That, to me, sums up what I can smell when drinking (decent) wine from California. It’s a smell of all the good things in the Golden State – dried grass, hot air, stone, earth, sea and foliage – coming together in the bottle.
To me, it could very well be that expression of ‘terroir’ the likes of Michel Chapoutier or Randall Grahm bleat about endlessly.
They’re probably right.
But I know what you’re going to say to me here: Californian wine is, for the most part, terrible, isn’t it?
Look no further than the sea of cheap chardonnay and other abysmal wines coming out of California’s sun-broiled valleys, all made to fly off supermarket shelves and satisfy distinctly – ahem – downmarket tastes.
Well, okay, sure. Unfortunately, much of the wine coming out of California suffers from excessively high alcohol levels, too much oak (I drank a Central Coast pinot noir the other day that would have been much more enjoyable had it not tasted as though it was fermented from the oak tree itself), too much sugar resulting in jammy flavours and any number of other faults.
But the state isn’t a sea of stinkers. There are some incredible wines there – unfortunately you’ll have to pay a lot for them because this isn’t a cheap place to make wine.
When done well, I can’t get enough of good Californian wine. When done horribly, I usually have no choice but to seek solace in an Old World Medoc claret so dry and tannic it could knock my teeth out of their sockets.
This brings me to a thought I have been trying to develop, although perhaps not very successfully (yet) but bear with me.
When it comes to wine drinkers, there are three types of people: Old Worlders, New Worlders and Any Worlders.
The nomenclature I’ve chosen leaves a lot to be desired (feel free to send me your ideas for a better word), but leaving that aside, these three categories tend to work. There are those who will only drink wine from places like France or Italy; those who can’t stand the acidic, tannic wines of the Old World and prefer only to drink ‘fruity, oaky chardonnay‘ from Australia or South Africa; then there are those who are agnostic to geography and just want to drink great wine no matter its origin.
I’d fall into the final category. Even though many of my favourite wines come from France these days and I actually like drinking wines that have tannins strong enough to bring down elephant, I have to confess my love affair with Californian wine – when executed properly.
I’m thinking of examples like Ridge, Clos du Val, Sean Thackrey, Tablas Creek, Au Bon Climat, Chateau Montelena and so many more. Yes, plenty are – eep – on the expensive side, but this is not always true.
The best way to explain why I can continue to love wine from California despite its many letdowns comes from this quote from the film Sideways when Miles and Jack were headed to a vineyard known for its chardonnay:
Jack: “I thought you hated chardonnay.”
Miles (to Jack): “I like all varietals. I just don’t generally like the way they manipulate chardonnay in California. Too much oak and secondary malolactic fermentation.”