Although the French wouldn’t like to hear it, there are some high level similarities between the USA’s AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) and the French Appellations d’Origine Controlées (AOCs), namely that the most prestigious delineated areas are small and sit within larger areas, sometimes with multiple layers – for example, just as Puligny-Montrachet is a part of the Côte de Beaune and then the larger Burgundy area, Russian River Valley is part of Sonoma County, then the North Coast and finally the general California area.
Confusing? Perhaps, but the relative size of an appellation within a region is one (of several) indicators to a wine’s quality. Here are three wines from Cline Cellars – a producer I hold in high regard – that illustrate this.
Cline Cellars North Coast Viognier 2013 (14.0%, €17.99 at jnwine.com)
The North Coast AVA is illustrated on the map above – it contains the world-renowned Napa and Sonoma plus other great areas such as Los Carneros. If a producer uses grapes from one of those prestigious areas then s/he will use that on the label, but if the vines lie outside them or the wine is a blend from different regions then North Coast will be used.
This is a 100% Viognier, the aromatic grape that was once almost lost apart from a few plots in Condrieu in the Northern Rhône. It manages to be fresh and rich at the same time, with typical Viognier aromas of flowers and stone fruit such as apricot and peach. It has a little oiliness in the mouth and more body than many whites. Viognier is a grape that I don’t always get on with, but this is the best Californian Viognier I’ve tried to date – and great value too!
Cline Cellars Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013 (14.5%, €22.50 at jnwine.com)
Sonoma Coast is the part of Sonoma County that lies – you guessed it! – on the coast. This obviously makes it a cooler climate area than inland Sonoma (it also receives more rain than the rest of the county), so it’s more suited to varieties such as Pinot Noir. That being said, at 14.5% this is no shrinking violet of a Pinot – you’d never wonder if it was actually a rosé rather than a red, like some Pinots! It has a lot of body and power, but it’s no monster either, as there’s plenty of acidity to keep it in balance, and although it feels silky and voluptuous in the mouth there’s no alcohol burn on the finish. In line with the experience there’s an abundance of bold black fruit and a twist of exotic spice. It’s an all-round impressive wine!
Cline Cellars Contra Costa County Big Break Vineyard Zinfandel 2011 (16.0% €29.50 at jnwine.com)
Based on my somewhat basic understanding of California’ geography, Contra Costa County is actually just outside the North Coast wine area, right at the bottom of the map at the top. This is a single vineyard wine, so perhaps some sort of equivalent of Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Folatières? Well, that might be a bit fanciful, but the (unirrigated) vines here are a century old and produce impressive concentration. The sun beats down fiercely during the day but the nearby Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers provide cooling breezes at night which allow the grapes to rest.
Okay, there’s no hiding from the size of the Big Break Zin (named after an old levee in the area which broke decades ago) but you don’t have to – it’s approachable and cuddly rather than intimidating. It wears its 16.0% well, just like its little brother Pinot, all down to balancing acidity. In fact the acidity comes through in the type of fruit tasted on the palate – fresh black cherry and blackberry, with hints of cinnamon and other spices.
Of course the comparison between AVAs and AOCs can only go so far – the latter can be incredibly prescriptive in terms of varieties, yields, vine training, irrigation, alcohol levels and many other things, whereas AVAs are primarily just based on vineyard location. But I think that the wines above do show that there are different quality levels and that smaller is generally better. It could just be down to the nature of the grapes for each wine, but above all paying more definitely brings the rewards of higher concentration in the glass.
Are you inclined to agree?
And of course, those lyrics…