Friday 9 May 2014

Scaffolding and bare brickwork: Structuralists shine at Roberson's New California tasting

‘Looking forward to hearing what’s new in the “new” California,’ Claudia Schug tweeted just before Roberson’s London tasting last month. Of course, there’s nothing new about restraint and structure in California – everything in wine is cyclical. Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle and author of the seminal The New California Wine made that clear at the beginning of the three seminars he chaired at the tasting, referencing the ‘first modern revolution’ – the coming of Robert Mondavi, Paul Draper, Warren Winiarski, the founding fathers of modern California wine, and the subsequent ‘decadent phase’ starting in the late 1980s, when big money first started arriving in Napa.

'it doesn't have to be outré'
Bonné had the vision to recognise a shift in the tectonic plates that underpin the vast mass of the California wine industry. There was the moment, as he put it, when ‘what were fringe experiments were starting to change the conversation. People [like Steve Matthiasson, Cathy Corison or the philosopher-winemaker Abe Schoener - the latter covered in this blog] were starting to change the conversation’. They’d been plugging away at it for years, and what they all had in common, it seems, was an instinct – nurtured by exposure to fine European wines – that California didn’t have to be outré.

Matthiasson: 'translucent'
 And there’s nothing new in that. Stephen Brook, author of another seminal book, 1999’s The Wines of California, has been banging the drum of restraint (as it were) for years. I chaired California (particularly Napa) panel tastings at Decanter through the decade of excess from 2000 onwards and lost count of the number of times Brook, faced with yet another ripe glassful said, ‘but it doesn’t have to be like this.’ Indeed, anyone who has tasted old Napa Cabernet (Inglenook 61, Spring Mountain Vineyard 79, Newton 81 to name just three I’ve had in the last year) knows how the last 15 years can be seen as an aberration.

Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator are convenient bugbears, but it's not clear-cut, Bonné said. 'I always come back to the industry’, the massive injections of ‘cash and ambition’ in the late 80s and early 90s, coinciding with the last phylloxera epidemic, the ‘billion dollar round of replanting’ and thousands of acres of young vines producing a flood of exuberant, sweet and fleshy wines for a newly-aware market. This was the beginning of a ‘populist connoisseurship’, as he put it.

The debate will continue. ‘We are starting to see diversity: wines that will show we can have a more detailed conversation about what California can represent,’ Bonné said.

the conversation's getting louder
So in answer to Claudia Schug, daughter of Walter Schug, another Napa pioneer, inaugurator of Phelps Insignia and maker of fine Carneros Pinot Noir, amongst many others, what’s new in the new California is the fact the conversation is getting much louder, and has moved out of the barrel cellar and into central London venues like the handsome rooms of the King’s Fund in Cavendish Square, where we’re sitting.

Tatomer: 'coolest label in the house'

The tasting buzzed with enthusiasm. London journalists, Brook, Jancis Robinson, Neal Martin, Jamie Goode, Steven Spurrier, a big crowd from Decanter, buyers like Greg Sherwood of veteran California specialists Handford Wines, sommeliers: Andrea Briccarello of Galvin, Andres Ituarte of Avenue, Charlie Blightman of Hawksmoor, Claire Pancrazi of MASH and half a dozen others.

doggedly pursuing structure for decades
A fascinating line-up of wines, a range which showed the risk-taking mind-set of Mark Andrew, the crusading Roberson buyer. So alongside established classics like Corison and Hirsch, and those like Arnot-Roberts who are rapidly gaining fame as two of the most fascinating winemakers in Sonoma, or the Spring Mountain men Smith Madrone, doggedly pursuing structure for decades, or the brilliant Steve Matthiasson, are wines from Moobuzz in Monterey, part of the Sebastiani family’s The Other Guys project, which lack the confidence of precision of many of their neighbours, and among the only wines in the room I would class as ‘experimental’ in the sense that they don’t quite work. Oddly enough the first word that came to mind was ‘old-fashioned’ when I tasted the Moobuzz Chardonnay 2012, in that its notes of sweet fruit are instant, and insistent, compared to Smith-Madrone’s ethereal Cabernet 2009, say, where the sweetness is a high chord that only becomes apparent when the structure, the delicate girders and light scaffolding of acid and tannin, has been established.

Arnot-Roberts: 'Ghostly hint of strawberry compote'
How to describe these wines? ‘This is a classic Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon,’ Matthiasson said of his ruby-red, perfumed 2011, adding that he was using the word advisedly, not to refer to the more “classic” classics of the last 15 years. So this is classic as it should be – Cabernet that has herbal notes (these guys don’t subscribe to the received wisdom that green equals unripe), precise tannins, elegant visible structure and bracing acidity. And they are lighter in colour than we’ve been conditioned to expect – many of the reds on show today (Matthiasson’s in particular) are translucent.

