Elaine Chukan Brown came to town and if you’ve never heard her speak on the subject of California wines then you have yet lived. The California Wine Fair has been rolling through Canada for coming upon forty years running and this past April she and the show stopped in Toronto. It has continued to exist as the largest Canadian gathering of that state’s wines under one roof you are ever going to find. The American specialist at JancisRobinson.com, contributing writer with Wine & Spirits Magazine and eloquent meets erudite penner of Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews was the keynote speaker at the trade luncheon but it was her morning presentation of California’s unexpected white varietals that got me thinking. Thinking about California wine.
Unexpected might also mean alternative though when talking about grape varieties grown in a place where nothing is truly endemic and everything is expatriate, is there truly such an animal? I could digress into commentary about immigration policies but I’ll stay the course and stick to wine. Brown’s seminar was appropriately referenced with more than one headline because it wasn’t just about varietals. The lecture indeed touched upon malvasia bianca, vermentino and chenin blanc but it also spoke of sparkling, Rosé and iconic blends made by archetypal producers. Not a singular notion by any means of conferral and so ultimately necessary to be expressed in diversified terms. Alternative and unexpected but not without a hit of developed orthodoxy and a whack of doctrinal emigration.
The cross-Canada celebration of California’s wine community began as a single-city event in Ottawa in 1980 and is now the largest annual wine tour across Canada. The California Wine Fair is is the hands of Praxis PR’s Paula Oreskovich and I would be shocked if there is a more successful regional tour, especially at this scale. The 2018 edition was no exception and adding Elaine Chukan Brown to the bill was both a coup and a stroke of brilliant thinking.
There were 10 wines involved in the determinate and evaluative discourse. I could kudize the selections and the seamless flow from reception wine Rosé through epiphanic Brut and across a swath of right proper showing white wines. I could but I’d rather concentrate on Brown’s photographic mind and ability to convey California wine growing region geography, topography and climatic influences. To present these things to a Toronto wine body politic eager for information. This presentation was science incarnate, pure and motivating. It dispatched the essence of the California dialectic and if you understand varietals, growing conditions and economics, what you soak in may actually allow you to write down what will happen in the future, much like you might write down the history of the past. A California history that speaks of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir. A California future that is alternative, unexpected and wide open.
Folded Hills Lilly Rosé 2017, Santa Inez Valley, California (Winery, WineAlign)
From the Bush family, Rhône varietals are the impetus with this second fruit from a Rosé vineyard set situated in proximation of Ballard Canyon, where things ripen quite formidably. It’s a top location for pinot noir but here an even better place for grenache and syrah. The wine spent 24 hours on skins, was fermented and aged in neutral oak. Crisp acidity speaks to the area’s growing conditions and in its way acts as grenache vin gris, of tart pink to red currants in a glass. Drink 2018-2020. Tasted April 2018 folded hills @foldedhills Folded Hills
Caraccioli Brut Cuvée 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, California (Winery, WineAlign)
Caraccioli Brut Cuvée 2010 is a pinot noir speciality transferred to sparkling for flinty, smoky, salty and briny sea fresh character from out of a cold Alaskan bred Pacific current. Top, absolute upper end of Brut with 12 g/L sugar and high natural acidity, which is essential. Four years on lees, but that burgeoning acidity works more magic than the yeasts do for texture. As tart as sparkling wine gets and it’s from California. A journey that began in 2010 for only 96 cases made. Price is $52 at the winery. Drink 2018-2022. Tasted April 2018 caracciolicellars @
Palmina Malvasia Bianca 2016, Santa Ynez Valley, California (Agent, WineAlign)
East of centre in the valley, just crossing into Ballard Canyon, from sand over chalk. These are soils that warm up fast, ripening a variety that wants to be bitterly phenolic but finds a way to make use of fog from coastal influences in a nook where the mountains run west to east. The limestone in turn acts as the conduit in delivery of great acidity. From green apple to south asian tropical fruit but I can’t say I’ve ever tasted anything like it before. Yes, the acidity is grand and yes, there is a bitter phenolic note though it’s like great gin. A wildly aromatic wine. There are 62 cases made. Drink 2018-2021. Tasted April 2018 palminawines barrelselect @ @
