Wine: Back to the roots

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 28, Autumn 2011

Page 59

In 1976, Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant in Paris, arranged a blind tasting between the best wines that California could offer against a selection of first-rate French wines. To the surprise of everyone – except the Americans – the Californian bottles won what is now called 'The Judgment of Paris'.

Suddenly, Californian wines could not be regarded as second-rate imitations of France's finest. Wine from the West Coast, which had previously been confined to the local market, began to be distributed all over the world. And, once Robert Parker, the American wine critic, started publishing his newsletter, The Wine Advocate, Californian wines were mentioned in the same breath as Burgundy and Bordeaux. The prices went up accordingly.

The Napa Valley, just north of San Francisco, continues to dominate the American fine wine scene. (The vast majority of wines that Robert Parker scores at 100 points come from here.) Californian wines are always going to be more consistent than Burgundy or Bordeaux because the weather is hotter and less extreme than in Europe. In the 1980s, there were also joint ventures with leading Bordeaux producers: Robert Mondavi and Château Mouton Rothschild collaborated on the creation of Opus One. Christian Moueix, of Château Petrus, bought a vineyard in Napa and made the renowned Dominus.

However, the Eurocentric approach of these producers – and that of the early pioneers, such as Beaulieu, Inglenook and Beringer – was superseded in the 1990s by a tendency to produce far riper, robust, oaky wines that weighed in at 14 per cent level of alcohol, or, in some cases, even more. This tendency appears to be have mellowed and more diverse styles are now being seen.

"In recent years there has been a gear shift in California winemaking," says Will Lyons, wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal Europe. "This has seen a reversion to the classic, European style that inspired a generation of Californian winemakers in the 1970s to create their own versions of the best wines to be found in Burgundy and Bordeaux.

"There are some spectacular wines coming from Anderson Valley, Carneros, Sonoma and Russian River Valley that display real finesse and elegance. Ted Lemon's Littorai, in Russian River Valley, is a fine example. Having worked with several Burgundian estates, his distinctly European." In recent years a number of so called trophy wines have appeared. These include Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Maybach and Scarecrow. What distinguishes these wines – apart from the high quality and equally stellar Parker Points – is their scarcity. All are produced in tiny amounts, typically between 400 to 800 cases annually. They have also gained the attention of the more educated Asian wine lovers, with up to a quarter of production being exported to Japan, China and Singapore.

Bill Harlan, who founded Harlan Estate more than 20 years ago, says there have been changes in ripeness and alcohol levels. "The pendulum swings one way and then the other, but the thing is to get the balance right. We constantly try to make better wine and the wines produced in Napa now are better than those made 10 years ago." There are those who sense that change is in the air. Bruce Neyers, who owns a series of vineyards, says he "senses Napa Valley winemakers are growing more worldly. In the past, they didn't know what was going on in the rest of the world. Now they are more concerned about vine maintenance and terroir, rather than using really ripe grapes and pouring it into new oak barrels."

Bruce Palling writes on food and wine for numerous publications and for his blog

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