California Part 3: Diversity in the winery and in the glass


THINK you know Californian wines? Think again.

They’re mostly white zinfandel or blush aren’t they, with some over-oaked and over-ripe chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons thrown in at the top end, right? Wrong.

If California was a nation then it would be the world’s fourth-largest wine producer, behind Italy, France and Spain.

That scale means that Californian winemakers are producing a far broader range of styles than a quick glance at the supermarket shelves might initially suggest.

Zin is my sin

They take their zinfandel very seriously at Ravenswood, the winery on the outskirts of Sonoma run by Joel Peterson, a cowboy who wears a tall Stetson as a hat and rides a Tesla electric car as a steed.

Peterson is known as the “godfather of zin” and points out that the grape variety has a long and illustrious history in the state.

“If you want to drink real Californian wine, don’t drink cabernet sauvignon, don’t drink chardonnay, don’t drink pinot noir – drink zinfandel,” he explains.

Don’t mention “blush” within earshot.

His 2014 Ravenswood Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel ($60) is full of bright red cherry fruit flavours and has surprisingly bright acidity for what can sometimes be a pretty dense red wine.

The Old Hill vineyard in Sonoma Valley dates back to the 1880s and is the oldest in Ravenswood’s portfolio.

Zinfandel can also age well, as shown by the 2007 Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel (around $45), which has aromas of smoke and roast meat on the nose, leading into rounder black cherry and vanilla flavours on the palate and velvety smooth tannins.

Grown-up pinot grigio

Chardonnay may be the queen of California’s white wines, but that shouldn’t mean that other grape varieties don’t get a look-in.

Pinot gris – the French grape that transferred to Italy as pinot grigio – thrives alongside its pinot noir cousin in California.

The Pinot grigio that’s continuing its all-conquering assault on Britain’s bar chains may often be bland and boring, but Californian producers are producing much more interesting versions, including the 2015 La Crema Monterey Pinot Gris ($20), with its concentrated pear and green apple flavours, which balance its acidity.

The 2014 MacMurray Estate Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Gris (£11.93, GP Brands) has even fresher acidity but has plenty of the orchard fruit flavours to provide balance and is extremely quaffable on a warm summer’s day.

Bubbling under

Buried beneath the mountainside above Calistoga in Napa lie the caves of the Schramsberg winery, the first in California to make sparkling wine from the noble chardonnay grape.

Hugh Davies, the son of founders Jack and Jamie, makes vintage wine to capture some of the characteristics of each season, rather than blending wines from different years to smooth out variations in a non-vintage bottling.

His 2013 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs (£28, is packed full of green apple, pear and lemon flavours, with the concentration of the fruit standing up to the fresh acidity.

The 2008 J Schram ($240 for a magnum) is even more impressive, with its blend of 82% chardonnay and 18% pinot noir.

Red apple, quince and lemon on the nose follow through into biscuit and buttery flavours on the palate following its seven years spent on its less, the dead yeast cells that add body and bakery flavours to sparkling wines.

*I’ve included UK prices where possible.