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Another side of California

For a state that has a proud history of counter-cultural activity – from the Wild West and the Gold Rush to the beats and hippies and the wilder reaches of the new tech frontier – California has in wine terms always seemed to me to be a strangely conservative place.

California wines, certainly those California wines that made it to this side of the pond, have always tended to the slick, the glossy, the bold of fruit, and the loud of flavour. Given a choice, winemakers have always seemed to choose volume and power over nuance and complexity, and anything resembling a rough edge has been summarily sawn off. If you wanted grip, nerve, minerals, best look somewhere else.

And so, for most of my wine-drinking life, that’s exactly what I have done. Whenever I’ve wanted something a little out of the ordinary – something that wasn’t the organolelptic equivalent of the kind of exquisitely manicured lawns you find outside a typical Napa winery – I’ve looked pretty much anywhere else.

But a tasting I attended on Tuesday was the latest confirmation that it’s high time I put my Golden State prejudices out to pasture. Organized by trade magazine The Wine Merchant with industry promotional body The Wine Institute of California, the tasting featured 150 Californian wines available in the UK’s independent wine merchants. Of course the line up included many wines that fit the Big Flavour bill to varying degrees of success. Indeed full-throttle wines such as Joseph Phelps’ classic Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Seghesio Cortina Zinfandel proved just how beguiling this style of winemaking is in the right hands.

But there was so much else on offer, too. A significant proportion of the wines were made by Burgundy-inspired specialists in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – producers that were members of (or fellow travellers with) the now-disbanded In Pursuit of Balance movement – names such as Kutch, Varner, Matthiasson and Failla who have led the way in cooler-climate sites, looking to make what they call “wines of place” that reflect the vineyard where the fruit is grown as opposed to what they call “wines of style” where the winemaker’s influence and super-ripe fruit is all.  

Just as interesting for me, however, were wines that have neither Burgundian elegance nor a super-charged take on ripe-vintage Bordeaux as their stylistic template. I found super-succulent Grenache in a decidedly Mediterranean style (Joel Gott Alakai Grenache); Chenin Blanc with Loire-like cut and thrust and salty minerals (Birichino Jurassic Chenin Blanc); funky red blends with a juicy easeful drinkability (Hobo Wine Co. Part and Labor) and funky white blends with a beguiling autumnal Rhôneish haziness (Broc Cellars Love White). I loved a pale and rosehip-tangy Trouseau à la Jura (Forlorn Hope Trousseau). And the intense baked apple nose and textured mineral crunch of Grenache Gris in Ruth Lewandoski’s Naomi was like something from the rocky mountainous inlands of Roussillon.

Clearly, California is no longer bound, if indeed it ever was, by the kind of conservatism that is, as fellow taster Paola Tich of London wine merchant Park + Bridge remarked, designed to appeal to “salesmen in chinos and loafers on their way to the golf course”. Plenty of the state’s winemakers are producing deliciously individualistic wines – wines that suggest California wine is very much in touch with its freewheeling, bohemian side.