RICHARD ESLING: Californian wines in the limelight

A meal from the wine dinner organised by Arundel Wine Society
A meal from the wine dinner organised by Arundel Wine Society

The wine regions of California were in the news last month, but for all the wrong reasons.

Devastating wild fires ravaged the famed wine areas of Napa Valley, Sonoma and Mendochino, inflicting not just financial damage, but claiming the lives of more than 40 people.

This loss of life is indeed tragic, but the overall damage to the region’s wine industry is less than originally thought – a multi-billion-dollar industry on which thousands of livelihoods depend. The vineyards themselves are less vulnerable, since they contain relatively high levels of moisture in the vines and soil and, with impeccable management, have virtually no brushwood to catch fire. In fact, the fire-fighters used the vineyards as a refuge while combatting the fires.

For some producers, however, the cost has been high as several wineries have been completely destroyed, along with this year’s harvest. Luckily, over 85 percent of the grapes had been harvested before the fires and most of what was left on the vines was Cabernet Sauvignon, a variety which has the highest resistance to smoke damage. The majority of stock is stored away from the vineyards and survived, but one producer lost the past five years’ vintages and the winery.

Wine-making in California goes back to the days of the pioneers in the 18th and 19th centuries who brought their vines with them from all over Europe. It is for this reason that there is such a diversity of wines from California, with more than 300 varieties grown on a commercial basis. The gold-rush of the 1860s gave a boost to the fledgling wine industry, which expanded and prospered up until 1919, when prohibition was introduced. All wineries were destroyed and most of the vineyards ripped up, or converted to growing table grapes, until the end of this era in 1933. The industry took a while to recover, but by 1960, a new wave of serious winemakers were producing tip top wines.

A massive turning point came in 1976, when both red and white Californian wines outshone the best wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux in a blind tasting organised by Steven Spurrier in Paris. In an instant, California joined the ranks of the top wine producing regions of the world. There are now 1,200 wineries across California, which benefits from a great variety of soils as well as diversity of climates, allowing even cool climate varieties such as Pinot Noir to excel.

Last week, Californian wines were in the limelight again for the best of reasons – a sell-out Wine Dinner organised by Arundel Wine Society to demonstrate the high quality and versatility of wines from this region. Supported by the Californian Wine Institute UK, the event took place at the Parson’s Table, the best restaurant in Arundel. Chef Lee Parsons prepared an exquisite four-course menu, with a different top-notch wine paired with each course.

On arrival, diners were treated to canapés served with a glass of Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut, one of the best sparkling wines made in the US and served regularly at the White House. Made by the same method as champagne, it is a blend of several vintages, which gives richness and complexity to a bright, vibrant sparkler. Available through Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton for around £30 a bottle.

The remaining four wines were all sourced from Majestic, which has an interesting selection of wines from California, well worth investigating. Two wines were selected from the Saintsbury winery in Napa Valley – a barrel fermented Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir, both very Burgundian in style and fabulous quality for around £20 a bottle each.

The main dish was a loin of venison, perfectly matched to Ravenswood Lodi Zinfandel 2014, a deep, dark red produced from old vines.

The meal concluded with a delicious iced white chocolate and apricot parfait, paired with Andrew Quady’s outrageously rich and sweet Essensia Orange Muscat.

A fabulous evening where everyone loved everything. How could you not?

Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Twitter @richardwje. Visit www.winewyse.com.

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