Of 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 hands-on 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 notes of black olives and liquorice. Lytton Springs is more widely distributed around our region with stocks at Field & Fawcett, The Wright Wine Co and Latitude in Leeds. I favour the 2011 vintage (Latitude, £34.99)
Latitude has the 2011 vintage and while you are there is it worthwhile picking up a bottle of Au Bon Climat Chardonnay from Jim Clendenon which impressed me with the way it has shaken off the excess oak of old and now the fruit shines out with expressive, melon and citrus flavours (£21.50 for the 2011 Wild Boy Chardonnay). Majestic Wine has the 2012 Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Chardonnay 2012 (£25, or £20 on multi-buy), which is definitely a foodie wine, ripe with tropical and orange zest flavours, a layer of nuttiness and a tight, precise finish. Trade up to “Bien Nacido” Chardonnay 2010, (£25) from Santa Maria valley for layers of lemon curd on toast, apples and a dusting of baking spices.
California has definitely moved on in style.