Monday, December 23, 2013

Unit 3 – Day 2: California Red Wines

In my last review I discussed the American Viticultural Area (AVA) system and contrasted it with the French AOC system. I then reviewed 8 white wines that we tasted in the Intensive Sommelier Training at the Culinary Center in Campbell, California.

In this review I’ll provide an over view of California’s wine history, the revival of its wine culture and some of its current challenges. I’ll then discuss Zinfandel, cover the learning objectives and review 8 red wines.

A Brief History of California Winemaking

The four major wine producing regions in the United States are California, Washington, New York and Oregon. California is the top wine producing state in the United States, producing roughly 90% of U.S. wine. While the largest quantity of wine produced in California comes from the fertile Central Valley, premium wine production mostly comes from the North Coast AVA, Sierra Foothills AVA and the Central Coast AVA. Overall California has a warm climate that is often tempered by the Pacific Ocean. The top white grapes are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (a.k.a Fumé Blanc). The top red grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.

However the first grape to dominate the region was planted by Spanish missionaries in the early 1600s known as the Mission Grape (known as Criolla in Argentia and Pais in Chile). This remained the dominant grape until the early 1900s. It is still found in the Sierra Foothills where some of the oldest vines (140+ years) are still producing wine such as at StoryWinery.

As the United States began to spread west so did its winemaking. New and successful wineries were established along the Ohio River Valley in the 1800s and in Missouri. With the gold Rush of the 1840s it then spread to California as thirsty fortune hunters needed something to drink.

One of the most important forerunners of the California wine culture was Count Agoston Haraszthy (August 30, 1812, - July 6, 1869) who founded Buena Vista Carneros in 1857. He is considered by many to be “The Father of California Viticulture” as he was a man ahead of his time - a visionary who laid the ground work for California’s now lost and almost forgotten wine history and culture (due to the aftermath of Prohibition). A Hungarian-American traveler, writer, town-builder, and pioneer winemaker in Wisconsin and California, Haraszthy was one of the first men to plant vineyards in Wisconsin and an early and important writer on California wine and viticulture. In California he introduced more than three hundred varieties of European grape varietals. Sadly, the recipients of those vines failed to follow his vision for planting quality varietals in the state and instead discarded them in favor of varietals that produced higher volume and more alcohol. In 1856, Haraszthy bought a small vineyard northeast Sonoma, expanded the acreage to 5,000 acres of valley and hillside and renamed it Buena Vista. In 1857, he bore wine caves into the sides of a nearby mountain, built stone cellars at their entrance and two large stone winery buildings, equipped with underground tunnels and the latest wine-making equipment in California. In 1858, Haraszthy wrote the “Report on Grapes and Wine of California.” It was published by the California State Agricultural Society and was the first treatise on winemaking written and published in California, and praised as the “first American explication of traditional European winemaking practices.” In 1863, Haraszthy incorporated the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society, the first large corporation in California (perhaps in the United States) organized for the express purpose of engaging in agriculture. With the support of prominent investors, he greatly expanded his vineyards in Sonoma, making wine which was sold as far away as New York. In 1864, an article in Harper's Magazine proclaimed that Buena Vista was “the largest establishment of the kind in the world.”

The three major disruptions to the history and wine culture of California have been the Phyloxera plague of the late 1800s, the Prohibition (1920-1933) during which only sacramental and a limited amount of home made wine could be produced, the economic impact of the Great Depression (1929) and two World Wars (1914-1918; 1939-1945).

Robert Mondavi and André Tchelistcheff

But California saw a revival in its wine culture in the 1960s to 1980s. A number of frontiersman, such as André Tchelistcheff (Russian: Андрей Челищев, December 7, 1901 - April 5, 1994) and Robert  Mondavi (June 18, 1913 – May 16, 2008), had a vision for the Napa Valley and believed it could rival the finest wine regions of Europe.

They’re vision came to light at the 1976 Spurrier Tasting when two wineries, Chateau Montelena and Stags Leap Cellars, defeated the top wine producers in a blind tasting in France that used French wine critics. This small and seemingly insignificant event was reported in Time magazine and the result was a major paradigm shift in the World of Wine as the myth of the inherent superiority of French wine was defeated.

