(Above: Mountain vineyards in Caifornia’s Napa Valley.)
“What’s the best wine you’ve ever had?”
“What’s your favourite wine?”
I’m sure many us have been asked these questions time
after time. For me, they are impossible to answer: I could probably tell you
the five most memorable wines I’ve ever had, and the style or region I’m most
enjoying at any given time, but never anything as specific as one favourite
However, if it came to the crunch and I could only
fill my cellar with wines from a single region, I would answer “California” in
a heartbeat. This often raises an eyebrow or two among Bordeaux drinkers, and
inevitably leads to questions and statements about style, quality, age ability,
Robert Parker… It’s definitely a case of looking beyond the label, literally and
Recognising the heritage and spiritual home
The wines of California are too often overlooked or
dismissed by those of us who might stick to Bordeaux for their Cabernet
Sauvignon and Merlot blends. Given Bordeaux’s prestigious history and roll-call
of famous Châteaux along both banks of the Gironde, why settle for anything
less than Cabs and Merlots from their spiritual home? With centuries of
experience behind their belts it’s not unreasonable to suggest the Bordelaise
winemakers have the know how to produce the best ‘Bordeaux Blends’.
However, there are some interesting parallels between
Bordeaux and California. Not only have they played a vitally important role in
each other’s history with the exchange of root stocks and vines, both have
bounced back from the brink of devastation. For Bordeaux, it was the
devastation caused by the phylloxera pest in the late 19th century
that destroyed virtually every vine across Europe and meant replanting the
vineyards from scratch. For California, it was a man-made influence that all
but killed the production of quality wine, in the guise of prohibition! Before
this law was invoked there were incredible wines being produced in the
vineyards planted by the 18th century Missionaries, but production
came to a grinding halt once prohibition came in to effect. Even when the law
was repealed in 1933, economic depression and the impending war meant that the
industry remained all but forgotten. However, in the 1960s, riding on a wave of
national positivity and economic growth, California began to rediscover its
identity and the first generation of wines worthy of their peers in Bordeaux
David vs. Goliath tasting
The famous (infamous?!) Judgement of Paris Tasting in
1976 proved beyond a doubt that the best Bordeaux blends and Chardonnays could
compete with France’s elite Châteaux and Domaines, and a string of incredible
vintages through the mid- to late-1990s – and eye-catching scores from Mr.
Parker – saw the region back in business when it came to fine wine.
It’s also telling that some of the great producers and
Château-owners of Bordeaux have looked West for inspiration in the last few
decades. From Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s collaboration with Robert Mondavi
to form Opus One and Christian Moueix’s (of Petrus) purchase on
the Napanook vineyards to establish Dominus in early 1980s, to Francois
Pinault’s (of Château Latour) much publicised purchase of the Araujo
Estate in 2013, the Bordelaise have seen how far the region has come and
what a wealth of diversity is on offer.
It’s this final point that has fuelled my passion for
the wines of California. With the best will in the World, a drive through the
Médoc doesn’t exactly offer a wealth of beautiful views. It’s essentially a
series of rolling, fairly featureless hills and woodland with the occasional,
albeit it often breath-taking, Château along the way. It doesn’t scream ‘terroir’
in the quite the same way maybe Burgundy does. However, what a contrast the
Napa Valley is: the region’s vineyards are located within 16 distinct AVAs
(American Viticultural Areas – the equivalent of France’s AOC system) spread
along a 30 mile valley floor flanked by the imposing Mayacamas Mountains to the
west and the Vaca Mountains to the east, at elevations of up to 792 metres
above sea level. The variation and diversity in soils and microclimates in
unimaginably big, and the cooling effect of seas breezes and fogs from either
end of the valley add to the wines’ complexity.
(Above: Vineyards on Bordeaux’s Left-Bank)
View More on Napa’s Sub-Regions (AVAs) »
Howell Mountain AVA - Located above the fog line on the eastern side
of the Napa valley, the AVA is warmer and drier than other AVAs. Noted for
Powerful, firm, blackberry-currant flavours and good tannins, with excellent
acidity for ageing.
Mount Veeder AVA - Cooler climate, with most vineyards above the
fog-line, meaning warmer nights and cooler days. Low yields give red wines a
firm, tannic structure with strong earth-berry aromas and rich, but powerful
Oakville AVA - Moderately warm, but also still strongly
affected by night and early morning fog, which helps keep acidity levels good.
Ripe currant and mint flavours, rich texture and full, firm structure tempered
by rich fruit.
Rutherford AVA - Moderately warm, still marginally influenced by
early morning fog and tempered by afternoon marine winds. Flavours are full,
ripe, and notably currant with firm, but supple tannins for extended aging.
