Rethinking California wine

| December 29, 2018 | 0 Comments
(Photo: les lunes wine)

(Photo: les lunes wine)

I like to think about California wines as belonging to one of three different categories. Some wines might fit into more than one category or none at all, but for the sake of this column, let’s say there are the modernists, the traditionalists and the avant-garde.
As a sommelier, when guests at my restaurant tell me they tend to like California wines, more often than not what they are telling me is that they like bold and powerful wines with intense flavours, a healthy dose of new oak and a high percentage of alcohol.
There could be several reasons California produces wines like this. For one, the warmer climate means riper fruit, which means bigger wines. Or maybe winemakers are chasing points from Robert Parker? Perhaps the American palate, in general, leans towards bolder flavours? Whatever the reason, it’s no secret that California is synonymous with “big.”
The popularity of these wines is not surprising. The whites often boast flavours of toast and butter and the reds lean towards jam and chocolate, so they appeal to a huge portion of the public. In my three-category system, these are the wines produced by the modernists. I say modern because these wines emerged in the early ’90s and often employ modern technology in the winemaking process.
The traditionalists category is made up of new and old wineries that strive to make wine the way it was made in California in the ’60s and ’70s. More reminiscent of classic Bordeaux than an Australian Shiraz, they’re powerful but harmonious. The winemakers use oak more conservatively so the alcohol levels can be high, but balanced. Leaders in this category include Heitz Cellar, Diamond Creek and Dunn Vineyards, all of which make high-quality classic California wines.
The “avant-garde” category is the one that’s most excited me about what California has to offer. These experimental producers have completely abandoned any preconceived notions of how California wines “should” taste. Whether they’re approaching grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel from a different angle and producing lighter wines with higher acid or making wines from international grapes not commonly associated with California, the one constant with these wines is that they break the mould.
Shaunt Oungoulian of Les Lunes Wine in Sonoma is a perfect example of one of these winemakers. His wines are bright and energetic and although they absolutely have a sense of place, stylistically they are much more French American.
“A lot of what we do is about curiosity. Are we doing anything new? No, but is it counter to current norms?” Oungoulian said when I asked him about his winemaking style. “We are trying to make the wines that we want to drink, while maintaining beautiful vineyards that are crawling with life and are better places than they were 10 or 15 years ago.”
The winemakers and grape growers in this last category spend time together and share information freely rather than viewing each other as competition.
“It’s a small, grassroots movement,” Oungoulian said. “We see the growth and success of each other’s projects as a rising tide.”
He was quick to recommend other wines in California that he found inspiring, including the wines of Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars. Brockway makes a range of phenomenal natural wines from various sites in California using grapes such as Roussanne, Chenin Blanc, Alicante Bouschet and Nero d’Avola.
Another producer who immediately comes to mind when talking about California’s avant-garde category is Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines. His wines made me rethink everything I thought I knew about Napa. His Cabernet Sauvignon sits at 13 per cent alcohol, even in 2015, which was the hottest vintage since ’97. It’s a wine that’s dense, but bright at the same time.
“Winemaking for us is a natural extension of farming,” he writes on his website. “We explore classical expressions of different grape varieties, some well-known like Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, and some rare, like Ribolla Gialla or Refosco. In all cases, we try to respect the purity of the variety and the individuality of the site. Our wines are refreshing, complement food and are moderate in alcohol.” He was speaking specifically about his wines, but his comments could easily be applied to many of the other producers who have decided to explore the endless options California offers its vignerons.
Readers interested in a beautiful “traditional” expression of Chardonnay might try the 2015 Chardonnay from Heitz Cellar in Napa (Vintages #205500, $62 per bottle in a pack of six). For something a little more avant-garde, the Wabi-Sabi red from Les Lunes is a blend of Carignan, Zinfandel and Syrah and available in cases of 12 through www.lifford.com for $34 per bottle. And while you’re ordering one case, try two by adding the 2016 Counoise from Broc Cellars to your list. It’s available in cases of 12 through groupesoleil.com for $35.95.

Alex McMahon is wine director at
Riviera restaurant in Ottawa.

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Alex McMahon is the sommelier at Riviera restaurant in Ottawa.

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