But California wine production has not been without its challenges as it continues to struggle in the south with the spread of the Glassy Winged Sharp Shooter (Homalodisca vitripennis) pest which infects vines with Pierces Disease (Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterium in the class Gammaproteobacteria). While the problem of Phyloxera can be resisted by grafting vitis vinifera grape vines onto the North American native root-stock of vitis riparia, there is no known cure for Pierces Disease. There are no resistant Vitis vinifera varieties, and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are especially sensitive, although muscadine grapes have a natural resistance.

The Unofficial Grape of California - Zinfandel

For some time it was thought by many that Zinfandel was a native variety to California, even today, this perception may still exist. It was then held that it was related to, or was in fact the same varietal, as Primitivo – Italy. The development of DNA profiling in the mid 1990’s, led by Carole Meredith at UC Davis, had proven through extensive research, that the grape’s origins are in fact Croatian as Crljenek Kastelanski (pronounced: Curl-yen-ick Kahst-a-lahn-skie). Zinfandel prefers well-drained low fertile soils. It is moderately vigorous and the grapes bunches tend to be very large and ripen unevenly. In order for the bunch to fully ripen the earlier ripening grapes then tend to have high sugar and almost become raisins. This results in wines that tend to have very high alcohol, especially those grown in the central valley and in the Sierra Foothills. Various styles of wine are produced form this grape including rosés, “white zinfandel”, dry wines and fortified port-like wines. Top California Zinfandel producers include: Turley, D-Cubed, Storybook Mountain, Green & Red, Brown Family, Rafanelli, Robert Biale, Ravenswood, Peachy Canyon and Ridge.

Learning Objectives of Unit 3 – Day 2: Southern California Red Wines

At the beginning of class lectures a list of learning objectives is provided to the students. By the end of the class, the students should have a certain degree of understanding from their own reading and the lectures and be able to provide the answers to list of questions. The Learning Objectives for Unit 3 - Day 2 along with the answers are as follows.

By the end of class, students should be able to:

(1) Name the 2 AVAs in Monterey, Santa Barbara and  San Benito Counties

Answer: Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, Chalone AVA (Monterey), Santa Maria AVA, Sta Rita Hills AVA (Santa Barbara),  Mount Harlan AVA, Paicines AVA (San Benito)

(2)  Define the term Meritage.

Answer: A Bordeaux blend made in the USA.

(3)  Explain the origin of the Zinfandel grape variety

Answer: It is derived form the Croatian grape Crljenek Kastelanski

(4)  Recommend 3 California Pinot specialists to a guest:

Answer: Merry Edwards, Koste Brown, Rochioli

(5)  Recommend 3 California Cabernet Sauvignon specialists to a guest

Answer: Stag’s Leap Cellars, Screaming Eagle, Caymus

(6)  Recommend 3 producers of Rhone-wine style wines to a guest.

Answer: Tablas Creek, Bonny Doon, Qupé

(7)  Describe the attributes of any wines tasted today

Answer: See below

The Wines

On the second day of Unit 3 we tasted the following 8 red wines:

1. 2010 Lioco, Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley

A clear ruby-red wine with minor garnet rim variation, day-bright, moderate intensity and medium+ viscosity. On the nose it is clean with subtle aromas of fresh ripe cherries, plums and intense spiciness of cinnamon and cloves followed by a hint of cedar and damp earth. On the palate it has flavors of strawberry preserves and raspberries but spice drives the profile with cinnamon, clove, and black pepper and a hint of cola. It is dry with medium+ acidity, medium- tannin, medium body and a medium length finish. This is an excellent California Pinot that sells for $38. I much preferred this Pinot Noir over the Testarossa.

2. 2012 Testarossa, Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands

This is a clear ruby-red wine with minor garnet rim variation, medium concentration and moderate+ viscosity. On the nose it is clean with aromas of fresh cherries, ripe watermelon, cranberry, strawberry preserves, and subtle aromas of canned black pepper and cloves. On the palate it is dry, soft on entry, with flavors of strawberries and a hint of cinnamon and all-spice. It has medium+ acidity, medium body, medium+ alcohol and a medium length finish. This wine sells for about $45.

3. 2010 Swanson, Merlot, Oakville, Napa Valley

This wine is clear, dark-red at the core to ruby at the rim with minor variation and medium + viscosity. On the nose it is clean with aromas of ripe black cherries, cocoa, damp earth and a hint of mint. On the palate it has flavors of black cherries, dried plums, dark chocolate, and vanilla. It is dry with medium tannins, medium+ body, medium acidity and a medium length finish. This wine sells for about $30.

