The Californian Style - Tasting Report 2019
California is still classified as 'New World', even though they have been producing wines on and off for over 240 years. The history of wine in California is pretty remarkable. This region saw everything from the Gold Rush of the 1800s, to prohibition in the 1920s. Prior to the prohibition early settlers arriving from Italy in the 1800s were planting Italian varieties, and if it was not for prohibition, we might be all drinking Californian Sangiovese today! Fast forward 50 years from prohibition and the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris took place, the result of which would change Californian wine forever. The 1976 Judgment of Paris was a blind tasting of the best Californian wine along with the best French wine. California won, in both the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon categories. Interestingly enough, the same wines were poured 30 years later (2006) and the same result stood true. California now had the worlds attention. Over the following years, different winemakers started experimenting with different techniques and styles. California is now producing a variety of different styles across the state, from burgundy style Chardonnays to full-bodied elegant Zinfandels. I travelled to California to showcase these styles and to discover what makes California tick. I visited Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Littorai, Ramey Wine Cellars and Ridge, these wineries showcased all of these different styles.
Joseph Phelps Vineyards
Joseph Phelps vineyards is an Icon, especially since it has won multiple 100 point scores from Robert Parker for its flagship wine: Insignia. The 1991,1997 and 2002 all received this accolade. Joe Phelps started all of this in 1973, when after success in the construction business, he bought a 600-acre cattle ranch and that was where the winery was founded. Today all of Joseph Phelps wines are 100% estate-grown, no grapes are purchased. This ensures quality is kept to the Joseph Phelps standard from grape to glass. Bordeaux blends are what Joseph Phelps is famous for, however, I was also interested in tasting their lesser-known Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Freestone, along the Sonoma Coast. I was interested to see if the success of their Bordeaux blends would translate over to their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
The highlights included the Pastrola Chardonnay 2016 (94 points), the palate was rich but not overly so with round stone fruit, brioche and a soft texture on the mid-palate, the finish was elegant. The Other highlight was the Quater Moon Pinot Noir 2016 (95 points), This vineyard is located on steep slopes(up to 50 degrees!) as well as high elevation. Aromas of darker fruit and floral components lead to a rich palate of bright acidity with dark cherries, along with muscular tannins and a strong striking finish. If you are not up to speed with Joseph Phelps Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs you are missing out! They are just pure class with lifted fruit, excellent complexity and superb elegance.
Bordeaux blends are at the forefront of Joseph Phelps Winery, and if you speak to any wine amateur, they have either tasted or want to taste Insignia. I was lucky enough to try three excellent recent vintages along with their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. I started with their 2016 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (95 points), probably the best Estate grown Cab by Phelps to date, medium-bodied with waves of dark to black fruit, velvety chocolate and sweet spices. This followed by the 2012 Insignia (94 points), which tasted a little more rustic and savoury compared to 2015 and 2016 with a fabulous concentration of wild herbs and dark berries with a long enticing finish, The 2015 Insignia ( 97 points) Ripe plump fruit along with velvety chocolate, spice and a multidimensional finish. Finally the 2016 Insignia (99 points), A full-bodied palate was gushing with those big bold and fresh fruits. The tannins are velvety in texture, best since 2002? Tasting Insignia is always a treat and I feel the 2016 is really special, it will be released on the 1st September this year.
The next style I wanted to showcase was that of Burgundy-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grown in California. There are many different producers of these varieties, however, I had heard a lot about Littorai and their alternative approach. I had to investigate this further. Upon arrival, I was met by Sam, the assistant winemaker. He explained that what made Littorai different was not just sustainable farming, or that they owned or managed the majority of their vineyards, not even that they started the organic trend before it was 'cool'. It was the whole cycle, the ways their compost is made, the way they have grown their dandelions and nettles and other plant substances to mix in with their manure which they take from their farm. The whole cycle needs very little outside assistance, they are more or less self-sufficient, and that is what made them unique. This is both a farm and a vineyard and the two talk to each other. I have never been to a vineyard with this much attention to detail, it is about using the land and produce of the land to grow these amazing vines. Sam explained that these vines are able to produce quality fruit, with no use of chemicals or fertilizers. Of course, I asked what was the secret or special ingredient. "There is none, the quality of the fruit is a result of the whole cycle from the homemade compost to trailing the vines in a way to allow them to reach their full potential."
Once I better understood how Littorai produced wine differently, I tasted along with the owner Ted Lemon. As a wine journalist, there are certain moments you will remember, and tasting through the 2017s with Ted will be one of them. 2017 was a tough vintage, a lot of heat spikes occurred during late August and early September, so I was interested to see how these wines came out. What I was told earlier by Sam, is that whilst a lot of California was concerned about picking dates, Ted kept extremely calm, picking when he thought was the right moment and not rushing the process.
All of Littorais Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs tasted were single-vineyard designation. This really allows you to take away the nuances from each site. The highlight from the Chardonnays was the Littorai Mays Canyon 2017 (94 points) which had great acidity with wet stone characteristics along with a slight roundness towards mid-palate of ripe stone fruits, yet had a clean, straight and precise finish. All Pinot Noirs showed a wonderful expression of their terroir. As I found out, 2017 was a tough vintage and even though fully enjoyable at this stage, these Pinots will show their best in around 5-8 years time. The highlights included the Littorai Pinot Noir Mays Canyon 2017 (95 points), full of lush and plush darker fruits pushing through along with muscular and grippy tannins. Littorai Pinot Noir The Haven 2017 (95 points), rich yet with brisk acidity, this was quite gamy in terms of texture with lots of fruit compote and fresh spice. Littorai Pinot Noir One Acre 2017 (97 points), My favourite of the Littorai range, this was very very lush with plush blackberries, cherries and figs, perfectly balanced acidity with a long and elegant finish, so drinkable now, but wait please wait. This was one of the most eyeopening experiences I had in California if not the world. To see how much energy and effort Ted and his team put into the whole viticulture cycle. I hope other vineyards takes inspiration from Ted's approach to sustainable winemaking
Ramey Wine Cellars
David Ramey really is a California Chardonnay Pioneer. David spent over 15 years making wine for both Matanzas Creek and Chalk Hill, from there he spent 6 years as a winemaker at Dominus. Whilst at Dominus he started making 'a little Chardonnay' on the side. Ramey Wine Cellars was officially born in 1996. However what makes David and his wines so special? David pioneered many Burgundy techniques into his wines including working with indigenous yeasts, sur-lies ageing as well as malolactic and barrel fermentation. The resultant wines were richer, lusher and silkier compared to its counterparts. Many of these techniques are now practised by many wineries across California. What impressed me when talking to David was his knowledge and passion for his wines and the industry. David's wines showed excellent quality, unlike other wineries which are significantly increasing their prices, David's wines are very well priced for their quality. I also tasted some older vintages, and I was expecting to find a slightly oxidized and fading wine, but no, California can produce age-worthy wines. My experiences with older California Chardonnays have not always been like this. David also mentioned that as of 2013, all of his wines now have the Diam cork, a cork which is TCA-free and is guaranteed at 100%. This allows David to ensure that all of his wines age consistently and as he says allows him to produce wines with a lifespan 20+ years.