Ryme Cellars Hers Vermentino 2016, Carneros, Sonoma County, California (Winery, WineAlign)
From just over on the Sonoma side of Carneros, the last vineyard before you hit marshlands in San Pablo Bay. Alto, musky and floral notes on the nose, a deep sax, A Love Supreme. What’s curious and high level is the texture, which speaks to place, soil and I suppose, winemaking. It’s part malolactic from neutral oak to further explain, with a mix of stainless steel to keep it Trane chord change airy, elevated, ante-flat earth society vermentino. Approximately $25-29 US. Drink 2018-2020. Tasted April 2018 ryme_cellars @
Matthiasson White Blend 2015, Napa Valley, California (Winery, WineAlign)
Ostensibly an example of a ribolla gialla led, Friuli styled blend by Steve Matthiasson. It’s a grouping of sauvignon blanc, sémillon, ribolla gialia and tokai friuli (friulano) as the components, turning the Friuli a bit on its head but its more about fruit than pyrazine with a ribolla lick off the ground. There is a nutty note, namely almond from tokai and a flinty strike by sémillon. Unilaterally fermented in neutral barrels and then eventually transferred back in. Great balance, complex and long as the coastal range. Come back to it and it has a wonderful savoury, candied childhood memory feeling. Drink 2018-2021. Tasted April 2018 matthiasson_wine @
Introduced by Elaine Brown as “a testament to the notion that pinot gris is a noble grape, that expresses its place and adaptation from place to place.” A wine as child of western Sonoma County daily fog incursion, absorbed by the clay, a gift of natural refrigeration, non-pushed sugar development, working for gris, not just noir. Semi-mouth watering freshness, unctuousness and notable sweetness.”Round and hovering,” full and tart, mid-range in the mouth. Minor barrel fermented plus 15 per cent new, as kisses for a nutty depth and orange marmalade flavour. Quite delicious, full of texture and flavour. Drink 2018-2020. Tasted April 2018 #jvineyardsandwinery gallocareers @ @
Birichino Chenin Blanc Jurassic Park Old Vines 2016, Santa Ynez Valley, California (Winery, WineAlign)
From a site protected from wind, a diurnal temperature shift with more of a breeze effect, above the fog line at a high (1100 ft.) elevation. All this to say that you’ll end up with increased aromatics, from own-rooted vines planted in the 70s on sandy soils. Chèvre funky, tangy on the acid notes, with layers of ripeness, but with no developed botrytis and then some fruit picked in December mixed right in. It’s green, white, pink and yellow. It’s all in, not overly punchy but very expressive. From apple to brine and back again. This may be the vintage that has it all. Drink 2018-2020. Tasted April 2018 birichino_official #birichino Birichino
The first wine Montelena ever released was in fact riesling, a Bo Barrett obsession, slightly inland in the far north on Mendocino. It’s a high elevation at 900 ft., on highly oxygenated, well-draining, gravelly-loam soils with a touch of clay. Made in a combination of stainless steel and neutral oak. The lullaby phenolic and dreamy glycerin fruit content is high, with help from minor (4 g/L) of RS and what is essentially an arrested acidity. A very underdeveloped riesling, youthful and rich, just bloody delicious. Lime, snappy green apple and gravel stone bleed. Riesling as good as it gets in California, from Mendocino all the way down. Perfect for this desert life. “If dreams are like movies, then memories are films about ghosts. You can never escape, you can only move south down the coast…Hey Mrs. Potter won’t you talk to me.” Drink 2019-2022. Tasted April 2018 chmontelena rogersandcompanywines @ @
The Reserve is the top level for fumé blanc (aside from the I-Block) and a wine made since 1966. There must be more sémillon in 2014 because it’s as smoky and flinty as it ever has been. A portion of the 1945 I-Block vines generously add sauvignon blanc in this wine. This is the original, the history of California wine, the alternate varietal spoken ahead of all the others. Reduced vigour vines from volcanic, well-draining soils for purity and decades long honesty. Always absurdly fresh, integrated, with an ability to age low and slow. Drink 2019-2028. Tasted April 2018 robertmondavi #constellationbrands @ @
From the far western side’s folded, undulated hills on the western range that bring in cold air through its streams. A place of cold night and even some persistent cool air during the day. It’s roussanne based, but this ulterior vintage means an elongated ripening so the roussanne was low in acidity, therefore more picpoul was employed for acid. It’s fleshy, creamy toffee, candied floral and candied citrus plus orchard fruit and mango. Should turn waxy and seem more mineral as the alloys emerge and the fruit dissolves. Drink 2018-2021. Tasted April 2018 tablascreek @ @
Good to go!