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California dreamin’

Columnist Danny Hewitt, on why California is one of his favourite wine regions; plus the under-$25 wine review

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Photo: Sonoma Country Vintners

Photo: Sonoma Country Vintners

Exploring the Golden State’s many different wines.

What’s not to love about California? The state has it all. Glamour, beautiful people, an amazing coastline and some of the best cuisine you’ll find anywhere. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit several times, and always leave wanting to return. The sheer variety of fantastic wines and the number of regions now making wine means many visits are necessary to just touch on what’s happening. That’s OK with me. And it’s always impossible not to take side trips to San Francisco, Los Angeles and many others to see some of the great attractions.

The California Wine Show in Halifax was May 2, and if you were like me, and made it to this great event at Pier 21, you came away impressed with the great quality and variety of wines you could taste. The classic California varietals like zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay were in abundance, but there was also grenache, viognier, petite sirah and many different blends. California is on a roll, and finally some of these great wines are affordable, with our dollar hovering close to par.

The wine map of California has changed drastically in recent years. Most of us have heard of Napa and Sonoma, but who has heard of Fiddletown or Santa Clara, or Shenandoah Valley? The great thing about undiscovered wine regions is that they usually correspond with great (meaning low) prices.

It’s a worthwhile exercise to take a closer look at some of the lesser known regions and search out some value wine to try. The California wine section in Nova Scotia is dominated with brands like Gallo and Mondavi, but there are 2,000 plus other wineries across most parts of the state. Some of these other wines are now finding there way onto our shelves. I have selected four regions that are up and coming, and you should still be able to find wines from these regions either at your local NSLC, Port of Wines, or one of the private stores. Let’s go from north to south and look at exciting regions with great wine values.

The Russian River Valley is to the immediate west of Sonoma and butts up against the Sonoma Coastal region. Cool and foggy weather results in some amazing chardonnays and pinot noirs. The Russian River itself runs through the region and adds to the effect of tempering the normally warm California climate. Wines from this region are generally not cheap but they still offer great value for price. Look to pay between $25 and $50 a bottle, but it will be worth every penny.

The Lodi region has a completely different climate than Russian River Valley. Located 320 kilometres east of San Francisco, this area has a Mediterranean climate, which allows it to produce very concentrated and rich wines in a New World style. Wine grapes came to this region during the Gold Rush and flourished. Lodi thrived during Prohibition when one could get a licence for legal “home wine-making.” Old vine zinfandel is a star here, as well as cabernet and merlot, and many other varietals. The quality is rising here and many good values are available under $25.

Paso Robles is located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles in the Central Coast area. This is one of the fastest growing wine regions in the United States, and is already famous for its great zinfandel and Rhone style blends that focus on syrah. The area is also gaining a reputation for its “Crazy Blends,” which are unique winemaker concoctions of different grapes. Paso Robles is laid back area and likes to think of itself as anti-Napa. That is, lots of working farms and friendly locals versus the rich wineries and elaborate tasting rooms in the further-north regions.

Santa Maria Valley is in the northern part of Santa Barbara. The region has been home to celebrities from Charlie Chaplin to Oprah Winfrey. It has a unique geographical feature of having the high hills run from east to west versus north to south. This feature is a funnel to the Pacific, allowing the cool breezes and fog to roll up the valleys and creating (in what would be a very hot region otherwise) moderate temperatures and a long growing region. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah all star here, at prices ranging from affordable to ridiculous. The 2004 movie Sideways made Pinot Noir famous here and hence more expensive, but there are still many values to be had. Plus, you’re only a couple of hours away from Hollywood!

The NSLC has a number of wines that were in the California wine show available as limited finds in several stores, so experiment, drink with friends and enjoy.

We would love to hear about your California wine experiences. Write us about it at tadams@metroguide.ca for a chance to win a special California wine prize.

The under $25 wine review

Fetzer Sundial Chardonnay 2010, California, NSLC, $14.99

Ripe notes of pineapple and melon lead into a refreshing, lighter style chardonnay. Nice viscosity and good weight with a slightly herbal finish. Great balance of oak and fruit for a California wine. Any chardonnay under $20 that is this good is a great value. Poach some fresh Atlantic salmon and watch it sing. 90/100

Wente Sandstone Merlot, Livermore Valley, California, Bishop’s Cellar, $23.95

Plummy notes and stewed figs. Medium-bodied and silky with a ripeness of flavour that leaves you looking for more grip. I love the long finish; wines like this always make me realize how under-appreciated merlot is. Serve with a pasta lamb ragout. 90/100

80–84: A great sipper, good value.
85–89: Won’t last long, great value.
90–94: Brag to your friends and buy a case—fantastic.
95–100: A classic, run to the store, extremely rare.

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