4. 2011 Chappellet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

This is a clear dark-red wine with moderate pink rim variation and medium+ viscosity. On the nose it has moderate intense aromas of black currants, blackberries, tobacco leaf, graphite and a hint of mint. It has flavors of black currants, black cherries, dark chocolate, star anise, and oak. It is dry with alcohol sweetness, it has medium+ tannins, medium+ body, medium+ alcohol, moderate complexity and a medium length finish. This wine sells for about $45.

5. 2007 Bonny Doon, Le Cigare Volant, Santa Cruz Mountains

This wine is a blend of 60% Grenache, 31% Syrah, 5% Mourvèdre, and 4% Cinsault. The wine is clear, ruby-red at the core to pink at the rim with minor variation, moderate intensity and medium+ viscosity. On the nose it is clean with subtle aromas of stewed plums, pepper, dried beef and dried herbs with a hint of barnyard from Brettanomyces. On the palate it has flavors of dried plums, cherry liqueur, black olive and a hint of anise. It is dry with some alcohol sweetness, medium tannins, medium acidity, medium+ alcohol, moderate complexity and a medium length finish. For a six-year-old wine this is ageing quite well and it is remarkably old-world like. The only thing it is lacking is the Northern Rhône’s minerality. This wine sells for about $30.

6. 2010 Tablas Creek, Espirit de Beauscatel, Paso Robles

This wine is a blend of 45% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 4% Counoise. This wine is clear, dark ruby-red at the core to pink with minor rim variation and medium+ viscosity. On the nose it is clean with aromas of cherry liqueur, pomegranates, plums, pepper, dried herbs and a hint of damp earth. On the palate it has flavors of dried plums, dates, and black olive. It is dry with alcohol sweetness, it is soft on entry but it has medium+ tannins, medium+ alcohol and a medium length moderately complex finish. This wine sells for about $26.

7. 2011 Vignobles Yves Cheron Domaine du Grand Montmirail Cuvee, Les Deux Juliette, Gigondas

This wine is obviously not from California but it was tasted in order to form a comparison between a Southern Rhône wine and the two California Rhône-style wines.

This wine is a blend of 80% Grenache, 15% Syrah and 5% Mourvèdre. This is a red wine that is clear to opaque with a dark purple core to violet with minimal variation at the rim with medium+ viscosity that stains the glass when swirled. On the nose the wine is clean with moderate intense aromas of blackberries, plums, cooked strawberries, violets and dried roses. On the palate it is dry with chalky medium+ tannins, medium+ to full bodied, medium+ alcohol and yet silky on entry and across the mid-palate. It has a medium length finish with additional notes of dried cranberries and it retails for about $20.

Observation: It is a little difficult to compare the Gigondas with the previous wines since the blends are not the same. But they are close enough for there would be differences even if we were comparing all Southern Rhône wines. The similarity between these California versions is a lot closer than the similarities/differences between California Chardonnays and Burgundian Chardonnays. There isn't a huge Old World/New World difference between the Gigondas in terms of fruit, alcohol or acidity, but it does have more tannin and a hint of more minerality with the chalk. The Gigondas beats the two Californian wines hands down and yet it is $6 to $10 cheaper.

8. 2011 Fiddletown Cellars, Old Vine Zinfandel, Amador County

A future Master Sommelier took a peak from behind the bottle!

This wine is clear, ruby-red to pink with minor rim variation, it has medium+ viscosity with staining tears. On the nose it is clean with moderate intense aromas of dried plums, red licorice, vanilla and red pepper. On the palate it has flavors of cherry-vanilla, violets, cloves, dried herbs, and dill. It is dry with alcohol sweetness, medium+ tannins, medium+ body, medium+ alcohol and a medium+ length finish. This wine sells for about $20.


If I can make a general characterization of these California wines in comparison to their old world counterparts, they tend to be more fruit forward with higher alcohol and less minerality. The best in the line-up was the 2010 Lioco Pinot Noir and it was probably the most old-world in style.

After this class we have a break during the holidays so it will be 2 weeks until my next post when we resume our study of New World Wines... until then, have a Marry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


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