Unsung heroes from California

While California undoubtedly boasts some outstanding cabernet sauvignon we should not forget other gems, such as its equally impressive chardonnay

Most California growers will tell you that cabernet sauvignon is the Napa Valley gold standard and over 94% of Napa estates produce one.

The success of cabernet can obscure the fact that California regions such as Russian River and Carneros have some of the best chardonnay in the world. Styles resemble Burgundy, but with just a bit more ripeness to their lemon and grapefruit flavours. Fine and refreshing in youth, the best of them age splendidly.

The only fly in the ointment is the price, for almost all top California wines cost at least as much, and often more, than their equivalents from Europe. That’s largely been driven by demand – quantities tend to be relatively small, the buyers wealthy, and the domestic market loyal – and while the credit crunch could soften things up, the wines don’t look like turning into bargains any time soon.

This was demonstrated in a recent tasting of Cakebread Wines, held by merchant Febvre and Bruce Cakebread, proprietor of this family estate. He has vinyards both in the Napa Valley floor and on nearby hills which rise to almost 2,000 feet above sea level.

Napa is what’s called an American Viticultural Area and it contains 14 sub-AVAs, including classy Carneros and the increasingly fashionable Howell Mountain.

“We started with around 28 acres and can now draw on over 400 acres and a number of growers,” says Cakebread. “Our finest wines come from small parcels, several of them in pretty cool microclimates.”

A sauvignon blanc was tasted but the chardonnays were the real stars. Napa Valley 2006 had lovely citrus with well focused acidity and decent length. The same wine shown from the 2003 vintage had a trace of earthiness and tasty fruit finish; a good wine for hearty white meat dishes.

Carneros Chardonnay Reserve 2003 and 2006 were then tasted together, with the 2006 showing citrussy elegance with hints of melon and the 2003 showing lovely evolution, with classic dry lemon flavours, harmony between acidity and fruit weight, and plenty of flavour to finish.

My red of the day was Dancing Bear Howell Mountain Cabernet 2005. From a cooler situation but still perfectly ripe, this had finely balanced alcohol, with tasty blackcurrant and plum flavours. It’s a small production as yet and Febvre is looking at the possibilty of bringing it to Ireland.

Napa Valley Cabernet 2005 and Benchlands Select Napa Cabernet 2005 were elegant, with slightly dry but supporting tannins and classic California cassis notes.

They are expensive though, at up to €85 retail, and are aimed at the upmarket on-trade rather than the home drinker. Some of the chardonnays come in at around half that, and while not cheap, are good and have ageing potential.

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