At BI we are undergoing full ‘Californication’. The wines of the Golden State are really getting under our skin as we research, taste and discover our way deeper and deeper into this fascinating wine region.
Last year sales of US wine at BI were among the fastest growing of all regions, with almost £6m of sales. This was dominated by some heavyweights such as Opus One and Dominus but also included a broader range of wines than ever, and not exclusively from California: whilst many of our favourites hail from the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, and further south in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, we’ve also discovered gems from Washington State and Oregon. From the incredible decadent peaks of Sine Qua Non to the power and finesse of ‘First Growth’ Harlan Estate, via the athletic freshness of Liquid Farm’s high altitude vines and the Burgundian stylings of Sonoma’s Pinots and Chardonnays, the range of styles, climates, terroirs and personalities is fascinating. This truly is the bridge between the Old and New Worlds and we encourage you to join us in our quest to know and taste more.
Our US buyer Sylvain Lepeltier has been on two visits to the West Coast in the past 12 months, taking in the crazy, hippy-inspired world of Pinot Camp in Oregon, and more recently the ultra-exclusive Premiere Napa Valley auction. In his own words:
“There is nothing better than to see vineyards with your own eyes, feel the temperature at different times of the day and night, and develop an understanding of what the vines can go through within specific locations. My biggest surprise when I got to the Valley is how small it is but how diverse as well; from the southern part of the valley, with Los Carneros on the pacific side and Combvsille on the east side, up to the northern part at Calistoga and Howell Mountain, the valley is a lot smaller than I thought. At only 30 miles in length and 5 miles across at its widest point, Napa has a lot more in common with Burgundy than Bordeaux. It is only really the fact that 60% of Napa fruit is Cabernet Sauvignon that causes misleading comparisons with Les Bordelais!
On that note, while the high economic pressure has favored more ‘bankable’ grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, it shouldn’t be ignored that there are around 40 different grape varieties planted in this tiny area, proof of Napa’s uniquely diverse winegrowing terroirs. As a result of very active geological events that took place over a 60 million-year history, the Napa Valley has soils of volcanic, maritime and alluvial origin, with more than 30 different types identified. Defined by mountain ranges and a proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the Napa Valley enjoys a temperate climate with a long growing season of sunny, warm days followed by cool evenings. Within the Napa Valley AVA, there are 14 other specific AVAs with distinct microclimates and terrains formed by a varied topographical configuration of hills, exposures and elevations. Like Burgundy, Napa has a variety of terroirs which can express themselves in so many ways; one can stand in a vineyard whose wines have a distinct character and throw a rock into another which will deliver an entirely different character. It truly is a heaven for wine lovers!”
Since Sylvain’s return from Napa we have engaged in a number of excellent tastings. Here are our thoughts on just a few of these:
Lokoya is a collection of four remarkable single-site Cabernet Sauvignons from some of the Napa Valley’s most famous and sought-after Moutain vineyards: Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain. These are minimal intervention wines which celebrate both the unique, high-altitude terroir of these sites and the majesty and power of Napa’s natural sunshine. The Lokoya label is one of the crown jewels of the Jackson Family Estates’ portfolio; that’s right, when you see people across the US glugging Kendall-Jackson, be grateful – as every bottle they sell funds their passion projects like Lokoya.
Presented by JFW’s representative in the UK, Dmitri Mesnard MS and Sales Director Jessica Bryans, we tasted three vintages of Veeder (2011, 2012 and 2014) and a vintage each of Howell (2012), Diamond (2007) and Spring (2009). The variation between the sites is as different as travelling up and down the Medoc. Veeder and Howell are the highest, and this shows in their relative austerity; volcanic, black mineral characters cut through the layered black and blue fruit with the Veeder showing a distinctly Pauillac-style graphite note and the Howell more of a Margaux perfume and herbal tone. Diamond and Spring are the most ‘typical’ Napa wines with softer tannins and richly textured body. All have fantastic balance and a lightly polished style that gives the wines a beautiful structure without detracting from their authenticity.
We could listen to Realm’s Scott Becker talk about wine all day long. Realm is a ‘new wave’ California producer which, like many others across Europe, started with a dream and not a lot else. Whilst many of Napa’s big producers were funded by the deep pockets of those who had already made their first fortunes, Realm begged, borrowed and stole (forgive the terminology… I’m sure they didn’t steal anything) vineyards, grapes, barrels, winery space… whatever they needed to get off the ground. Over time they have proven that their ability and methodology works and they have since established their own facility and have even been able to start buying their own vineyard land.