Saint Helena AVA - This, the narrowest part of the Napa Valley
floor, is warm, due to greater protection from western hills, with less fog or
wind incursions. The wines are deep and ripe, with firm tannins for structure
and acid for long cellaring.
Yountville AVA - Moderate, with cool marine influence and fog contributing
to cool summer mornings and the strong breezes of San Pablo Bay. Yountville
favours Cabernet and Merlot with ripe, violet aromas and rich, but supple
flavours and firm tannins.
Throw in significant vintage variations, and you’d be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about Bordeaux!
View Vintage Notes »
2009 - “A charmingly irresistible vintage, with
plenty of front end-loaded fruit and purity, and the cooler year meant that
lots of very perfumed wines have been produced.” - Robert Parker, The Wine
2010 - “A very cold year, and the harvest dates were
pushed back considerably, but there is no question that many of the wines have
turned out to be brilliant. This should be a long-lived vintage.” - Robert
Parker, The Wine Advocate
2011 - “2011 is the most site specific vintage I
have tasted in Napa. One big advantage of 2011 is that the successful wines are
very precocious and evolved with soft tannins and low acidity. The best of them
are endearing, charming wines.” - Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate
2012 -“A great vintage that appears to be a
no-brainer. Not a hot year by any means, this is a vintage for followers
of classic, big, fruit-dominated Napa wines.” - Robert Parker, The Wine
There’s also a great sense of freedom, passion and
adventure in California that is expressed in the wines and the winemakers – a
level a charm and bonhomie that’s rare to find in other corners of the globe.
For me, the combination of history, innovation and ever increasing quality is
There can be very few who have not baulked at the extreme mark-ups on wine
demanded by many of the world’s restaurants. Whether it’s a 3 Michelin Star establishment
or a rustic, local family-owned place, the frequent 70% mark-up has finally got
diners up in arms and they’re calling for a revolution.
For years, the restaurant sector shrugged off the
concerns of consumers who have been expected to put up with it. However,
with the ‘bring your own bottle’ (BYOB) movement spreading around the world’s
top gastronomic cities, can we expect this to be the norm in the future?
What is BYOB?
low-end restaurants that were often perhaps unable to secure an alcohol licence; the BYOB movement
became popular with trendy pop-up restaurants and allowed customers to feel
involved in their dining experience by bringing bottles of their own wine. Eventually
gaining momentum in New York during the 1990s, the trend quickly got picked up
in Asia and Europe. However, fine dining establishments in London and the rest
of the UK have only recently become more open to this idea.
It’s a start, but
is it enough?
Foodies who were serious
about pairing wine with gastronomic delights wanted to avoid the significant mark-up, and would end up compromising on the wine choice that would have perfectly
matched the quality of the food being served. In the past 5 years though, BYOB has been adopted by some mainstream establishments and top Michelin Starred restaurants.
However, often those restaurants
that do allow BYOB might prefer to avoid openly advertising the privilege, so many
customers would not think to ask. As a result of this, if a customer has a
special bottle of wine they have been aging in their cellar, they may decide to
stay at home and cook rather than celebrating at their favourite eatery.
“Essentially, I got fed up of being mugged by punitive London mark-ups
on fine wine… I was no longer prepared to pay the egregious, nonsensical prices
that were being asked…In the end, I just ended up drinking wine at home and at
friends’ dinner parties.” - AWC ClientGrant Ashton, 67 Pall Mall Founder and CEO
doubt that allowing BYOB can also be beneficial to the restaurant; Some
restaurants have made some progressive steps by allowing BYOB, for a small
corkage fee, at lunch or dinner on their quieter days. Not only does this help to
keep their tables full, but if a customer invites friends, family, colleagues
or clients, then they too could potentially become customers in the future.
ultimate gastronomic experience
However, the paradoxical
view might be that dining out at a top restaurant is an enjoyable and memorable, sensory
experience. Browsing the wine list whilst mulling over the menu adds to the
excitement of the occasion, and also offers the opportunity to discover new
delights with the guidance of a knowledgeable sommelier - clearly a key source
of pleasure when dining out.
Whatever a customer’s motivation for wanting to bring their own bottle, many
restaurateurs have responded to the trend, such as: Chiltern Firehouse, which is currently one of London’s most
exclusive restaurants, 2* Michelin, The
Square in London, 3* Michelin, 8 ½
Otto e Mezzo BOMBANA in Hong Kong and 3* Michelin, Eleven Madison Park in New York.
Above: Chiltern Firehouse - currently one of London’s most exclusive restaurants.
