Whilst the trade was tasting its way through 2,000 Australian wines yesterday, I was sitting at home writing about California, by way of the Nekter Wines event at The 10 Cases in Covent Garden on Monday. Of course, I know we are all behind Australia at the moment, not least myself with family members directly affected by the fires. I just thought that I’ve written so much about Australia lately that it is time to spread my wings further afield again.
The Nekter event was somewhat smaller, with thirty-one wines on show, but it was no less crowded, being held in the small basement room at The 10 Cases on Endell Street. When I have tasted this importer’s wines before it has always been at a larger event, whether at Out of the Box, or at the occasional tastings they do with friends like Modal Wines and others, most recently in Islington. I had no idea that they import thirty-one wines from California and although I’ve tried a good few in previous vintages it was both a pleasure and quite instructive to sip every one of them in one leisurely sweep. The quality surpassed even my high expectations and I liked every wine on show. This article could easily have been given an alternative title: the best Californian wines you’ve probably never heard of.
The wines were lined up thematically, but I’m going to present them by producer. I think that it made good sense for tasting, but this way may make better sense for the reader. The thirty-one wines came from nine producers and I understand that all the vintages shown are those currently available.
All prices quoted are retail, inclusive of VAT, based on the list handed out at the tasting. They are occasionally rounded up to the nearest pound. But please check as they do not always correspond with the prices listed on the Nekter web site.
MATTHIASSON FAMILY VINEYARDS
This is perhaps an appropriate place to begin because some would argue that Steve Matthiasson, along with his wife Jill Klein Matthiasson, has done more than anyone to change Californian viticultural attitudes. This former cyclist and skateboarder has influenced a lot of change here, not least through his war on the heat spike, eschewing canopy thinning and rather risking a spot of mildew than subjecting his fruit to the harsh sunshine of a Californian summer. The result has been a crop of wines with more tender alcohol levels, but with no loss of fruit ripeness. You could even say he’s redefined the meaning of ripeness in a California context. At least among connoisseurs.
Nekter imports the “Tendu” wines from Matthiasson Family Vineyards. Tendu White 2016 is a Vermentino with 10% Chardonnay, from the Dunningan Hills AVA (Yolo County, Sacramento Valley). The soils are gravel and the climate could be called Mediterranean. Fermented with native yeasts in used wood, it sees six months on lees and no sulphur is added. It may be a relatively simple wine but it packs fresh minerality and a little lees texture, and for under £24 it is very good value. 10.5% abv.
Tendu Cortese 2018 is made from fruit sourced in Clarksburg’s Lost Slough Vineyard (which will crop up later) on the Sacramento River Delta’s deep alluvial clay. It’s an interesting take on the Piemontese variety because it is put through malo, giving it a bit of gras, assisted no doubt by picking slightly later (not all that common at Matthiasson). It’s bottled unfiltered too, giving a hint of texture, which elevates a simple £22 wine.
Tendu Red 2018 comprises just under half Barbera, just less than 20% each of Aglianico and Montepulciano, with the remaining 12-13% from a mix of Rhône grapes. These all come from two sites (Muller Vineyard for the Barbera, Windmill Vineyard for the rest) in the Dunningan Hills. Simple élèvage in stainless steel, but no added sulphur. For a red it has lovely zip.
For the 2018 vintage the Tendu wines have moved from litre bottles to 75cl, and they all now have a compostable cork closure.
This is the not uncommon story of a couple of guys, Matt Nagy and Ben Brenner, fed up with making posh Parker-point wines for bankers and hedge fund gurus, who found happiness just letting the fruit do its thing, hence the name of their own label here.
Submerged Ribolla Gialla 2017 is a great example to begin with. From the famous Oak Knoll District, George Vare originally planted these first ever Californian Ribolla vines in the Bengier vineyard. They came from Gravner in Friuli and have been called “suitcase vinestock” for the obvious reason. Mind you, I’m not sure how George managed to plant eight acres from his suitcase, but from this beginning a Californian star was born. Fermentation is for fifteen days under a submerged cap, followed by fifteen months in old oak with almost no topping-up. No SO2 was added. Mineral and stony sums this up, and £35 is a bit of a bargain. It’s only got 12.5% alcohol but there’s beautiful balance.