Again these are wines that make no secret of the ripe, powerful California heritage – after all, if you don’t want a wine that tastes of sunshine, don’t buy from Cali – but that have a lightness of touch, a freshness and elegance that allows them to express their sense of place very clearly. Whilst they make a smattering of single-site wines, including one huge, hedonistic Cab from Beckstoffer’s famous To Kalon vineyard and another of considerable restraint and athleticism from the great Farella vineyard, their range is led by a blend known as The Bard. We tasted the 2014, 2015 and new release 2016 of The Bard and it really showed not only how the wines start to develop, but the real vintage differences. The ’14 was my preference, being the coolest of the three years, but the ’16 was a magnificent bottle too which balanced some of the opulence of ’15 with the freshness of ’14. The single vineyard wines were stunning but as with so many of these wines produced in the low hundreds of cases, not much gets outside the mailing list. Definitely a producer to watch though.
Ehren Jordan of Failla is a winemaker’s winemaker. He has produced wines all over the world in a career spanning 34 years and set up Failla in 1998 as an outlet for his many creative ideas. These super-elegant, cool-climate Chardonnays and Pinots from the chilliest parts of the Russian River Valley are wines to make Burgundy lovers drool. Lean, mineral and expressive but with that weight of fruit and matter that you expect from new world sunshine hours. However this is only the tip of Ehren’s iceberg; not only does he specialise in Zinfandel – indeed he is an unashamed champion of this much-maligned grape, having worked with Helen Turley on some of the region’s greatest and most highly rated Zins – he makes pretty much everything else you can find. Syrah is enormously close to his heart having spent years working for Jean-Luc Colombo in Cornas but if you want an amphora aged Trolleau, Ehren will find it for you amongst his many experiments. He was an inspirational guy to talk with.
Failla’s Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and Pinot are a steal at the price, with loads of intense varietal character and oodles of cool-climate minerality and charm. We also tasted two single vineyard wines. Chuy Chardonnay is from a vineyard grown up high at almost 1000 feet and overlooking the Sonoma Valley – a wine of huge complexity, savoury mineral characters, chalky, wet stone notes and layers of citrus and stone fruit. Keefer Ranch Pinot is from the coolest area of the Russian River, Green Valley, and the elegance and earthiness just shines through this supple, fresh-styled wine.
I remember the first time I tasted Paul Hobbs Cabernet – it was at a lunch table in the Harris Gardens at Lords during an Ashes Test, surrounded by a lot of bottles you might call ‘the great and the good’. It firmly trounced every other wine on offer. So it was with some anticipation that we settled into a comprehensive tasting of Paul’s wines both from the US and Argentina.
Paul Hobbs was one of the founding fathers of the great Opus One, having joined Robert Mondavi’s winemaking team straight out of UC Davis in 1978. He was therefore extremely well-placed to progress into his own label, having learned pretty much all there was to know about site-specific Cabernet grown in this most hallowed region. Today he makes wines under a range of labels but our focus was very much on the eponymous wines he crafts from Chardonnay (in the Russian River and Sonoma Mountain), Pinot Noir (Russian River, Carneros and Sonoma Coast) and most famously, Cabernet from the Napa Valley. Having tasted an excellent pair of examples of Chardonnay and Pinot, we moved into 4 remarkable single-site Cabernets sourced from the properties of the legendary Andy Beckstoffer. (As an aside – this is a fascinating aspect of Napa winegrowing: the Beckstoffer estates are run a little like Burgundy Grand Crus in that many growers can acquire fruit from each single vineyard site, including managing their own viticulture; however these growers are required to put not only the vineyard name, but the Beckstoffer name on the bottle. They also have to charge a minimum amount per bottle, and have to pay a % charge back to the Beckstoffer company. A pretty good ruse one might think but also a very smart way of making sure that what are universally regarded as the very best sites maintain a price premium.) Of the three vineyards we tasted, Beckstoffer Las Piedras, a stony site to the west of St Helena, produces a fine, mineral style with great power and elegance; Beckstoffer Dr. Crane is very close to Las Piedras, but sits a little lower giving it a richer, plumper style; then we have the great To-Kalon, further south in Oakville, which produces an extraordinary Cabernet that simply couldn’t be anything other than Napa, and the very best the region has to offer – so rich and yet persistent, with fabulous layers of fruit and a finish that just runs and runs.
We will continue on our quest to taste, find and offer the very best the West Coast has to offer. There is simply so much to enjoy here. An exciting journey indeed….