Top restaurants like these and many more, are already allowing customers
to bring their own wine (for a corkage fee), while also offering more choices
by the glass or carafe, have more variety of wines, wine pairing menus and with
the invention of the Coravin device, are able to provide the opportunity to
drink older and rarer wines without having to buy the entire bottle.
“AllowingBYOB is certainly a positive step by restaurants and we’re increasingly
witnessing more demand for it. We’re regularly asked and we manage this on an
individual basis. If a customer wants to bring a particularly special bottle,
and we’re informed in advance, we’ll consider every request and only ask for a
suitable corkage fee.” – AWC client Romain
Audrerie, Head Sommelier at Chiltern
Dine in or dine
Today’s wine consumers are increasingly more knowledgeable about fine wine
than ever before; with many building cellars and significant wine collections
at home – (previously highlighted in First Press).
Perhaps 25 years ago dining out was one of the few ways to drink and learn
about fine wines. However, as the trend for drinking and storing more wine at
home has evolved, driven by the democratisation of wine through the internet
and other media, the role of the restaurant with regards to wine is also
evolving. Discerning wine enthusiasts are clearly no longer inclined to pay the
large mark-up, so the traditional model will need to change. We anticipate
that BYOB will become widely accepted, but will this be enough?
What do you think? Share your
thoughts via the button below.
Tuesday 6th October AWC Fine Wine buying’s team were invited by Moët
Hennessy to taste the new release of the 2006 vintage of Dom Pérignon
with their oenologist & winemaker Vincent Chaperon. Taking place in London
at M restaurant, just a few streets from the Bank of England, I gratefully
accepted their invitation.
Chaperon works alongside Dom Pérignon’s Chef de Cave, Richard Geoffroy,
overseeing 600 hectares of Grand Cru and 1er Cru vineyards as well as nurturing
and maturing its extensive cellars. He has seen many changes come through Champagne
over the last decade, and used the tasting as an opportunity to talk about the
wider issues the region faces, including climate change, the influence of
technology and the global economy.
The effect of climate change
2006 was shown alongside a vertical of the four most recent vintages (2002 –
2005). This is the first time in Dom Pérignon’s history that it has been able
to offer five consecutive vintages. It made for a fascinating tasting - the
quintet offered a complete spectrum of styles that was in many ways to tasting
a flight of white Burgundies vintages. You could really see how the variations
of each growing season affected each wine. Vincent pointed out that this is
entirely intentional; Dom Pérignon’s ultimate goal is to create an expressive,
individual wine every year (remember they declared a 2003 when most other
houses did not), and Vincent believes the changing climate
of the region will allow them to achieve just that.
Since the 1990s the effects of climate change
have had a noticeable influence on the whole Champagne region. Ripeness levels
are up, yields are more consistent, and the impact of botrytis has drop
dramatically (we were told that in the 1970s it would not be unusual to lose
between 50% and 70% of the crop to botrytis, now a loss of even 15% would be a
shock). Longer summers have also allowed harvesting to take place over a
broader period, allowing individual plots to be picked at the optimal time
rather than rushed in before inclement conditions arrived. The diligent
checking of ripeness levels across vineyards and selective picking has long been
the norm for premium producers in other regions of France, but only in the last
decade or so has this been possible in the northerly latitudes of Champagne.
How the vintages compare
2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 vintage were categorised by Vincent into a trio
of distinctive groups:
is on its own as the most restrained of the recent vintages, showing what
Vincent referred to as a ‘classic’ level of ripeness and a high level of
acidity. I thought it was delicious with plenty of oyster shell minerality on
the nose and a taught, lean energy. It has shut down somewhat since I last
tasted it and will need a few more years for its biscuit and hazelnut richness
to show through. Unfortunately vintages in this style will become increasingly
less frequent due to climate change.
and 2005 lie at the other end of the spectrum. These are
broad wines with structure and weight that need time to evolve. Their showy
fruit masks their acidity and structure when young but it is most certainly
there. I thought the 2003 in particular has really evolved from a few years
ago, throwing off its abrupt exuberance for a rich, plump brioche character.
The upcoming P2 release of this wine (formerly known as Oenothèque) should be
and 2006 are, in Vincent’s words, about texture and succulence. These are
vintages made from fruit that was able to acquire complexity and concentration
right across the growing season, striking a balance between fruit, minerality
and weight. Much like the superstar 2002 at release, the
2006 is deliciously drinkable now yet has all the components to grow into a
seriously good Dom Pérignon. Meanwhile, the 2002 is now an absolute knockout – layered, rich and rounded with supremely
long, well balanced finish. A few years in the cellar should allow the 2006 to
shed its puppy fat and join it as this level.
thank Moët Hennessy and restaurant M for their hospitality; this was a
fascinating and enlightening tasting.