When I think of California, I tend to think of the usual international varieties, the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and so on, as well as Zinfandel. Thus I completely forget that California also has some very old plantings of grape varieties such as Carignan and Cinsault, as well as a host of other varieties, as I discovered in a recent webinar hosted by the California Wine Institute amongst a series of events designed to replace the customary annual trade tasting.
I had asked for some samples in advance – some featured in the webinars, some not and this is what I tasted.
2014 Baxter Winery, Baxter Caballo Blanco Carignan
Baxter Winery is based in Mendocino in the Anderson Valley and Pinot Noir features largely in their repertoire, but they also have some old vine Carignan. Apparently, there is a lot of old Carignan in Mendocino, including some of the very oldest vines, 140 years old and the website refers to 90-year-old vines, though we were told that this particularly vineyard was planted in 1959. I wondered if there is anywhere in Roussillon that could rival 140 years. The vineyards are farmed organically and they only use natural yeast, and give the wine a five-day soak before fermentation. Three years in neutral oak follows. I have to say, I wondered if that was a tad too long, as the wine seemed very dry, and a touch green. The sample had been decanted into a small bottle, so maybe it had lost something in transition…….
2018 Bonny Doon, Le Cigare Volant
The name of this wine refers to the comic story of the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape forbidding Unidentified Flying Objects, or cigare volant to land anywhere in the vineyards of the village. Randall Graham created the wine in 1984, blending Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, from vineyards in Santa Cruz, and this 2018 was delicious with some ripe spicy fruit on the nose. The palate was fresh and fragrant, with fruit and an elegant finish. The blend has subsequently changed to include Cinsault, but no more Mourvèdre, and this wine certainly has the fragrance of elegant Cinsault, rather than sturdy tannins from Mourvèdre.
2018 BROC Old Vine Carignan, Mendocino
BROC Cellars is an urban winery, set up by Chris Brockway who comes from Nebraska, but studied at UC Davies, where he discovered the natural wine scene. And in 2006 he set up his own winery in Berkeley, purchasing fruit from all over California, aiming to make wines that express both the grape variety and the site. He has a wide range of different grapes and vineyards, but avoids the well-known varieties. Fermentation vessels include eggs, amphora, stainless steel and concrete vats. Minimal sulphur is used, with minimum intervention in the wine-making.
The wine comes from a vineyard planted in the Alexandra Valley in Mendocino in 1890. It is a field blend with a tiny amount of Alicante Bouschet, Zinfandel and Palomino. Whole bunches are put in a concrete vat with a blanket of CO2 for a carbonic maceration. After pressing the wine spends eight months in vat before bottling.
This was a lovely interpretation of Carignan, with some dry spice on the nose and on the palate some fresh red fruit, with a peppery note. Medium weight, with elegant structure, with balancing acidity and tannin. I’d love to show this to some of my Languedoc wine-making friends! As Keith Kirkpatrick, the wine buyer from Roberson’s who was presenting the wine observed, ‘it is not an intellectual wine, but quite simply a jolly nice wine’. I can’t wait to drink it, rather than merely taste it.
2017 Gallica Grenache, Rossi Ranch
A pure Grenache Noir from Sonoma County. Medium colour. Nicely perfumed liqueur cherry fruit, with some rounded fleshy fruit. Quite ripe with a touch of alcohol on the finish, as you might expect with Grenache, making for quite a warming finish. Ten months in neutral barrels., with no fining or filtering.
2017 Le P’tit Paysan, le p’tit pape
A blend of grape varieties, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, and others, without any further specification, from the Central Coast region. Presumably the name is a reference to the southern Rhone blend, and an association with Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The colour was quite light, with peppery fruit on the nose. And the palate was rounded, and almost sweet. It was certainly ripe and fleshy, and I was aware of the alcohol on the finish, but as we did not have access to the wine labels, there was no way of checking that. The finish was certainly quite rich, but none the worse for that in context.
2018 Newfound Wines, Carignane, Colombini Vineyard
Newfound Wines were set up in 2016 in the Sierra Foothills. From 75-year-old vines from a vineyard in Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley.
Deep colour. Quite a firm dry nose, with some red fruit. Lots of nuances. On the palate, again lots of nuances. Red and black fruit, a good balance of tannin and some acidity, with a sturdy backbone. Medium weight. Good depth and youthful promise with a refreshing finish.
2019 Orin Swift Abstract
The Orin Swift label was created by Dave Phinney and subsequently sold to Gallo who provide all the fruit for the various blends. They have some 8000 hectares of vines all over California, so plenty of choice. I have also come across Dave’s wine in Roussillon, with D66.
In a seminar about these wines, conducted by fellow MW Edouard Baijot, who works for Gallo, we were told that the blend for Abstract is always based on Grenache, from several different parts of California. This vintage was a blend of Grenache Noir, Petite Sirah and Syrah. However the other components can vary; in 2018 there was Cabernet Sauvignon and in 2017 Zinfandel. The wine was aged for eight months in both French and American oak, 32% new, with the American oak adding sweetness.
Very deep colour. Dense youthful peppery on the nose and on the palate a dense palate with oak and vanilla and an element of sweetness on the finish. Full rich and quite alcoholic on the finish. Long oaky finish
2017 Orin Swift Machete
A blend of predominantly Petite Sirah, with Syrah and Grenache Noir. Deep colour. The nose is quite solid and inky, with some sweetness. And on the palate, it is dense and fleshy with tannins as well as acidity. There are peppery notes, and some blackcurrant, with a strong oak influence and some alcohol on the finish. The wine has spent 12 months in French oak, 40% new.
According to Edouard, Dave places a lot of emphasis on fruit, and that is certainly what you taste in these two wines.
2018 Tablas Creek Vineyards, Patelin de Tablas
This winery was set up in 1987, in Paso Robles, an area particularly known its Rhône varieties, as a joint venture between the Perrin brothers Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Haas family of Vineyard Brands. A blend of Syrah, Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre and Counoise, from Paso Robles. Their website suggests spice from the Syrah, with the brightness and fresh acidity of Grenache, the structure and meatiness of Mourvèdre and a small addition of Counoise for complexity
Medium young colour. Lightly peppery nose and on the palate some fresh fruit and peppery. Medium weight. Youthful with a steak of tannin. Elegant and stylish, and a grand finale to a very interesting selection from the Golden State.
I was sent some figures about areas planted, in acres, so here are the figures for the five key red varieties of the Languedoc, as follows: so apart from Syrah, these varieties are still very much a minority interest.
Cinsault 70 82
Grenache Noir 3,496 4,294
Carignan 1,957 2,363
Syrah 14,591 15,904
Mourvèdre 947 1,111
Picpoul blanc 28 53
Grenache Blanc 238 318