wine. We drank many wines, some not so great. But some really stick nostalgically to my mind.

I could kick myself now - beginning the trip in LA, we spent the first week between there and Vegas and I must confess I passed up many opportunities to try local Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. I knew better than these "bloody Americans", whose wine lists were filled with nothing but American wine. So narrow minded of them... [So narrow minded of me!...] It was only when Rachael's Aunt Sue said "no, really, you need to try this" at their local Italian restaurant, Casa Nostra, that I succumbed to a taste. It was a half-bottle of Chardonnay from "some local vineyard". I had no idea which producer at the time, but it just so happened to be Au Bon Climat. I was sat in David Beckham and Kobe Bryant's local Italian in the Palisades, sipping Au Bon Climat with Senator Stackhouse. Jesus, if only I knew then what I know now...

Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Chardonnay, 2011:
I've previously mentioned Jim Clendenen's wines when I reviewed the Wild Boy Chardonnay, so I won't regale the same information. What I will mention is the high quality that he consistently achieves in his Burgundian-style wines, achieved by carefully selecting the appropriate terroir, by ageing in French oak and fermenting in small open-top vessels, just as in Burgundy. As a result, we see characteristics in this wine that are unusual for Californian Chardonnay - it is crisp, clean and refreshing rather than overly opulent. I'm not certain, but I think that Sue probably singled this wine out as the one to try because of these characteristics. Contrary to the Chardonnays I had previously tried, on the nose and palate it was more like ripe orange than sharp lemon and the oak made it more nutty than anything. The finish was long, with a more crisp citrus flavour hitting the back of the palate, along with really buttery toast (Lurpak, not the cheap stuff...). I don't know if the surroundings contributed to the experience, but I would never look at Californian Chardonnay in the same way again - I was besotted.
Vivino Score: 4.5 stars

Unsurprisingly I decided that I'd be drinking Californian wines from then on. Equally, as soon as we hit the coastline I was on a mission to find the best seafood I could. But whilst in San Diego we were staying near the famous Gaslamp Quarter and found a great steakhouse just up the road from Petco Park called Donovan's. With my New York Strip Steak I needed to go red, so opted for a half bottle of Carneros Pinot Noir. In the meantime, we were entertained by the crowds leaving the ball-park after the game, along with the local "nutter" who was dancing in the street and climbing lampposts in celebration of their victory.

Saintsbury Pinot Noir, 2011:
I remember thinking that this wine was much bigger than the Pinot Noirs that I was accustomed to. Not in the fruit, which was the same lovely, juicy red cherry and raspberry combination that I particularly like, but in the length and ripeness of the finish along the accompanying pepper, spice, vanilla and dark chocolate flavours that layered their way into each sip. Tannins were also slightly higher than expected for a Pinot. The feel of the wine was quite "velvety" and sophisticated. It wasn't at all what I anticipated when I ordered but it was a great accompaniment to the succulent steak. Rachael's quip of "is it Taste the Difference?" left me chuckling but no, it was better than that. Had we not just completed a grueling six and a half hour drive from Vegas, I would have loved to finish the other half of the bottle.
Vivino Score: 4.0 stars

Then began our 600 mile journey following the Pacific Coast Highway up to San Francisco - something that everyone must do in their lifetime! Although we took it steady over about a week, I never felt satisfied that we had spent enough time in any place. It was just brilliant. Although not specifically wine-related, I must mention two places that we visited along our route very briefly. San Luis Obispo is renowned for being the most picturesque town in California and the happiest town in America - I really can't agree more. With an beautiful town centre and a breathtaking mountainous backdrop, I can't see why anyone wouldn't be happy there. I have come across many wines from the area since, but sadly we were only driving through in the space of a day. The second place is Morro Bay - a small, sleepy surfer-town. There isn't anything particularly spectacular there, it's just a brilliant atmosphere. We stopped at an amazing beach-front "shack" for lunch and were treated to the most incredible calamari sandwich, caught that morning. Sadly their beverage list came exclusively in cans but the food was definitely both the simplest and the best of our whole trip.

The next major stop was San Simeon, where we stayed at a lovely family-run hotel near Hearst Castle and of course, the Paso Robles wine region. Aside from the absolutely mad Hearst Castle, my lasting memory of the place was the local beach, which was teaming with sea lions. After a walk along said beach, we opted for a local wine with our shrimp pasta dinner that evening - the Eberle Chardonnay.

Eberle Chardonnay, 2011:
Having travelled just about 40 miles from the vineyard to our table, this Chardonnay was very different to the Au Bon Climat varietal I had tried in LA. Theeir "pioneer" Gary Eberle is widely known as the "godfather" of Paso Robles wine and has been producing premium wines for over three decades. This is exactly how the wine was introduced and recommended to me by our waiter - I didn't feel as though I could refuse. Eberle is indeed one of the highest award-winning wineries in the US and their fascinating network of caves where they age the wine at the vineyard is perhaps a contributing factor. With such a pedigree behind it, the wine did not disappoint. It had apple and pear on the nose with the lemon only coming in on the palate. Again, it had more of a crisp edge than I was accustomed to at the time, but this balanced the richer buttery quality perfectly. With the coastal backdrop on one side and the hills behind me, it was just magic.
Vivino Score: 4.0 stars

