John Wil­son on the stars and stripes

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS - JOHN WIL­SON

Tues­day is July 4th – Amer­i­can In­de­pen­dence Day – so to­day we cel­e­brate one part of the United States of Amer­ica. I have re­cently re­turned from a mem­o­rable visit to Cal­i­for­nia, my first in more than a decade. I had for­got­ten how stun­ning the wine coun­try is, from the wild coastal re­gions to the lush green ( this year) of Rus­sian River, and the Sonoma and Napa Val­leys.

I was also smit­ten by the ex­cel­lent food from this mul­ti­cul­tural part of the world. It has not only a be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of lo­cal fruit, veg­eta­bles and sal­ads but also just about ev­ery na­tion­al­ity us­ing them to pro­duce won­der­ful food.

The wine is pretty good, too. We don’t al­ways see the best of Cal­i­for­nia in Ire­land. Our su­per­mar­ket shelves have plenty of the lesser white Zins and in­ex­pen­sive sweet­ish red wines. But Cal­i­for­nia pro­duces a huge num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing wines, and with a lit­tle ef­fort you can find some of them over here. Some are made in tiny quan­ti­ties and never leave Cal­i­for­nia. It is worth re­mem­ber­ing that if we ever had Calexit, Cal­i­for­nia would be the world’s sixth- largest econ­omy, and fourth- largest wine pro­ducer. But sev­eral im­porters are work­ing hard to im­prove their range, so keep an eye out i n the com­ing months. On my visit, apart from the well- known in­ter­na­tional va­ri­eties, and Cal­i­for­nia’s own Zin­fan­del, I tasted Counoise and Ga­may, Ri­bolla Gialla and Fri­u­lano, and much more be­sides. All this along­side some ex­quis­ite Pinot Noir and Chardon­nay.

The best Cal­i­for­nian wines are not cheap, and as I wan­dered around the duty free at San Fran­cisco air­port on my way home I spied plenty of Napa Caber­nets cost­ing ¤ 150- 200. But on the same shelves the equiv­a­lent from Bordeaux came in at ¤ 300 or more. The Chardon­nays, Pinots and other wines at ¤ 50 may not be ev­ery­day wines, but they are no more ex­pen­sive than their equiv­a­lents in Bur­gundy and other parts of the world.

Cal­i­for­nian Chardon­nay can be won­der­ful. For­get about the big, sweet, oaky wines you may have tried in the past, and some of the more re­cent anaemic, unoaked ver­sions too; I took part in a tast­ing of six Chardon­nays, all of which would stand com­par­i­son with high- qual­ity Bur­gundy, com­bin­ing a ju­di­cious use of new oak, real ter­roir and com­plex­ity.

Look out too for the ex­cel­lent Chateau Mon­te­lena Chardon­nay ( from Sear­sons and other in­de­pen­dents). Cal­i­for­nian Pinot Noir has also im­proved hugely. Cooler sites in coastal re­gions now pro­duce ex­cit­ing wines with real el­e­gance and style, while wines from warmer vine­yards can have rich, lush dark fruits. You wouldn’t mis­take ei­ther for a Bur­gundy, but they have a lovely Cal­i­for­nian char­ac­ter all of their own.

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