The wonderful, larger-than-life wines of California have enjoyed something of a renaissance at Virgin Wines over the past year or so – delicious new discoveries such as The Vinitor Shiraz (now almost sold out – watch this space for more!) leading the pack. And so, not that long ago, I headed off to California with Virgin Wines’ buying head-honcho, Andrew Baker, to taste and blend the 2012 follow-ons of these successful wines from 2010 and 2011… and to discover some new things about this very special wine region and its producers.
With a buoyant domestic and international market for its wares, the Californian wine industry has not always served well as a destination for flavour-filled, value-packed wines. Ubiquitous supermarket brands bearing the Spanish word for “rooster”, or another name reminiscent of floral glades (I won’t name them, don’t want to get sued) have done little to educate and excite the public about Californian wine as it really is. At their best, these wines are packed with personality… and they’re great value too, if you know where to look.
We began our trip in San Francisco, the beautiful city by the bay. From here, it would have been far more predictable to head due north, to the showcase regions of Napa and Sonoma. But this trip was about value for money, not big names costing big bucks (and not necessarily delivering on their promise). Our destination was Lodi, a region which benefits from the cooling maritime influences of the bay to the west; an area which has become renowned for its punchy old vine Zinfandel and Shiraz as well as its crisp, fruity whites.
The 2011 vintage had its challenges – achieving ripeness being the main one – but there is none of that in the 2012s, which were uniformly excellent. We spent a day with 2 of California’s top winemakers selecting Virgin’s lots from the vast array of tanks and barrels on offer. But this wasn’t “off the peg” buying; the job here was tweak, reexamine, fine-tune until the wines were 100% up to the mark. And so they were: zesty Sauvignon and creamy Chardonnay; luscious Shiraz and spicy, plummy Merlot. The first half of the day was about building on the foundations of the 2010s and 2011s that have met with favourable response at Virgin; the afternoon was taken up with a visit to an outstanding new winery whose wares have never before been seen in the UK. Watch this space for more on that!
We tasted over 100 wines that day (the volume of wine you taste on a trip being one reason to go: it’s hard to get all those wines sent to the UK) and settled for the evening in old Sacramento which was great apart from yours truly getting a parking ticket. The following day, we travelled high up into the El Dorado foothills, almost reaching the snowline, for a portfolio tasting of high-end wines from top estates, none of which have ever been seen before in the UK either. We’re still sifting through the results of that – it’s another blog post in itself – but expect some small parcels of really indulgent Californian wine to hit the site over the coming months. Cheers!