As a wine lover, there are many tropes in tasting and enjoying wine that many an enthusiast will unfortunately live by. One of the most notorious that I encounter frequently as a wine consultant here at Beltramo’s is the belief that Old World wines are earthy and complex, while New World wines, especially referring to California, are fruit forward and seldom exciting. Yes California has a dark past, known for being a bulk jug wine producing capital, bringing infamy to such inaccurate names as Hearty Burgundy and California Champagne. However the legendary 1976 tasting in Paris proved to the world that California is not only capable of making great wine, but wine as complex as some of the best that France has to offer.
In more recent time, California is often known for big and beefy Napa Cabernet and rich and fruity Chardonnay, both very popular styles for good reason. However, California is well known for having the gift of numerous micro climates, innovative wine makers, and a variety of soils that to this day continue to buck tradition and deliver wines of similar earthiness and old world style, while still retaining key characteristics that put California wine on the map in the first place. Come along as we explore off the beaten path, and find a vaguely familiar, but very different sense of place. Like a toast at the beginning of a meal, we begin with sparkling wine.
In Champagne, the traditional method of making a sparkling wine in which the wine undergoes a secondary fermentation inside the bottle, is a practice that had been perfected by monks by hundreds of years of trial and error, and is used today to great affect by Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley, Mendocino. Founded in early 1980 by Louis Roederer, president of the world renowned Champagne Louis Roederer, Anderson Valley was selected for its cooler microclimate and favorable soils. At $17.99 per bottle, Roederer Estate Brut NV is a California sparkling wine that stays true to its traditional origins, the end result being a sparkling wine with excellent effervescence, creamy texture, and bready aromas yielding to a fruity bouquet, and will cost you a lot less than most entry level Champagne. Cheers to that!
One important philosophy in France that has become just as important here in California is that of “Terroir,” or a sense of place. In Chablis, that sense of place is defined by the cool crisp air and the limestone rich kimmeridgian soils that help bring out the acid of the Chardonnay grape, and lend to it its signature mineral character. A similar sense of place can be found in the area of Portola Valley within the northern part of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, were Chardonnay specialist Varner has situated itself. In an area with great diversity in soil, the Amphitheater Block sits on a bed of limestone rich, clay and loam soil similar of Chablis’ kimmeridgian, and enjoys a consistently cool climate. Along with very subtle oak and little to no butteriness, 2010 Varner Amphitheater Chardonnay is steely and mineraly with crisp acidity, without going overboard with California’s signature pineapple flavors. At $43.99, it is an excellent chardonnay that can stand up to some of the best of Chablis, and is excellent with the local sea food catch in the bay area.
Lastly, continuing on with the importance of terroir, the Côte de Nuits of Burgundy is well known for its Pinot Noir of great structure and assertiveness, thanks to the chalky soils that help bring out the acid and minerality that Pinot Noir thrives best in. No one outside of Burgundy knows this better then Josh Jenson, founder of Mt. Harlan AVA’s exclusive vineyard, Calera. Jensen, having personally worked harvests for Domaine Romanee-Conti in Vosne Romanee and Domaine Dujac in Morey St Denis, experienced first-hand the importance of chalky subsoil and cooler climate for Pinot Noir, and searched all over California looking for the perfect spot for his winery, eventually finding himself in the Gabilan Mountains of San Benito County, where he took over the derelict remains of an old limestone quarry and single handedly established Mt Harlan as an AVA. With six vineyards dedicated to Pinot Noir, the characteristics of one vineyard right next to another vary wildly, very much like the vineyards in the Côte de Nuits. The 2009 Ryan vineyard for $37.99 is rich and robust, however yields great complexity of fruit and earth with decanting, and can age for a long time. A far cry from Hearty Burgundy!
The wine world is finicky and constantly changing. Old ideologies that were once mainstream, like the belief that Old World has finesse and earthiness while New World is fruit driven and plush, quickly grow out of date with each passing vintage. Even in the Old World there are more and more producers who create wines that embrace newer world styles that can throw off even the most studious of Sommeliers. To keep up with the constantly changing world of wine, and to get the most out of the beverage you have grown to love, I will always recommend to push one’s boundaries, and to expect the unexpected. Saluté!
James L., Beltramo’s Wine Consultant