California wines 101
The other night, I had the privilege of attending a private dinner with master sommelier Darius Allyn and California Wine Institute director for Asia Christopher Beros.
A master sommelier is considered to be the highest and most prestigious title available to sommeliers around the world, with fewer than 300 professionals worldwide achieving the title since the first Master Sommelier Diploma Exam almost 50 years ago. Master sommeliers “speak with authority on the major wine regions of the world” and need to know the history, geography, soil and climate of the region; the names of key towns, villages and vineyards in the region; the attributes of key wines from that region; winemaking techniques used in the region; the organoleptic differences between different wines in the region, etc.
Darius Allyn can do all that.
But he was here in Manila to share his knowledge on California wines. Here are a few things I learned:
- Napa Valley has excellent cabernet sauvignon but if you want more diversity, visit Sonoma Valley.
“The mentality of people in AVA (American Viticultural Area; a designated wine grape-growing region in the United States, providing an official appellation for the benefit of wineries) is that when they compare Napa and Sonoma, the association with Napa is better. But there is a more diversified selection of quality wines in Sonoma than in Napa. There are very good chardonnays, rieslings, great zinfandels,” Allyn explained.
- AVA is a guide but don’t limit yourself. This is because the AVA boundaries may be more political than agricultural. For example, Beros explains, when you go northwards of Napa, there is a very good area called Alexander Valley with excellent wines but this is considered part of Sonoma, not Napa. Interestingly, outside of the Napa, price points for wines go down because these areas are not as popular as Napa. But that should not be so because if you would look at it agriculturally, there are areas beyond Napa that could be considered part of the region, except that they have not been classified as such because certain counties were delineated politically.
- California wines, for true collectors, can get very expensive.
In the California section of the wine cellar of Artisan Cellar Door, there is a stack of Opus One. But this is not what caught the eye of Allyn and Beros. They noticed a label called Scarecrow. And Allyn was very impressed that Artisan Cellar Door had it.
A bottle of this wine, by the way, can set you back anywhere between P60,000 to 80,000; more expensive than Opus One.
“They (the winemakers) don’t care about exporting Scarecrow wines,” Allyn explains. “My guess is you went to their vineyard to purchase it yourself.” He was right.
The reason why California wines can get expensive is because 85 percent of their wines are sold only domestically; the winemakers have little or maybe even zero interest in exporting, unlike, for example, French wine producers, where 65 percent is exported.
- Don’t pair the best steak with the best wine. If you have a very good bottle of wine, you want to just have it by itself, to fully appreciate it; or have it with something simple.
For a great steak, you should just have a simple, medium plus bodied red wine.
- Don’t follow the trend of going for any “natural” wine.
This is apparently a big trend now among wine enthusiasts but “natural” wine is not necessarily the best wine. There are certain procedures in the wine making process that are essential, so “natural” wine—while there are some good ones—has a tendency to become more like vinegar sooner.
- If you want to really know your wines, you should know your geography. There is no substitute for traveling and tasting wines in the countries and regions where they are grown.
That is because when you visit and taste these wines, while you taste more and more, your palate starts to pick up on subtleties that you may not necessarily observe as a novice wine drinker, Beros explains.
- Wine is still subjective.
While someone like Darius would undoubtedly have an extensive grasp on the language of wine, even he admits that when it comes to the nuances, experts themselves may have different opinions on the same bottle. That is because what one picks up in terms of distinctions and profiles may not be what another tastes, even if both have a tremendous command of the adjectives and descriptions of wine. So there are really no wrong answers.
- There is such a thing as flabby wine.
They use this word to describe wine that does not deliver in terms of desired structure; hence, flabby!
Finally, for the collectors, here are some insider tips on California wines:
- Titus Vineyards, while focusing on cabernets, has some very good zinfandels.
- Honig Vineyard & Winery has some very good sauvignon blancs.
- Alexander Valley Vineyards may be considered one of the top two wine growers in Sonoma. They make excellent chardonnays as well.
- A Jackson Valley wine is one of the best value wines and the label is considered to be a wine of distinction.
- Louis Martini wines are considered by Darius to be outstanding. Buy the 2016.
- For sparkling wines, visit Anderson Valley. Chris recommends Roederer Estate.
Artisan Cellar Door, G/F Narra Building 2276 Pasong Tamo Ext., Makati. For inquiries call (02) 880 0619.
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