Samui Wining & Dining
Californian Cabernet Calling

Some classy wines from the golden state.



         If there is one significant wine region that flies-under-the-radar in Asia, more than any other, and is sparsely represented on wine lists in Thailand, you would have to say that it’s California. And that’s a great shame, because it’s the source of so many really good wines. Some are simply world-class. Californian winemakers have produced top quality wines that are the equal to many over-lauded big-name wines from France. But amazingly, it’s still the case that these cherished wines, either do not escape the borders of the United States because the home market is so strong, or when they do, for curious (possibly prejudiced) reasons the wines do not receive the praise they obviously deserve.

         It’s also true that Californian style wines that display ripe fruit, and jump-in-the-mouth type characteristics, do not always suit the more conservative, old school Eurocentric palate. But many winemakers will proudly tell you (something along the lines of); their mission is to get the maximum possible flavour and character out of the grape and into their wines.

         It's been nearly 40 years since Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant working in Paris, held a blind tasting between the top wines of California and their French counterparts. The ‘Judgment of Paris,’ as it became known, and later was the subject of a Hollywood movie called ‘Bottle Shock’, surprised many, as a clutch of Californian wines scored higher than examples from Bordeaux and Burgundy. Overnight the world woke up to what Californian winemakers had suspected all along - their wines could stand alongside the very best.

      And in many ways, the late 1970s were a turning point for California wines. Key figures like Robert Mondavi, Ridge Vineyards and Chateau Montelena winemaker Mike Grgich, took an industry that had been best known for producing high-volume standard table wine, and planted it firmly on the fine wine map. The famous Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet proved that California could do what Europe had taken centuries to learn. And indeed, the Californian wine industry has now matured immensely, taking advantage of the favourable local conditions, and producing consistently distinctive wines as a result of planting the right grape in precisely the right location

      Most of the Californian wine-growing regions are located around the San Francisco Bay area, although they cover a huge expanse, stretching almost as far south as Los Angeles. And the region that has produced some of the superstars of Californian wine story, so far, is the Sonoma Valley. It’s said that the Californian wine pilgrim should visit here first. Sonoma has all the atmosphere of a little wine capital (in fact, the capital of a very little republic, the short-lived Bear Flag Republic of California). The town’s tree shaded square, with its old mission buildings, its stone built City Hall and ornate theatre is rich in west coast American history. And combined with the excellent wineries, it’s a patent tourist hub. The vineyards flourish in the ideal climatic conditions of the valley. The wines they do best tend to be made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel. And mirroring the way in which wines from different locations on the famous slopes of Bordeaux vary, Sonoma wines have differing characteristics, depending on which direction vines are facing, exposure to sunlight, wind and temperature fluctuations. But, it would be a brave taster who claims to identify a Sonoma Valley wine’s exact location - there are simply too many variables in Californian wines.

      The acclaimed Napa Valley, although it has never had a monopoly, is undoubtedly the flagship region of the Californian wine industry. According to winemakers, the conditions are optimum for vines, and it’s often said that “every year is a vintage year” in Napa. The valley runs in a shallow arc, with most of the vineyards growing near the valley floor where the soil is rich. And Napa Valley is probably known best for its wonderful Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet blends. The generally warm, not too wet climate certainly suits the Cabernet grape. It could be argued that, even though the grapes are grown in wine regions all around the world, only Bordeaux and Napa Valley have achieved world-class status for Cabernet Sauvignons. Napa also grows a lot Merlot, usually for blending with Cabernet, and is noted for its fruity Pinot Noir, whilst the most popular white wines are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

      Further south, on the central coast of California, there are another two, lesser-known, regions particularly worthy of note to the wine lover - San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties. San Luis Obispo County is a region of vastly diverse viticulture areas. These include, for example, the warm, hilly Paso Robles area where Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon reign. And the cool, coastal Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande, home of some very good Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Santa Barbara County is home to the cool Santa Maria, Santa Ynez. And Los Alamos Valleys (which lie north of the city of Santa Barbara) run east to west, opening toward the Pacific Ocean and channelling in the ocean air. The cool climate is ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Pinot Noir has earned Santa Barbara much of its acclaim as a wine region, the wines burst with luscious strawberry fruit, laced with herbal tones. Meanwhile Santa Ynez Valley is well known for its stylish Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc, with Riesling also doing extremely well.

         And finally, it’s a testament to the viticulture prowess of California that many French Champagne houses have set up wineries there. The most famous examples are Moet & Chandon's Domaine Chandon, Taittinger's Domaine Carneros and Mumm Napa in the Napa Valley. It’s no wonder California is known as the Golden State!


Peter James


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