Riesling 2018 comes, possibly surprisingly given the variety, from the Nelson Family Vineyard in Mendocino. The vineyard has been in the family for four generations and the 45-year-old vines give superb grapes. Big lime with a hint of grapefruit balances quite rich fruit, where you get a little pineapple mid-palate too. Stainless steel only. Unusual but wonderfully moreish. There’s apparently around 15.5g/l residual sugar. £37.
Mourvèdre 2016 comes in part from the Fore Vineyard at over 1,000 metres asl in Lake County, all on red rocky terrain. 40% whole bunch fermentation in Hungarian oak gives a wine with a fresh floral bouquet and a chewy palate. £44.
Counoise 2018 shows a slightly different side to this grape, often made light and fruity. Steve Matthiasson planted the Windmill Vineyard in the Dunningan Hills in his younger days, along with Jack Roberts of Keep Wines and Benevolent Neglect’s Matt Nagy. The other half of the fruit comes from Alder Springs in Mendocino. Matt ferments and ages the two separately before blending. It’s a big wine (14% abv), yet has lashings of freshness and acidity, along with a bit of grip, to balance it. Just £27.
Whole Cluster Syrah 2017 is a result of an extended period of skin contact caused by the necessity to leave the wine during the 2017 fires. The result is actually lighter than the 2016, perhaps because the grapes were picked two weeks earlier, or perhaps affected by the skins drying (no pumpovers, less extraction?). Ageing was in one old 400-litre puncheon. The bouquet is atypical of Syrah, but despite the wine’s current structure and 14% alcohol, it somehow still feels quite light on its feet. £58.
DONKEY & GOAT
Jared and Tracy Brandt set up shop in a Berkeley warehouse after a stage with Eric Texier in the Rhône, and a passion for some of the tenets of Japanese permaculture adherent, Masanobu Fukuoka (whose name the deeper readers of my blog will perhaps be familiar with).
Stone Crusher Roussanne 2017 comes from El Dorado County at 750 metres asl. Whole bunches (no destemming) fermented for just shy of two weeks with light pigeage. The juice was basket-pressed gently into old oak for ten months ageing. The skins give a deeper colour and texture, but the wine is nicely rounded out. The finish shows a touch of attractive sourness. £42.50.
“The Bear” 2016 isn’t as big as the name suggests. The lead variety is Counoise, blended with Rhône varieties (including a little Roussanne). The source is El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills once more, the regime is a mixture of concrete and wooden vat, the varieties fermented separately before blending and then given ten months in old oak. This has a very “sweet” cherry nose balanced by a palate with a bite. A lovely wine, though perhaps it takes a taste to fork out £46/bottle for Counoise. Taste it and you may well be tempted! £46.
Perli Chardonnay 2017 The innate balance and tension in this wine probably derives from the site, the Perli Vineyard being a steep slope devoid of much topsoil at 670m asl on Mendocino Ridge. Apparently yields are kept down by the local bear population! This took six months to ferment before five months ageing in used wood, and there is still 6g/litre r/s left in the wine. It adds richness to balance the steely acids…hence the tension. This comes in at an unbelievably low 11% alcohol too, yet it is almost hedonistic. I’d love to try a whole bottle. £38.
Testa Carignanne 2017 comes from a site planted almost 110 years ago in Mendocino. The terroir is decomposed sandstone. Just 20% whole bunches are used but the wine remains vibrant in every respect, via colour, bouquet and palate. A classic example of Cali-Cari weighing in at a mere 12.5% yet showing perfect balance between ripeness of fruit and thirst quenching ability. £36.
If you think you know Evan Frazier but are not au-fait with Ferdinand Wines, perhaps it is because he has a day job working as Assistant Winemaker for John and Alex Kongsgaard. He began his career in Roussillon but for his own label he’s firmly taken inspiration from Spain, although the last of the wines here nods towards his Pyrenean beginning.
