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You Need Happy California Wine Right Now
Premium California winemakers are embracing the concept of holistic sustainability.
It’s a fool’s game, trying to define a style for California wines these days. Progressive wineries in the Golden State are not keen to rest on their laurels — or on the strictures of the past — as was revealed in a recent tasting. There’s a consistency of quality over a diverse range of flavour profiles. Sure, there’s the textbook Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon from Schrader and an elegant Chardonnay from Cambria. But even these embody elements that, while built upon the fruit-forward quality we’ve come to expect from the state’s top-notch wines, also hint at the future. The wines are exciting, alive, vital and more elegant than ever. If a wine can be said to exude optimism, these do just that.

Happy people make great wine.

Can you taste this in the wine? I would argue, yes. As Cambria winemaker Jill Russel points out: “Happy people make great wine.’”

Russel joined the 30-year-old Cambria winery four harvests ago, and the current bottling is her second vintage at the helm. She’s been given the freedom to take the wines forward and apply fresh ideas, which surprised her. “[The owners] are letting the next generation shine. [We’re] not chasing the scores and doing big bold wines. What we’re doing right is showing off the grape in the best way.”

“People first” may be becoming something of a mantra among the better California winemakers. Joel Gott works with more than 100 growers and some have been with him since the winery started in 1996. “The growers who want to engage are the best. They are our favourites and they learn about the personality of the wine and they become our best friends.” Of his blended wines, Gott says,

“Our goal is to make the wine by vintage, so it’s not the same wine every year.” That’s the basic premise, and from there it’s about stewardship. “Make it in the vineyard, bring in the grapes, blend it. Don’t screw it up.”

This fall, a new winery opens to the public in Suisun Valley, a region that’s building its reputation on Petite Sirah. Owned by Chuck Wagner, who co-founded Caymus in 1972 with his parents, the new Caymus-Suisun Winery coaxes an exciting soft and fruity profile from a grape oft derided for its hard tannins and savouriness. This is done by way of dry farming, which reduces yield but increases fruitiness; long hang times to soften the tannins; and cut-caning, in which the vines are severed and the grapes left to concentrate under the sun. “We think cut-caning puts a special character in the wine, not unlike Zinfandel,” says Wagner. “We’re not afraid to get out there and work with nature, to explore creative inputs that can impart real distinction to a wine without interfering.” So distinct is the wine that he calls it by its synonym, Durif. And he calls it “Grand Durif ” — because he can and because it’s anything but “petite.”

If any commonality can be found in the wines presented here, it’s their appropriateness for a variety of culinary applications. This might sound like news, but to my taste, California wines have been moving in this direction — lower alcohol, savoury tones, refined tannins, an emphasis on texture, fruity but structured — for a decade or more. The next 10 years should be so exciting.

—DICK SNYDER

THE WINES

cambria

CAMBRIA KATHERINE’S VINEYARD CHARDONNAY 2018 SANTA MARIA VALLEY SANTA BARBARA COUNTY

Sun-kissed ripeness shows in juicy tropical fruit, along with apple and a touch of sweet spice. Elegant, finessed and complex, with mineral salinity and savoury notes that temper the medium body into something leaner. Superb winemaking coaxes an old-world personality built upon pristine fruit. Textured, refreshing.

SCORE: 92. $35

Zinfandel

SEGHESIO ZINFANDEL 2018 SONOMA COUNTY

Like a mixed-berry crumble with cream on top. A delicious, soft and seductive rendering of California Zinfandel that is exactly as it should be. Layered with plum, cherries, sweet spice and vanilla, with a slight whiff of mint. The acidity does wonders to lift this up and tweak the palate for another sip.

SCORE: 90. $30

7 DEADLY ZINS OLD VINE ZINFANDEL 2018 LODI

Delightful California Zinfandel that delivers typicity and style at a great price. The alcohol is high, but the acidity helps the ripe fruit — a compote of blue and red berries, ginger and orange — mingle with coffee and chocolate tones in an alluring way. Concentrated, lively and delicious.

SCORE: 90. $25

Joel Gott

JOEL GOTT 815 CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2018 CALIFORNIA

Plum, chocolate and sweet spice in a velvety soft-tannin package — that’s the Gott Cab signature style. And it’s an easy one to like, with enough acidity to buoy the concentrated, juicy fruit. A quintessential “big Cab” that delivers complexity and poise.

SCORE: 90. $25

CAYMUS SUISUN GRAND DURIF 2018 SUISUN VALLEY SOLANO COUNTY

Not your granddaddy’s Durif — aka Petit Sirah. Rather, a serious take on a wine profile that is not unlike Zinfandel with its soft, rich and fruit-forward perseverance. Opulent but not cloying, layered with spices and herbal (twiggy) notes. Full-bodied to be sure, but balanced and inviting.

SCORE: 91. $70

Double Diamond

SCHRADER CELLARS DOUBLE DIAMOND CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2018 OAKVILLE
NAPA VALLEY

Brimming with blue and black fruit, pencil shavings, soft leather and just-perceptible herbal tones. The oak is luxurious, layering fresh tobacco, balsam and pine over opulent fruit. Medium fine-grained tannins. Drinking just fine now if you like your big wines young and primary — but it will age beautifully.

SCORE: 94. $120

Cooper Kane

COPPER CANE BELLE GLOS PINOT NOIR 2018 SANTA MARIA VALLEY, SANTA BARBARA COUNTY

Powerful aromas of blue and red berries, with lavender and mint, coffee and black olive, all wrapped in wafts of cedar. There’s more of the same on the palate, with black cherry, beetroot and a smoky campfire finish.

A rich Pinot Noir, with soft tannins and a long finish.

SCORE: 93. $65

Stags Leap

STAG’S LEAP WINE CELLARS ARTEMIS CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2018 NAPA VALLEY

This savoury Cabernet Sauvignon is keenly balanced. Fruit-and-nut chocolate bar meets a walk in the forest, with dark blackberry fruit, kirsch and marzipan. A resolutely dry wine with concentrated fruit, complemented by touches of tar and black olive. Complex and intriguing.

SCORE: 93. $90

PRICES AND AVAILABILITY VARY ACROSS CANADA.

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