California dreaming: the sunshine state’s best wines

Show caption Sunset flavours: fall coloured vineyards in the Napa Valley. California is the world’s fourth-largest wine producer after the big three of Italy, France and Spain. Photograph: Dennis Frates/Alamy David Williams’s wines of the week California dreaming: the sunshine state’s best wines All too often the wines from California are seen as over-blown and over-priced, but spend wisely and there are some superb options to be enjoyed David Williams Sun 6 Feb 2022 06.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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Classics California Zinfandel, USA 2020 (£8, Marks & Spencer) A fun fact about California wine for your next quiz night: if the region were a country (as a small and somewhat ambitious independence movement in the state would like it to be), it would be the world’s fourth-largest wine producer after the big three of Italy, France and Spain. It is, therefore, easily the biggest non-European wine “country”, and is on its own responsible for 81% of the US’s total wine production, and a considerably higher proportion of its exports. And yet, for all its scale, I’ve never quite had the feeling its wines are treated with the same respect and affection afforded to the wines of Australia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa – let alone that shown to the big Europeans – on this side of the Pond. Much of the problem is down to the quality and style of the state’s cheaper, sickly sweet and artificial-tasting big-name brands. Indeed, sub-£10 pleasure is very thin on the ground, with M&S’s juicy bramble-jam-and-tea zinfandel a rare exception.

Le P’tit Paysan P’tit Pape, Central Coast, California, USA 2018 (£30.82, If the starting point, price-wise, for good California wine is higher than any other wine country, it is at least somewhat lower than it used to be – and the standard of wines once you get to that point is very much comparable with the best of the rest of the world. Tasting a range of about 70 California wines available in the UK’s independent wine merchants recently, I was struck by the quality – and diversity – of California wines in the £20 to £30 bracket. That’s nobody’s idea of cheap, I realise, but then the luminous complexity of Alma de Cattleya Chardonnay, Sonoma County 2019 (£27.95,; the fragrant ripe red fruits of Varner Foxglove Pinot Noir, Central Coast 2017 (£19.25,; the spicy-berry succulence of Qupé Syrah, Central Coast 2018 (£22,; and the meaty-peppery savouriness of Le P’tit Paysan P’tit Pape are all at least as good if not better than comparably priced wines made from the same grape varieties in Burgundy or the Rhône Valley.

Chateau Montelena Calistoga Zinfandel, Napa Valley, USA 2016 (£42, California’s other problem in the UK is that we tend to treat it (as, indeed, I have done here so far) as a viticultural monolith, when, as you would expect from a state of this scale, there’s at least as much geological and climatic variation as there is from region to region in France or Spain. Officially, there are now 142 American Viticultural Areas (the slightly less proscriptive US equivalent of French appellations d’origine contrôlées), in California, covering around 800miles from the deep southern San Pasqual Valley near San Diego to Willow Creek in far northern Humboldt County. Increasingly, over the past decade some of my favourite California wines have come from Pacific coastal and/or high elevation sites between those poles (see above). But my recent tastings showed there is still plenty of interest in the classic and best-known California region, the Napa Valley, where, in among some of the world’s more ludicrous overblown lifestyle products, are distinctive, complex, food-friendly wines such as Chateau Montelena’s Italian-esque zinfandel.

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