Tempranillo 2014 Shake Ridge is a rocky site of red soils scattered with solid quartz in Amador County (Sierra Nevada). This wine saw a fairly extended 18 months in oak, 10% of it new, adding toast and spice but not too much. The wine has crispness and bite suggesting a nice balance at five years of age. £37.
Albariño 2018 Vista Luna is a site in the far northeast corner of Lodi, near the border with Amador County, an area which gets its heat ameliorated by cool air from the San Joaquin Delta and the Sierra Foothills. It’s made from organic fruit, fermented in old oak with whole bunch pressing. The wine is left passively on lees for ten months, without any punching down or stirring. What you get initially is a very sunny, bright but rich, bouquet, overtly fruit-driven yet with the merest hint of ginger and nutmeg spice. Deeply interesting. £28.
Garnacha Blanca 2018 This wine also hails from Vista Luna (see above). Handpicked at low brix, the fruit is handled carefully, pressed as whole clusters and aged one year in older wood. Just a little sulphur was added at the bottling stage. It’s as tasty as its Catalan counterpart can be, with a herby and savoury demeanour, complemented by some Californian sunshine. Circa £27.
If you really want to try something different there is also a white wine and a rosé in 375ml cans from Ferdinand Wines. It’s pretty unorthodox using quality fruit (the pink is from 75-y-o Carignanne bush vines) for a canned wine, but these are reputed to be very superior wines in a can. Bring on summer.
This is a quality operation where fruit selection is paramount, based on multiple tries and picking fruit at optimum phenolic ripeness for every single site. This means the wines aren’t cheap (the first wine is £35 and the remaining three retail in the £50-£60 bracket). But they do exude class.
Homestead 2014 takes a fruit selection comprising Mourvèdre (35%), Grenache (27%), Carignan (19%), Syrah (16%) and Cabernet Sauvignon from sites in the Mount Harlan and Chalone AVAs on the Santa Cruz Mountains. Each variety is fermented separately in small vats before ageing for just under a year in used oak barrels. It’s a well put together blend, a lovely wine where all the different varieties seem to play their part in a harmonious whole. Freshness and sour cherry were by two foremost thoughts here.
Looking at how much the wines below cost, this could well be a bargain at £35. The three wines below were bracketed at the tasting with the three stars from Ashes & Diamonds, which Nekter had called “Showstoppers – where the air is rare”.
Coastview Chardonnay 2016 comes from a high altitude site in Monterey County. It sees a gentle ferment with an extended period of twelve months on lees. It’s such a complete wine that you may be surprised to find out it is made in stainless steel. It sees no oak. The result is a complex and savoury Chardonnay. The lees have definitely added texture and mouthfeel and it shows signs of considerable complexity to come over the next year or three (perhaps longer?). £54.
Lester Pinot Noir 2015 comes from the Santa Cruz Mountains, more specifically from the Lester family’s vineyard in the Corralitos Hills, just three miles inland from Monterey Bay. Planted on poor sandy and clay loam twenty years ago, the grapes benefit greatly from the famous bay fog which only burns off later in the day, when the sun then lingers into the evening. A high proportion of the grapes are fermented as whole clusters (70%) in open wooden vats, followed by ageing in French oak (25% new). As with the Chardonnay, the aromatics are stunning. Such vibrancy. This is serious stuff, but it is equally a wine which appeals to the sensual side. £61.
Gabilan Mountains GSM 2013 I’d never heard of the Gabilan Mountains but apparently the are in Monterey, south of the bay. The Grenache and Syrah, which together form 76% of the blend, come from the Coastview Vineyard at 700m asl. The Mourvèdre is from the Brousseau site, down at 440m. The two vineyards are fermented separately before ageing together twenty-one months in used French oak. The colour is dark, and a glance at the abv on the label makes you take a second look – 15%. It has that ripe Monterey nose, but it is nothing like those big cropping corporate wines off the valley floor down here. The palate has much more freshness than you’d imagine, though it is quite tannic, even at six years old. £50.25.
