California's no longer dreamin'

Related tags Cabernet sauvignon California wine Chardonnay

I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The Annual California Wine Tasting, held in London this month, offered a line-up of benchmark wines....

I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The Annual California Wine Tasting, held in London this month, offered a line-up of benchmark wines. Officially trumpeted last autumn as part of the Wine Institute of California's Brand California initiative, the benchmark wines are a special selection chosen by a mixed bag of tasters to highlight the Golden State's efforts in the £5 to £10 retail price bracket ­ an area in which many think it is seriously lacking. You've got your Blossom Hills (less said), and you've got your posh Pinots et al, and even posher Cabernet blends, but what is there in between?

California hits number-three spot

Plenty, says panel member Matthew Jukes, who was moved to comment that he couldn't believe the number and quality of California wines at these price points ­ they chose 16 wines out of 331 entered. Actually, I couldn't believe it either.

And aren't they doing well on it? Wines of California reports that 2004 saw wine exports to the UK grow by another 26% ­ more than any other country, with 2005 set to be another good year for them. And California has crept up to third place in the UK off-trade.

So what did the benchmark wines taste like? Not bad at all, with only the odd boring bottle and anonymous Chardonnay.

Cult wines gain UK following

The goodies included Kendall-Jackson's 2001 Camelot Cabernet Sauvignon (£5 to £7, contact Kendall-Jackson Europe on 020 8747 2840), a superior Zinfandel from Zin specialists Ravenswood (£7 to £10, Cellar Door, 01483 690000), and another surprisingly superior Zin from Gallo (2002 Rancho Zabaco Sonoma Heritage Vines Zinfandel, £7 to £10, Gallo, UK 01895 813444) ­ though no mention of Gallo on the label; a big, blousy Viognier from the organic Bonterra vineyard (£7 to £10, Brown-Forman, 020 7478 1300), and a spicy Central Coast Syrah from Concannon at the reasonably priced £7 to £10 (the Wine Group, 01284 774777). Who said California was expensive?

To test the theory further I ventured over to the Vineyard Cellars' table. Exclusive UK agents for some 45 top Californian and Pacific Northwest wineries, and boasting a line-up of cult wines that not even the Americans can get their hands on (think Caymus, Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle), surely Vineyard Cellars (01488 681313) wouldn't have anything I would be interested in ­ good value Californian wine with a maximum £10 ex-VAT per bottle?

"Oh yes we do," replies general manager James Hocking. "We've been building up the affordable level on our list. We want to dispel the myth that Californian wine is very expensive." He shows me an elegant Napa Valley Chardonnay (from Hendry) at a swallowable £10.24 ex-VAT per bottle, and a ripe, peachy Viognier lifted with a citrus twist from Rosenblum at £9 ex-VAT, then a serviceable Syrah from Domaine de la Terre (Terre Rouge) at £9.78. Okay, I believe you. But let's see if I can get the price ­ not the quality ­ down some more.

Film audiences boost Pinot Noir

I head over to PLB wines (01342 318282) who bring in the Sutter Winery-owned (of blush Zin fame) Montevina, which is aimed exclusively at the on-trade and find a sweet-tasting Zinfandel for around £7. Bibendum (0207 449 4100), though, offered better structure for the same price with the range from Delicato (the Merlot stood out), and a pretty Russian River Pinot Noir from De Loach (expect a surge in Californian Pinot Noir after the Oscar-winning film Sideways that has grabbed cinema audiences). Way to go, as they say in L.A.

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