When, having married an American, I first hosted a Thanksgiving dinner, I assumed my wife was joking when her menu included a side of sweet potato topped with marshmallows. Sadly, she wasn’t. Turns out the dish is a bona fide US staple. But that's an argument to be had for another article.
After a decade or so of labouring over the turkey every fourth Thursday in November, this year we’re heading out. Such celebrations are becoming more and more prevalent on this side of the pond – with or without American family connections or the signature sickly side. One thing that is a non-negotiable on the table, though, is American wine – and, these days, we’re spoiled for choice.
Believe it or not, wine is made in all 50 US states. And, though I haven’t tried the Alaskan Bear Creek Strawberry Rhubarb cuvée that would surely be a fine complement for the sweet potato, I have had the dubious pleasures of a Colorado pinot grigio and an Arkansas chardonnay. On this basis, I can say with a degree of certainty that wines from the vast majority of these states can safely be consigned to the ‘novelty’ category.
Perhaps it is no bad thing, then, that there are only five states whose wines tend to make it to the UK's shores in any volume. Among these, the output of Virginia and New York – while promising – is still in its formative stages (riesling from Finger Lakes is worth a shot if you can find any). All of which leaves, to all intents and purposes, just three states of note: Oregon, Washington and the big beast, California.
And, just as the Golden State dominates the US wine conversation (it is responsible for almost 90 per cent of the country’s total production), Napa, for most, is the benchmark for California wine. Though this is true in terms of quality, it is testament to Napa’s reputation that, in volume terms, the valley is actually responsible for just four per cent of the state’s wines (there is a lot of confected, mass-market plonk made in California’s inland Central Valley).
Napa’s stock in trade is big, bold reds. For much of the 20 years or so straddling the turn of the millennium, winemakers there were in thrall to the uber-critic Robert Parker, whose verdicts carried such weight that wineries started making bottles with his taste in mind. Fortunately, for them, Parker’s palate favoured powerful cabernet sauvignon, and the success of such wines created a virtuous circle of investment. Wealthy newcomers were attracted by the idea of adding a status symbol to their business interests in the form of a Napa winery. And, if you’re going to make such a big, bold investment, you’re going to want to produce a big, bold wine, in a big, bold bottle, garnering a big, bold score.
Parker stepped back from reviewing California wines in 2011 (he formally retired in 2019), a time when many consumers had started to become tired of wines whose overblown proportions (100 per cent new oak, 15 per cent – and sometimes more – alcohol) often meant that, while the first glass was impressive, the second was a chore.
“‘Restraint’ is the buzzword among Napa winemakers these days,” says Chuck Cramer, aka Mr California Wine, a Los Angeles native who, despite working in the London wine trade for over 20 years, still carries a distinct west coast twang when presenting his wine-themed podcast, ‘On The Road’. “No-one talks about getting Parker points anymore.”
Many of the wines that are exported to the UK lean towards this more subtle, savoury nature. Cramer represents Chimney Rock, whose cabernet is blended with other grape varieties for a more elegant, Bordeaux-like complexity, complemented via ageing in savoury French – rather than the sweeter American – oak. The result is a wine with a little more depth and character than many straight Napa cabs, and a refreshing, lifted tone.
The same approach is followed in Harvey Nichols’s own-label California cabernet, made by the pioneering Joseph Phelps, one of the standout wineries behind Napa’s huge growth in the 1970s. It features classic, rich crème de cassis and blackcurrant tones, and its dash of other Bordeaux varieties and touch of French oak lend a warming spice on what is a great-value, plush – but balanced – rendering.
For those looking for something more nuanced still, Washington and Oregon’s more northerly, cooler situation provides it. Oregon is known primarily for its rounded – but refreshing – pinot noir, meanwhile Washington’s diverse climate gives rise to a broad array of varieties, from chardonnay to syrah. For a fine example of the latter, look to Chateau Ste Michelle, the oldest – and by far the largest – winery in the state. It makes various cuvées, including a hugely popular riesling, but its syrah is the perfect winter wine, harnessing deep, inky-black fruits with a peppery edge.
Want more drinks content? These are the best bottles for gifting this Christmas…
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