I am a signed-up fan of Keep Wines. I must have told the story before of how Jack Roberts met wife to be Johanna within a few hours of stepping off the plane on his first trip to Napa. Whilst Johanna has worked for Broc Cellars and Abe Schoener, Jack is now Assistant Winemaker at Matthiasson Family Wines. Their own label makes wine from sites which they either farm themselves or are cultivated by Steve Matthiasson.
I must also have a label moan here. I absolutely adored their original labels when I first saw them. They show a castle, I forget where it is, somewhere in the UK, in which it is rumoured that Jack’s father was born. People say “wow!” but I just think how freezing cold those places tend to be. They reckon the label is too funky for the grown up wines they are making these days, yet I’m not so sure the wines have completely lost that little touch of funkiness which first drew me to them back in 2017. Try the Counoise, or their Pinot Meunier (not shown on Monday, so perhaps they have stopped making it?) to see what I mean.
Counoise “David Girard” 2018 This has a gorgeous pale colour with high-toned sweet cherry fruit. Slightly cloudy/hazy, it has a gentle texture in which otherwise is a fruity wine to drink cool in the sunshine. But with 13% abv it’s not that light, and will be a versatile food wine. The fruit, planted on alluvial soils over granite in El Dorado County (east of Sacramento) is forty years old. It is fermented carbonically in a sealed tank for two weeks before being basket-pressed into old oak for just six months ageing. No sulphur is added. Delicious stuff at £32/bottle.
Evanghelo Carignanne 2016 This is a seriously old vineyard with 140-year-old vines in Contra Costa County, which forms the northern part of San Francisco’s East Bay Region. You’ll do well to find it mapped in any wine books aside from Jon Bonné’s The New California. It has been referred to, according to Nekter, as “the land which time forgot”, but this does mean there’s some very old vine stock here. This is a complex Carignanne with a little sous-bois underneath the fruit and, perhaps, an earthy touch. It’s a wine for quite hearty food, coming in at 14% abv and retailing at £46.
Lost Slough Albariño 2015 is from the same site as Steve Matthiasson’s Tendu Cortese, at Clarksburg (Hidden off Highway 5, to the north of Walnut Grove, which I’m sure leaves you none the wiser – look at Bonné, p 287 to see how remote it is). The “blurb” talks of how this wine is “influenced by the old school style of Galician Albariño, as championed by Raul Pérez’s Atelier”. Well, I am something of a Pérez fan. It is picked later when malic acid has receded, basket pressed and aged first in neutral oak for two years, then a further two years in bottle. It exemplifies how the variety can age, and ought to be allowed to. £36.
Windmill Vermentino 2017 Another site we’ve come across before (in Yolo County, if you remember). The fruit underwent a spontaneous fermentation and thereafter it was left on lees for 18 months to mature. We have a fatter, or perhaps deeper is better, wine with rich texture, but all on just 11% alcohol. Juicy with a savoury or sour touch. £37.
Kahn Syrah 2015 This was one of the brightest wines on show. The Kahn vineyard is made up of volcanic soils (perhaps one reason), at 600 metres in the Lovall Valley (Napa), but only accessible from the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains. The fruit is stunning in its purity, dark with cassis and a touch of eucalyptus, yet very much Syrah. Organic, 14% abv, 50% whole bunch fermented and aged in neutral oak for 18 months. Very impressive at only £46 for a wine from California.
If a wine entices you by its label, then I think you will be hooked on Field Recordings. Each vintage they choose an historical musician to complement their philosophy. Andrew Jones is the man behind Field Recordings. This is a tiny label, of which the “Wonderwall” wines (presumably Andrew is an Oasis fan) are an equally small part. This winemaker with a vine nursery background is also the instigator of yet another “wine in a can” project, Alloy Wine Works.
The two wines immediately below come from Edna Valley. Located south of San Luis Obispo, this is part of the large region denoted as “Central Coast”, though in wine geography terms it is very much “Southern California”. But we know that means little if you benefit from the cold sea air and mist, in this case from Morro Bay, so Edna Valley is actually pretty cool for its southern location.
