Thursday, 8 October 2009

California - a chance to taste some really interesting wines

Although my personal preferences in wine have always favoured the old world over the new, I have always had a soft spot for California. So last night at Nottingham Wine Circle provided an opportunity to taste some really interesting stuff, courtesy of my friend Andy Leslie. The line-up consisted of 14 wines, majoring on three excellent growers - Joseph Swan, Ridge and Tablas Creek - but starting with a delicious Mumm Cuvée Napa Rosé sparkler.............

1. Mumm Cuvée Napa Rosé NV - Napa Valley
A gorgeous pale pink colour, with an expressive nose. A lovely wine, packed full of lemon and cranberry fruit. Rich, creamy, lightly toasty and aged sufficiently for any hard edges to have softened beautifully. Elegant and long and delicious.

2. Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc 2005, Paso Robles
70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc and 5% Picpoul - but this, to me, smelled and tasted more like a decent Alsace Pinot Gris than a Rhone-style blend. But that is not to detract from a nicely made wine - rich, dense and with excellent structure. Elegant, too.

3. Joseph Swan Saralees Vineyard Gewurztraminer 2005, Russian River Valley
Very Gewurztraminer - by which I mean extremely perfumed, in a turkish delight-steeped-in-rosewater sort of way! Dry(ish) on the palate, but that overtly rich, perfumed Gewurztraminer profile (i.e. it tastes even stronger than it smells) is definitely an acquired taste - and not one I can ever see myself acquiring. As somebody else remarked, Alsace on stilts! OK stuff, but not for me.

4. Joseph Swan Angelo's Old Vine White 1994, Russian River Valley
Old vines - and old wine. By which I mean well past it, in an oxidised, cheesy, sherry-like way. Having said that, it wasn't too unpleasant to drink - which at least made it more palatable (to this dry sherry hater) than just about any Fino I've ever encountered!

5. Joseph Swan Wolfspierre Vineyard Chardonnay 1995, Sonoma Mountain
In its youth, this would undoubtedly have been extremely oaky, but the oak has integrated nicely and the wine has evolved into something really interesting and even quite elegant. Classic lemon and mineral Chardonnay aromas and flavours, with an interesting "banoffee" richness - like California meets Meursault. I really like this, though it would benefit from being paired with some roast pork.

6. Ridge Litton Springs 2006, Dry Creek, Sonoma
80% Zinfandel, 16 % Petite Sirah, 4% Carignan. This smells and tastes like a decent, though unspectacular, Cotes du Rhone. Big fruit, carbonic maceration(?) and bold flavours. Nice stuff, but I'm not sure it will evolve into anything spectacular. Perhaps it is meant to drink young, rather than to be aged. Either way, it is an enjoyable but fairly simple wine which doesn't merit a price tag of around £22.

7. Joseph Swan Matthew's Station Vineyard Tannat 2005, Russian River Valley
Deep and dark, but certainly not broody or impenatrable - and certainly unlike any Madiran I have ever tasted. Actually, it is pretty delicious, in a fruit-forward, approachable, drinkable sort of way. A real curio - and for around 12 quid, a bit of a bargain.

8. Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel 2002, Paso Robles
57% Mourvedre, 27% Syrah, 10% Grenache and 6% Counoise. The nose is initially closed, but it opens out to reveal southern Rhone-style aromas, with a touch of the Burgundy about it - aromatically, perhaps even white Burgundy, although there is a touch of volatility. The palate is less satisfying, and lacking a little in the fruit department, with some dusty tannins still getting in the way. Not a bad wine, but I don't think it will improve.

9. Joesph Swan Cotes du Rosa 1995, Russian River Valley
100% Carignan. Wow, this is so lovely, with a complex nose of smoke, red and black fruits, pepper and spice and all sorts of things. High-toned, but in a good sort of way - just so fragrant and so elegant. Quite rich on the palate, but perfectly balanced and packed full of sweet, spicy fruit, with soft tannins and cracking acidity. Utterly lovely - and further proof (as if I needed it) that Carignan can and does make great wine!

10. Joseph Swan Stellwagen Vineyard Zinfandel 1995, Russian River Valley
Rich, raisiny, pruney and slightly volatile - but another lovely wine. Sexy was the word which sprang to mind (don't know why)! Wonderfully fruity and packed with mouth-watering acidity. Quirky, spicy, slightly volatile and perhaps even "faulty", in a Chateau Musar sort of way. But give me faulty, characterful wines over boring, formulaic ones, any day of the week. Not as good as the Cotes du Rosa, but still a cracking wine.

11. Joseph Swan Zeigler Vineyard Zinfandel 1995, Russian River Valley
This is even more Musar-like, though with more in the way of secondary aromas and flavours (truffles, undergrowth, cheese) but still plenty of that slightly volatile raspberry and perhaps even citrus fruit. Perhaps I even preferred this to wine number 10, but only just.

12. Joseph Swan Frati Vineyard Zinfandel 1995, Russian River Valley
This is so much bigger and denser than 10 and 11, and perhaps even a bit more "correct" and "clean" - but, for me, less enjoyable because of it. To be fair, the others are perfectly mature, whereas this one seems to have more life left in it, so perhaps it just needs more time to develop all of those delicious faults!

13. Ridge Spring Mountain Petite Sirah 1993, York Creek, Napa Valley
Another wine with a nose like a young Cotes du Rhone, despite it being 16 years old. Dense, sweet fruit and tannins make for a rather backward wine - or is it just a bit boring? Not bad, I can't really see it going anywhere.

14. Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel 1991, Dry Creek, Sonoma
Smells very slightly dirty, but not in a way that spoils it. Indeed, it has quite a complex nose of bramble, blackcurrant, red capsicum, cedar and sous-bois. The palate is big and rich, but soft - similar in profile to a Barossa Cabernet, but more complex and multi-faceted. There is a lot going on in this wine, and it reveals yet more complexity after some time in the glass. Another analogy might be Claret with bells on. Classy and full-bodied, but very elegant with it. A real cracker to finish the evening.

This was such an enjoyable tasting, and a rare treat. Actually, some of these wines are still commercially available, some for as little as 12 quid, which makes them better value than one would imagine can be had for premium Californian wine. Note to self - I must drink more Californian wines!


Anonymous said...

That is a pretty impressive list of Calfornian wines! Were some of these hand-carried from the States?
Am visiting London again next June. Maybe something you need Leon, let me know?

Bob from Alberta.
UK wine forum regular!

Leon Stolarski said...

Impressive they were, Bob. Perhaps Swan is not necessarily considered a top grower by the wine glitterati (though Ridge, of course, is) but I love his wines. They range from ordinary (very occasionally), through quirky (almost always), to absolutely brilliant. Not sure what you could bring, Bob, but perhaps (if your visit should coincide, timing-wise) you could join us in one of our little Nottingham get-togethers?

Best regards

Andy Leslie said...


Many thanks for both making notes and blogging them, and for the kind words about the tasting. I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

Bob, none of these were carried back by me - all either bought retail or at auction. Swan and Ridge have both been imported for many years, though of course Ridge is much more widely available.

Anyone got any thoughts on recent Ridge vintages, now Paul Draper's involvement is diminishing? Some in the group thought the 06 Lytton wasn't up to scratch...