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6th October 2021 by Rachel Wallhouse
If ever a wine region had a fractured wine story then the USA, and California in particular, would be near the top.
While there were vines growing in the region that was to become California, they were not great for making wine. It was Franciscan missionaries, around 1770, that began planting Vitis Vinifera, these are the most commonly planted vines for wine-making. (The religious orders are usually in the centre of most wine-making areas, maybe more on that in a later article). For the next few decades their MISSION grape remained the core of the wine industry in the area.
With the development in the area, partially through the annexation of the region but also with the Gold Rush of the 1840’s, wine grew in popularity, increasing the wine growing areas rapidly. As the demand for Californian wines were growing locally, in Europe the Phylloxera pest was devastating vineyards in rapid succession. By the end of the 1800’s California wine regions were creating 30 million gallons of wine.
Though the majority of this juice was used to make generic blended wine, created to fit a particular style for differing trade markets. But by 1920 all this came to a crashing halt as Prohibition came into effect. This was the banning of the making, sale and/or transportation of ‘Intoxicating liquors’ (That meant anything over 0.5% alcohol) This was a crushing blow to the Californian wine industry, going from 55 million gallons per year to 3.5 million almost overnight. The Prohibition era went on for thirteen years before it was finally repealed. But some enterprising wineries managed to survive by sending out grapes and concentrated grape juice to families who were allowed to make wine at home, other wineries made wines for religious ceremonies, another allowable use of alcohol during Prohibition.
But all this is in the past, and Californian wines are again on the up and up. The region is well known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but they are also starting showcasing grapes such as Ploussard and Trousseau from France, Nebbiolo from Italy and others from around Europe. Much of this variety of grapes comes from the influence of migrants arriving in the region during its growth era, bringing with them experience and varying wine styles to complement the region. Maybe in the old days, many California wines came across as big, fruity, jammy and high alcohol. With the change in market tastes they have become much more style and refinement.
Some California wines to try:
1. Murrietas Well ‘The Whip’. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia, Orange Muscat, Viognier, Semillon.
As you can see, there is a cacophony of grapes in this blended wine. It was one of the first wines I encountered when I started in the shop. The winemaker changes the blend every year, depending on how the year has been. They also have some of the oldest planted Chardonnay, over 100 years old. Some of the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc have had a little time in oak barrels to give the wine a little roundness and weight. The rest are kept in stainless steel tanks to maintain the fresh fruit aromas. There is a lot going on in this wine with layers of fruit and floral notes, finishing with a touch of lychee richness. An excellent wine for the dinner table with friends and family.
2. Trefethen Family Vineyards. Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Trefethen family have been making wine in the Napa Valley of California for three generations and are one of the leading families in the Napa Valley Grapegrowers group. While it may say Cabernet Sauvignon on the label, there are little touches of Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Merlot in the mix, but as they are in such small amounts they don’t need to be on the front label. This Cabernet Sauvignon is a big hitter, full bodied and lengthy. Stuffed full of blackberry, blueberry and plum aromas with a touch of cedar and clove. All this is also on the palate with mouth watering juicy berries throughout. If you are looking for a wine that can go with that juicy steak for dinner, this is the one for you, but save a glass for after, to wind down with.
3. Joel Gott. Zinfandel.
I came across this wine while judging for a Californian wine panel, it was so good I ordered some for the shop straight away. Joel Gott is a fourth generation winemaker, born in the Napa Valley. He and his Sarah go out searching for the best grapes growing in California, Oregon and Washington states. Many winemakers don’t own enough vineyard space to make the wines that they want to, and so it is down to finding grape growers that are willing to sell to them, and good grapes are in hot demand. Zinfandel, also known as Primitivo, doesn’t just make a sweet style rosé, it is also known in California for a dark hearty red. Joel Gott produces a cracking style, with grapes from four different vineyards, each vinified separately. He then blends them together and partially stores the resulting wine in new American oak and old French oak barrels. Full of dark raspberry and blueberry flavours, with a background of vanilla and a touch of cranberry. A wine for autumn stews and maybe a cheese board.
This article first appeared in the Lancashire Evening Post