Wines from California can be expensive by the time they reach the UK, but there are still plenty of bargains to be found, as Peter Ranscombe discovers
THERE’S no arguing with the quality of the wine being produced in California – some of the pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay I tried during a recent visit was simply world-class.
Sadly, once the wines make their way to the UK, they often have price-tags to match.
Even before the pound’s Brexit-inspired plunge made American imports up to 25% more expensive, Californian wines already tended to sit on or near the top shelves in most wine merchants’ shops.
There are good reasons for those high prices – grapes are expensive in places like the Napa Valley, where a lot of the work in the vineyard is done by hand, while the up-to-date equipment in the winery is seldom cheap.
Mike Turner, the drinks blogger over at Please Bring Me My Wine, gives some very eloquent explanations for the prices in his article for The Buyer website, especially when it comes to the ways in which some of the wineries are financed.
Don’t despair though – not every bottle of quality Californian wine costs beyond £50.
A series of tastings over the past few weeks has highlighted the range of more modestly-priced wines also available in the UK; although most of these bottles will still fall into the category of a weekend treat, they’re all well worth a look.
2015 Seaglass Pinot Noir, £13 (Marks & Spencer)
It was the fruit that made me fall for this wine – plenty of red cherry and redcurrant on the nose following through onto the palate and being joined by vanilla and plenty of acidity to provide balance. As wine educator and television presenter Amelia Singer has been noting recently, there are plenty of exciting wines to be found here in the Santa Barbara region.
Poppy Pinot Noir Monterey County, £18 (St Andrews Wine Company)
Think California Pinot Noir, think ripe fruit and sweet vanilla. This example from Monterey has both and they’re really well-balanced, along with a healthy kick of acidity to stop either the oaky vanilla or the rich and ripe strawberry and raspberry jam flavours from becoming confected. Great value.
2014 Folie a Deux Pinot Noir, £19.99 (Waitrose)
Oodles of smoke and sweet spun sugar notes on the nose, but it’s on the palate that this wine comes alive, with soft and approachable tannins and the oomph of fruity red plum and red cherry flavours to provide balance. Keep an eye out for it from 28 August.
2015 Taste the Difference Zinfandel, £10 (Sainsbury’s)
I loved the aged Zinfandels I tried from Lodi – it’s a big style of wine, with lots of alcohol, but usually matched by ample fruit and structured tannins. You need acidity to help with that balance, and this example from the Paso Robles region has plenty of it, with juicy black and red cherries and sweeter vanilla and milk chocolate.
Dark Horse Merlot, £7.98 (Asda)
There’s no arguing with the softness of this Californian Merlot, which combines rich black plum and black cherry flavours with chocolate and vanilla. The tannins are soft, making this very easy going, and the minty aroma on the nose avoids turning vegetal on the palate.
Whites and Sparkling
2011 Domaine Carneros Brut, (£19.50-£23 Woodwinters, Vino Wines, Calistoga)
At around £20 a bottle, this is still going to be a special treat for most of us, but these bubbles were showing particularly well at Diana Thompson’s Wine Events Scotland Napa tasting in Edinburgh recently – look out for her New Zealand tasting on 5 June. The wine is bursting with fresh lemon and deeper lemon rind flavours, wrapped up with biscuit and wholemeal bread, and offers great value when sitting alongside many Champagnes at the same price. Vino Wines in Edinburgh also pours it by the glass in its bar at the Arches behind Waverley station.
2015 Frei Brothers Reserve Chardonnay, £17.99 (Waitrose)
Made from grapes grown in the beautiful Russian River Valley, the oaky vanilla aromas on this wine are quite subtle, leaving room for the pear and green apple scents to shine, along with a touch of lemon rind. There’s a delicious buttery feeling in the mouth, which is balanced by a refreshing burst of acidity and more of those orchard fruit flavours. On sale from 26 June.
2014 Bonterra The Roost Blue Heron Vineyard Chardonnay, £18.99 (Waitrose)
This is superbly balanced, with really well-integrated sweet vanilla notes from the oak and fruity lemon flavours, with a twist of lime in there too. From further north in Mendocino County, this wine is available in fewer stores but is listed on the Waitrose Cellar website.