Cal­i­for­nia re­dream­ing

MI­DAS TOUCH: Christine Austin de­vel­ops a taste for up­scale wines of the Golden State, with the oak firmly in the right place.

Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine - - Front Page -

F all the wine re­gions in the world, I re­alise that I don’t drink much from Cal­i­for­nia. There are two rea­sons for this. At the bot­tom end of the price scale I find that the regular su­per­mar­ket la­bels are too sweet, too bor­ing and lack the “bite” of fresh­ness that I need from a wine. At the top end of the price scale there is of­ten too much oak, too much power and frankly too high a price.

But af­ter the re­cent Cal­i­for­nia tast­ing I will have to change my ways. In many of the wines I found el­e­gance, good con­cen­tra­tion with­out over­whelm­ing power and the oak had been pulled back into its right­ful place, un­der the fruit, rather than boxing it in.

There was a ter­rific se­lec­tion of wines from Paul Draper at Ridge Vine­yards which brought back mem­o­ries of my last visit to his lofty vine­yards in the Santa Cruz moun­tains, south of San Fran­cisco Bay. Leav­ing the morn­ing fog be­hind, I drove south out of the Bay area and headed up the moun­tains. There was no sign of any vines as the road twisted and turned, and with each switch­back the view got bet­ter and bet­ter. Now well above the fog line, the sun was clear and bright, but the tem­per­a­ture was cool and there was a dis­tinct breeze at the top of the hill. Just 15 miles from the Pa­cific, th­ese moun­tains have a unique cli­mate. The Monte Bello vine­yards are planted at around 800 me­tres altitude, and some of the slopes here are as steep as any you find in Her­mitage and Côte Rôtie. Th­ese are old vines, some 60 years old, and they are dry farmed, their roots go­ing deep in the frac­tured lime­stone base rock.

The com­bi­na­tion of altitude, cool­ing breeze and the fact that Paul Draper has been mak­ing wine up here since 1969 means that grapes achieve ripeness but not the block­buster al­co­hol lev­els that can some­times de­velop in other, more fa­mous parts of Cal­i­for­nia. “There is a push-back ef­fect, so we rou­tinely get 1.5 per cent less al­co­hol than down the hill,” said Draper who was clearly gear­ing up for har­vest, but who spent sev­eral hours ex­plain­ing his wine­mak­ing phi­los­o­phy to me. Or­ganic viti­cul­ture, nat­u­ral yeasts, sorting ta­bles and an ob­ses­sive at­ten­tion to de­tail when it comes to de­cid­ing when to pick the grapes mean that this is a hand­son win­ery, but in a very re­laxed way. The top wine, Monte Bello, is es­sen­tially a left-bank Bordeaux blend with Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon dom­i­nat­ing, and a small pro­por­tion of Mer­lot and Pe­tit Ver­dot in a sup­port­ing role. Un­usu­ally Ridge uses Amer­i­can oak for age­ing, although there is a small amount of French oak now creep­ing into the win­ery. The re­sult is sub­tle spice rather than hefty oak.

A bar­rel sam­ple of the 2014 is still a slum­ber­ing gi­ant of a wine, rich with con­cen­tra­tion, lay­ered with pep­per and spice and grippy with tan­nin, yet there is still a fresh­ness to the pro­file. Pre­vi­ous vin­tages have vary­ing lev­els of com­plex, deep fruit with lay­ers of cas­sis, wild berries, flo­ral notes and spice, all with a dis­tinct min­er­ally edge and tan­nins that are ripe, but struc­tur­ing.

Monte Bello is a spe­cial-oc­ca­sion wine, de­mand­ing the best food and ap­pre­cia­tive guests. Many mer­chants al­lo­cate their few bot­tles to favoured cus­tomers, so talk nicely to the man be­hind the counter at your lo­cal mer­chant to find out avail­abil­ity. Field & Fawcett (01904 489073) has the 2008 vin­tage, while the Wright Wine Com­pany in Skip­ton (01756 700886) has 2006 (£100), which I tasted at the vine­yard and the 2009 (£105) which scored 98 Parker points. If they still have a bot­tle of 1996 (£160) and you are in need of a real treat then this is the one to buy. Now de­vel­op­ing age and com­plex­ity it rolls across the palate with creamy, dense, wood­land fruit and a dis­tinct nod to­wards Bordeaux.

At around £100 or more, Monte Bello may not fit within ev­ery­one’s bud­get, but there are other Ridge wines made with the same ded­i­ca­tion that are well worth a try.

The es­tate Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon, (£38.75, 2011 vin­tage, Field & Fawcett) is the baby brother of Monte Bello, made from the same vine­yards but se­lected, more for­ward cu­vées. I tasted the 2012 and was im­pressed by its rich con­cen­trated black­cur­rant flavours, a touch of mint and un­der­ly­ing fresh­ness.

Ridge Lyt­ton Springs comes from Sonoma, north of the Bay, where morn­ing fog keeps the sun off the vines un­til late morn­ing while the af­ter­noon heat is blown away by on­shore breezes. Hun­dred-year-old Zinfandel vines are in­ter­planted with Pe­tite Sirah, Carig­nane and Mataro (Mourvè­dre) and the wine is made to the stan­dards ex­pected of a prod­uct un­der the Ridge la­bel. For­get flabby, over­pow­ered Zins that you may have tried be­fore, this is deep and con­cen­trated with in­te­grated, black cherry and rasp­berry fruit, savoury

CHRISTINE AUSTIN Many mer­chants al­lo­cate their few Monte Bello bot­tles to favoured cus­tomers.

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