Exciting things are happening in California wine. But I'm not talking about Napa and cabernet, or Somona and pinot. Not even central coast and syrah and other Rhone varieties, as well suited as these varieties are in their respective regions.
What's truly exciting in my native state are wines from varieties long disrespected in California like trousseau gris (grey riesling) and verdelho, among many others, as well as modern favorites from appellations well known and obscure alike but made in less conventional ways. Grapes harvested at moderate sugars and fermented in ways both new and very old. Be it no added yeasts or little or no sulfur, as was the way for centuries, or fermenting in concrete tanks shaped like eggs, things in California are very different from what I left behind in 2000 when I moved north to Oregon.
SF Chronicle wine writer Jon Bonne has christened this back to the future movement "the new California wine," which is the title of his eminently readable and fairly comprehensive book published in late 2013. Bonne contrasts the latest trends in CA wine with the more conventional oaky fruity wines that Bonne has dubbed "big flavor" wines.
Indeed, so much modern California white and red wine seems built to overpower the senses. Big ripeness, big alcohols, big textures, pungent aromas if not always fragrance and full bodied flavors that lead to wine notes full of words like "rich" and "plush" and "jammy."
California makers undoubtedly react abrasively at descriptions like that, and it's true that generalizations are full of exceptions. But so many of them will also tell you all about waiting to pick grapes until the flavors "explode" in your mouth, with well worn narratives about the difference between sugar ripeness and true physiological ripeness to explain where that heft comes from and then how wines of high alcohol are not inherently out of balance if married with proper fruit density. That's "big flavor" and you'll even hear arguments that California is made for this approach. Why try to make "light" wines that apologists will try to pass off as "elegant" when the terroir largely tells us to make wines the size of mid-70s American gas guzzlers?
It can be entertaining hearing Californians (and true, some Oregonians) try to thread the big flavor / elegance needle.
I've stayed in touch with California wines over the years, and let's be clear that whether it's the late picked and typically high alcohol (but balanced!) wines of the Scholium Project to more recent efforts from lower ripeness producers like Forlorn Hope, the new California wines hardly lack for flavor. What they do have, in the latter case anyway, are brighter acidities.
Strangely, acidity has gotten the reputation of shutting down flavor in wine when the opposite is true. Acidity is the tent pole or laundry line on which the fabric of a wine's flavor can be displayed. Acidity provides length of flavor too, so "big flavor" wines without acidity that allegedly "clips" the finish of a wine may really be "big impact" wines that lack length and real closure, or finish. What they do have is another explosion of flavor when you take the next sip, and the market still loves these wines.
But things are changing. The other day I have the chance to taste through a mix of "new California" wines distributed in Portland by PDX Wines, producers like Forlorn Hope, Dirty and Rowdy and Broc. Interestingly, several of the producers on display weren't new or newish at all, Calera, Sky and Kalin Cellars among them. These older producers haven't changed much of what they've done for years. Trends are simply shifting and what's old is new again. It's nice to see.
In my own production, I'm not driven by trends, rather by my tastes and my personal exploration in wine making. Then I think I'm not nearly trendy enough. How do you stay front of mind in the market? But you can't work like that and, even if the road is tough, it's reassuring to see old school producers that I aim to be in the far future both surviving and perhaps thriving as they keep on doing their thing. Think Neil Young in the early '90s when grunge rockers made him their godfather.
With all that, some thoughts on what I tried. Overall, I didn't love every wine and I won't deny that some of those I loved I still might struggle to find the right setting and people for. That's my issue though, not anything about the wine. What I find most exciting about the new California wine is how much the wines will force us to grow and change as tasters, not so that we accept "flaws" as good, rather that we don't dismiss what's unusual simply because we're put out of our comfort zone. Which most critics of new California wine tend to do. But that's another story.
Hardy Wallace from Dirty and Rowdy was pouring two wines that I enjoyed. The 2013 Semillon was grassy and fresh, more like old school sauvignon blanc to my taste, perhaps due to partial skin fermentation? The 2013 Mourvedre Especial, fermented on the skins for a few days and pressed off to finish in cask had an amber, light red wine color but works more like rose. Autumn leaves, strawberries, fascinating. I love that D&R are doing several different mourvedre bottlings and I'd like to try them all.
I have a couple wines from Forlorn Hope in my drinking queue at home so it was nice to meet winemaker Matthew Rorick. He's doing some crazy, challenging things. The 2012 Verdelho was a bit wild, with a cloudy appearance, a lifted fragrance and waxy, broad flavors with fresh acidity. The 2013 Trou Grit (trousseau gris) was a bit more conventional, showing a little botrytis richness and delicious ripe apple flavors. The 2012 Mil Amores red blend was definitely not overripe, with an herbal, floral pungent aroma and tight flavors, I'll think about holding the bottle I have a while. And the 2009 Deus Mathieux Petite Sirah was a lovely example of this variety, briary, spicy black fruits, definitely the most conventional tasting wine of the bunch. Fascinating things here, I must try more.
Don Heistuman from Bebame was there pouring his 2013 Rose from 3/4 cabernet franc, the rest gamay noir. So pale and fresh, this is wonderful California rose. And then a lovely rouge of mostly cabernet franc, with a simple aroma but pleasing grip on the palate, the Loire valley inspiration ringing true in the Sierra foothills terroir. No surprise on the wines here, it's another example of old being new again as Don's partner in this delicious and affordable wines is Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John, the Neil Young of CA winemakers.
Calera's two chardonnays were standouts, the 2012 Central Coast bottling surprisingly finessed and true and the 2011 Mt. Harlan a notch or three higher, with a mealy terroir quality that you simply can't invent in the cellar. Wow. I hadn't tried Sky Vineyards in years but the 2009 Zinfandel Mt. Veeder is 15.1% alcohol but old school translucent, peppery zin that screams of what's good in larger scaled California wine. Barolo and Chateauneuf can routinely hit such alcoholic heights and we don't necessarily turn our noses up. Why should we here? Lovely, classic stuff. I didn't love the 2012 Pinot Noir Central Coast - it was fine - but the 2010 Pinot Noir de Villiars was all class.
And then there's Kalin, truly the old becoming new again. Kalin Cellars has never followed a conventional path and, while I'm not sure, I wouldn't be surprised if these wines are in fact new releases. There's the 2000 Semillon, long a reference point wine in CA. This one is toasty with fat, waxy lemony semillon flavors, a little wild from volatile paint notes mixed in but so fresh and lemony on the finish you can't help but stop and think for a while, about the wine, about what food it should pair with. Then you sniff it again. That's what great wine does. However, I didn't love the 1999 Pinot Noir Cuvee DD, very mature looking and minty smelling. Would have like to try this one several years ago.
Of the other newer generation producers, the 2012 Wind Gap Syrah Nellesen Vineyard was astonishing. Floral, peppery, truly syrah with density but not heft, really nice wine. Then labels new to me, a Cotes du Rhone like blend from Folk Machine that was delicious table wine and a basic Chardonnay from Brea that would be perfect in keg and carafe at restaurants anywhere. Assuming you don't mind crisp, dry chardonnay without much if any oak influence.