Wonderwall Chardonnay 2018 comes from Spanish Springs and Coquina. The wine sees around eight months on lees, and ageing is unusually in a mix of both oak and acacia barrels. The oak is American, not French, and 25% new. The result is a wine which has a degree of weight on the palate (abv is 14%), but a nice line of citrus acidity as well. With considerable zip, you’d be unlikely to guess that level of alcohol. Nor, I think, would you guess this retails for just £23.
Wonderwall Pinot Noir 2018 Some of the Pinot fruit comes from Spanish Springs (see above), the rest from three more sustainably farmed vineyards: Morrow View, Greengate and Pooch. Fermentation is in stainless steel on native yeasts, after which it goes into oak for malo and eight months on fine lees. The bouquet strikes as very fragrant and fruity. The palate shows a certain lightness, but only to a degree, as there’s structure too which implies a little more age might benefit it, despite its low price, £25.
Wonderwall Syrah 2018 is just given a broader Central Coast designation, but the individual sites which make up the blend are all in choice locations: Arroya Seco, Paso Robles AVAs, and Stolo Vineyard, in the almost unknown coastal community of Cambria, which does not as yet have a designated AVA. What the sites all share is a rocky terrain. The result is a bright wine where the fact that this sees a third new oak during an eleven month maturation does not really come through on the nose at all. It does on the palate, of course, but for just £25 you get a wine which will mellow into something perhaps more European in style than typically Californian. That despite its avowed 14% abv.
LONG TERM WINE COMPANY
Three friends came together to form Long Term Wine Company and the Convexity label, and they managed to hire Steve Matthiasson to make the wine. You may have gathered by now that Matthiasson plays a part of some distinction in many of these wines. It should be said that few, if any, other wine makers have played such a pivotal role in defining what we now call The New California (post-Bonné, of course).
Convexity Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 The fruit has been sourced from two Napa Valley sites, Red Hen and Vare Vineyards, along with a supplement from the Matthiasson Family’s own vines. What makes this cuvée really interesting is that it is only comprised of 89% Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition to 3% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot (all very Bordelais), we also have 4% Sangiovese. That latter percentage may not sound a lot but I think it gives the wine a bit of lift and an extra dimension. It has a serious 18 month period in French oak (a third being new) and the result is a surprisingly elegant, leggy (13.5% abv), beautiful, wine which covers several octaves, from sweet fruit to savoury. £65, but still good value.
ASHES & DIAMONDS
We end on a high note indeed with Ashes & Diamonds. Khashi Khaledi worked in the music industry but made a life change to wine after developing a passion for, and a desire to recreate, the style of the great Californian (primarily Napa) wines of the 1960s and 70s. In order to achieve this goal, Khaledi has hired some famous names to make the wines. The first two below are made by Steve Matthiasson, the last wine by Diana Snowdon Seysses.
The name Ashes & Diamonds denotes a crossroads in life which Khashi felt he was facing. One choice, as with a seam of coal, could lead to ashes and one to diamonds. A bit like my late change of career to wine writing, then. The diamonds are, of course, all metaphorical.
Cabernet Franc No 1 2014 This is actually a blend of 75% CF with 25% Merlot. The Cabernet comes from what are described as eight “backyard” vineyards in Napa’s cooler south, on a mix of volcanic, clay and loam soils. The Merlot, from Ashes and Diamonds’ own vineyard, is forty years old. The regime isn’t extreme, twenty months in French oak, just 20% new. The key is the fruit, and its sensitive handling (all destemmed and fermented in stainless steel) by Matthiasson. The Cabernet Franc has real freshness but the Merlot rounds it out. The immaculate Cabernet Franc fruit shines right through. £83.
