Wine is produced in all 50 of the USA’s states, and many of them are now seeping into the wine drinker’s consciousness – New York State (Finger Lakes), Oregon (Willamette Valley) and Shenandoah Valley (Virginia). Despite this, California still accounts for around 90% of the USA’s total production, and is almost synonymous with American wine from a European point of view.
Of all the regions within California, the most well known are Napa and Sonoma in the North Coast (at the top of the map above). The Central Coast also has a lot to offer, including Santa Barbara (the setting for Sideways). Below are a couple of fantastic reds hailing from Santa Maria (area 71 in the map above) and Napa.
Cambria Estate Santa Maria Valley Tepusquet Syrah 2010 (14.5%, €24.95, O’Briens)
This 100% Syrah is the sister wine to the Cambria Estate Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir which I reviewed recently elsewhere.
Well, not quite the sister, as Julia’s sister Katherine has her own namesake vineyard next door. The Tepusquet Vineyard is in the far south of Cambria Estate as it is the most protected from the elements, and is therefore a little warmer.
Internationally, the choice of synonym normally denotes the style – spicy and savoury Northern Rhône Syrah or big and bold Aussie Shiraz. In common with many US versions of the grape, this wine is labelled Syrah no matter what the style, but as it happens this is somewhere in between the two – as though Saint Joseph had a very warm year. This spicy, savoury edge to the dark juicy fruit gives it versatility – lovely to drink on its own but would pair well with red meat dishes without overpowering them.
If you like South African Shiraz or Hawke’s Bay Syrah then this is definitely worth putting on your list.
Atalon Napa Valley Merlot 2004 (14.0%, €27.45, O’Briens)
And so to the wine that dare not speak its name. Merlot often gets a bad press, with the influence of Miles from Sideways still felt…
Jack: If they want to drink Merlot, we’re drinking Merlot.
Miles Raymond: No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!
Napa is rightly famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Chardonnay, but Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc are also planted there. Atalon aim to produce Bordeaux-style wines from the different parts of Napa which exhibit elegance and complexity – words not always associated with Californian wine.
This is almost a varietal Merlot, with just a 3% dash of Cabernet Sauvignon, so this is right-bank in style – think Pomerol or Grand Cru Classé Saint-Emilion. At 12 years of age it is still in its prime, with lots of black fruit, and still a little tannin. I’d imagine it spent well over a year in American oak while maturing, but that oak is well integrated now, leaving just a little vanilla and spice.
This is a Merlot for people who don’t think much of Merlot – it is indeed elegant and complex, with far more going on than any other new world example I’ve tasted.
This is the finest varietal Merlot I’ve tasted in many years!
More from Make Mine a Double