Further up the PCH we spent a few days in Carmel and Monterey, which for a wine-lover is just incredible. Literally every street in both towns seemed to have a tasting room for a producer from the local countryside. Even more exciting was that the Carmel Valley is now regarded as one of the top 10 wine producing regions in the world! Aside from visiting the Monterey Aquarium (which again, is a must), our time here was going to be devoted to wine. Before flying out, our wine supplier Peter had tried a wine from Hahn Winery at a tasting and highly recommended that we visited them, so we did. Again, we couldn't do this any-old-how and after seeing us pull up in the convertible Mustang, they persuaded us to take a guided tour of the vineyard in an ATV, which he promised to drive around the dirt paths of the vineyard much faster than we could ever do in our Mustang. He did. It was epic! If you go to California, visit Hahn and if you do, do the ATV tour!

Of course, the visit was predominantly about the wine so after the tour we settled in to their tasting room and began sampling. Some of my favourites were:

Hahn Monterey Pinot Gris, 2012:
As with most producers, Hahn's vineyards are scattered across the local landscape to provide the desired qualities from the varying terroir and sub-climates. This Pinot Gris was from the Lone Oak Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The cooler ocean breezes and Easterly-facing slopes catching the morning sun are ideal for Burgundean varietals. This Pinot Gris was just so full of fruit, with ripe stone fruit on the nose and a palate of crisp, green apples and a hint of lime on the long, lingering finish. The slower growing time allowed by the cool breezes increases the wine's acidity, creating this amazing crisp wine that is just bursting with flavour.
Vivino Score: 4.0 stars

Hahn Monterey Chardonnay, 2012:
Again, a lovely Chardonnay. The grapes are taken from several of their vineyards, but primarily from their youngest Arroyo Seco Vineyard, which sits on the rocky valley floor beneath the Santa Lucia mountains. This offering had tropical fruit on the nose - predominantly mango, but it was silky and smooth. The palate was baked apples and pears with vanilla and toffee, followed by a sweet buttery, creamy finish, that was balanced with just the right level of acidity - almost like an autumnal fruit crumble.
Vivino Score: 4.5 stars

Hahn Winery Malbec, 2010:
I was delighted to see one of my favourite grapes at the Smith & Hook Vineyard in the SLH. The gently sloping hills of this vineyard are generally above the fog line, which allows for great Malbec (and Pinot Noir). Due to small production quantities, this was one of only a few wines that are only available at the tasting rooms of the vineyard itself - it was a real privilege to be trying them! The nose was massive and incredibly opulent, with all of the flavours on the palate coming through. The palate itself was very smooth, with ripe plum and black cherry, followed by pepper, spice, leather and a hint of smoke on the medium-tannin finish.
Vivino Score: 4.0 stars

Hahn Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, 2011:
This varietal is carefully blended with grapes from all four of Hahn's vineyards to provide lovely balance to the wine. Although the 2011 season was particularly challenging in the region, the longer growing period and smaller yield created wines of extraordinary intensity and depth. This Pinot Noir is matured in 40% new French oak for 11 months, giving a lovely spice to the finish. The nose and palate are dominated by intense blackcurrant, plum and black cherry, with a slight acidity and gentle tannins on the finish.
Vivino Score: 4.0 stars

Hahn Lucienne Doctor's Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2012:
The Doctor's Vineyard sits just below Smith & Hook in the Santa Lucia Highlands and is comprised solely of Pinot Noir and Syrah. It is known for producing much more robust fruit and the flavours are certainly jammier, suggesting more direct sunlight. However, they are still at the blackcurrant and blackberry end of the spectrum. The mouthfeel is much more velvety and the finish brings in more vanilla and spice from the more aggressive oak ageing compared to the SLH blend. I like that it was unapologisingly bigger and bolder.
Vivino Score: 4.5 stars

Back at our hotel, we noticed a tasting room for McIntyre Vineyards in the lobby (they were everywhere!). Naturally, on the way to dinner that evening we had to pop in for ten minutes see what McIntyre had to offer too! My lasting memory was that their winemaker loves to experiment with Spanish varietals and that their Albarino was execptional. Sadly I didn't make any notes as we were just passing through on the way to the restaurant and I can't seem to find it online - could I have been imagining things?!

My final wine of note was at the two Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, whose menus are based on poems written by the owner and Executive Chef Dominique Crenn. Of all the places that we ate in California, this was the most sadly the disappointing on the last day of our trip. My review is simple - hidden behind the bull... of the overly elaborate menu, was stuffy and obnoxious service and food that wouldn't have received one star back in the UK, let alone two. The English sommelier presented us with a "Yellow Pages" of wine and actually made the whole experience very awkward. When I asked him what he would recommend because there was so much choice, he actually told me that his favourite wine was this [pointing to a bottle for a hundred-and-something dollars], but Sir might find this one a bit more affordable. I kid you not. Sir opted for a half bottle of 2012 Ramey Chardonnay, followed by a half of 2011 Peay "Titans" Syrah, both of which were lovely but overly-priced and left a decidedly sour taste in my mouth as a result of the service.

All-in-all though, our experience of California and its wine was unbeatable - it ignited an understanding and a passion for Californian wine in me and may explain to some people why I'm so bonkers about it. I long for the day when I can return.

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