Vineyard 1 Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 This is in some ways a classic Rutherford Bench Napa Cabernet, from the region’s once beating heart. The George III Vineyard was used by André Tchelistcheff to make Beaulieu Vineyards’ famous wines, including the 1968 vintage, the tasting of which was so instrumental as a catalyst to Khashi Khaledi’s career change. This cuvée looks to a ripe style, but with an unbelievably restrained 12.5% alcohol. How does Matthiasson do it, especially because, of the mix of French and American oak, 17% and 30% respectively is new. This is very classy and built to last. Despite the low alcohol, it has real presence.
Now I’m not usually inclined to warm to this kind of wine, where great wealth is directed towards creating a wine that may well be very fine, yet is well beyond the purse of most people I know (and I do know a lot of people who spend rather a lot more than I can afford on wine). But I keep thinking of the winemaker, and what he has been given the opportunity to make here. So at £133/bottle I won’t be buying it, even less so in a restaurant, but if you are a little more wealthy, and so disposed, you will not be disappointed (though it must be said that, made “old school”, it would be a crying shame to drink them all too soon, as is so often the way with Napa).
Red Hen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon No 1 2016 Directly north of the town of Napa itself, in the south of the Valley, lies Oak Knoll. Being one of the coolest sites you will find a quite different kind of Cabernet here, and 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is what we have in the glass. The vineyard is owned and farmed by Bart and Daphne Araujo, whose famous Eisele Vineyard has, since 2016, formed the name of this equally famous biodynamic estate (formerly Araujo Estate), which I now believe (source: World Wine Atlas, 8th edn) is in the same hands as Château Latour.
The winemaker this time is Diana Snowdon Seysses, and she treated the Cabernet to a 17-day fermentation in stainless steel followed by maturation for seventeen months in wholly French oak, 35% of which was new. In some ways this wine, despite its 14% abv, has a Pinot sensibility. Am I taking too much from the winemaker? The fruit is really intense, but Diana has brought out a more savoury side (herbal) which you don’t usually get in the fruit bombs Napa sometimes produces. Yet again, we have a resulting wine which will age. A mere £102.50 for this one.
This was an unusual tasting. First of all, California has given me a great deal of pleasure since I read Jon Bonné’s New California Wine back five or six years ago. It helped that London wine merchant Roberson sold a great many of the wines he covered, which were easy to pick up before they sadly closed their retail shop in West London. That said, California forms a very small part of my cellar and I probably possess more wines from, say, Beaujolais or The French Alps than I do from America’s sunshine state.
Tasting through thirty-one Cali wines was instructive. There wasn’t a single wine I disliked, even with alcohol levels topping out at 14% or above for a third of them. I was pleasantly surprised how many saw no, or little, added sulphur and how stable those wines were. But out of all the wines, my favourites invariably showed lower levels of alcohol, which for me in no way appeared to affect ripeness. This doubtless comes back to something I touched on at the beginning – canopy management. It is certainly no surprise that Steve Matthiasson’s name is an almost constant thread.
I should make small mention of the 2018 vintage, which is the current vintage for several wines here. Potentially in California it is a cracker…if you have a taste for restraint and elegance. Generally, average temperatures throughout the 2018 growing season were lower than usual, as much as five degrees in some districts. Harvest for many began anything between ten days and three weeks later than in 2017, That makes a big difference. In parts of Europe even a few years ago that drop in average temperatures could spell disaster (imagine Bordeaux). In an increasingly overheated California it made for an interesting scenario. Of course, taste the wines first. Generalisations are always of debatable value. But do try to taste. If the wines fit your preferred style it might be just the right time to venture a bit of cellar space for the Californians.
If you must know, my favourites for drinking would be the Benevolent Neglect Ribolla Gialla, Keep Wines’ Counoise and Carignanne, Donkey & Goat Testa Carignanne, and Big Basin “Homestead Blend” (all very much geared to “drinking”). But you will see throughout my notes that there are many wines I’d love to drink at home or in a restaurant. Of the wines costing an arm and a leg, these are unlikely to pass my lips other than at future tastings, but they scored for being wines one would drink, not merely admire.
Now I genuinely cannot wait for Nekter to show their South Africans and Australians separately. In the meantime, enjoy these Californians. I hope my obvious enthusiasm is validated by other writers who may have attended.