There’s also exuberant variety. As the wines of the Jura are increasingly popular amongst the metropolitan wine elite, so the region’s native grape, Trousseau, seems to be appearing more and more on the tasting tables. Arnot-Roberts’ rosé-hued Luchsinger Trousseau is possibly the finest expression of the grape I’ve ever tasted.

that Shakespeherian rag...
Pace the severe In Pursuit of Balance movement (started by Jasmine Hirsch and Rajat Parr and others), which focusses on Chardonnay and Pinot, I think the wider movement should be called the New Structuralism. The word ‘structure’ comes up again and again in my notes, describing wines that are the very opposite of ‘fruit-forward’. Sure there is fruit, but it takes its rightful place as a component of the whole, not strutting about in the footlights but waiting in the wings, to come on just so. It’s like the difference between those old greasepaint and kohl Shakespeherians of the 1930s, and Peter Brook’s productions, all scaffolding and bare brickwork.


This is the full line-up. Except Jamie Kutch’s superb Pinots which I somehow missed. Kristen Kutch has said she will send them over so I can update...

Moobuzz Chardonnay 2012, Monterey
Old-fashioned nose with easy peachy sweetness, very open though and fresh on the palate, interesting hints of lanolin

Moobuzz Pinot Noir 2012, Monterey
Spice and pepper on the nose, good robust fruit palate with damson, not as structured and precise as I’d like

Jolie-Laide Pinot Gris 2012 Sonoma
Fresh dense chalky acidity, grapefruit and saltiness on the palate, even savoury and earthy. The length falls slightly short

Jolie-Laide Trousseau Gris 2012 Russian River Valley
Honeyed nose very promising but there’s a slight misfire on the mid-palate, with bright stone fruit and honey and sweet spice not quite carrying through.

Lioco 2012 Chardonnay, Sonoma coast
Buttery aroma becomes fresh and grassy with woody perfume. High notes of tropical fruit playing above precise structure, dry acidity and fresh open lightly tannic heft. Tongue-tingling acidity and consistent persistent length

Lioco 2012 Pinot Noir, Sonoma coast
Bright light ruby colour, very open and breathy mouthfeel, lovely delicate red fruit – sour strawberry – structure to the tannins and a juicy, food-friendly finish

Lioco 2012 ‘Savaria’ Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains
Open, fresh, full of elegance, red fruit set off by peppery notes, balanced, nervy, precise, long.

Arnot-Roberts Watson Ranch Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley
Herb earth and grapefruit on nose, hint of grass, hay lying  in field slightly damp. Surprising peach and pineapple on palate –sudden rush of fruit over powerful  defined acidic and tannic structure. Fruit overlays structure leading  to dry and juicy finish. Very fresh and breathy combination of sweet honeyed fruit and intense nervy acidity. Tightly wound

Arnot-Roberts Syrah 2012, North Coast
Lovely earthy rotted stink to nose – truffles – dry, grainy tannins, minerality, very dark sour black cherry, wonderfully structured wine, very fine

Arnot-Roberts ‘Luchsinger’ Trousseau 2012, Clear Lake
Incredible bright hue more akin to rosé. Sweetness and dryness with a tropical character at first and then ghostly hint of strawberry compote and essence of raspberry. Acidity and tannin in perfect order, overall impression of controlled intensity finishing in delicate tannic dryness dissolving to juice on the tongue. Superb

Arnot-Roberts ‘Bugay’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Sonoma County
Sweet red fruit on the nose, lovely structure and grip, earthy open palate, ripe damson fruit at first giving place to structured tannin, very elegant and delicate. Another triumphant modern classic

Hirsch Vineyards 2012 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
Fresh and open nose, surprising heft of tropical fruit but any hint of fatness moderated by precise acidic structure. Wood is present and correct, finish sharp and elegant.

Hirsch Vineyards 2011 San Andreas Fault Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Very ripe red cherry nose with earthy notes – hint of decay – sweetness on palate with cherry, red fruits and an overwhelming impression of mouthwatering juiciness anchored by minerality. Very very good

Hirsch Vineyards 2011 West Ridge Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Again ripe cherry on the nose but the palate has alluring savoury, bacon notes. Gouts of juice after a toasted cherry wood attack, earthy, powerful but for all that light and delicate. Robust, fine

Copain Tous Ensemble Syrah 2011 Mendocino County
Bright and dense with a peppery rush on the attack, then ripe damson and cherry fruit. Fine dry tannins, excellent length

Copain Les Voisins Syrah 2011 Yorkville Highlands
Intense white pepper nose, with a palate lighter than you’d expect, some red fruit and darker notes of damson, hints of hay and more white pepper, nice dry tannins, good length. Tight

Copain Halcon Syrah 2009 Yorkville Highlands
100% whole cluster fermentation on this one. Again there’s white pepper on the nose but this turns into sage after a beat or two. The tannins are fine-grained and elegant, the length with garrigue, the whole very structured and elegant. Fine.

Matthiasson Linda Vista Chardonnay 2012 Napa Valley
Impression of precise acidity and sweet, delicate hint of oak (barrel fermented). The structure is provided by minerality and acidity, on which sit sheer flavours – juicy cut pear, apple, and then high tropical notes. Lovely.

Matthiasson Napa White 2012 Napa Valley
Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, Semillon, Tocai Friulano
Deceptively light with excellent body, some fine green flavours, citrus (lime), grapefruit, pineapple, fresh sweetness underpinned by minerality. The component grapes are there to see, but there is no disjoint – more an elegant, revealed structure

Matthiasson Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Napa Valley
20% Merlot
Bright, almost translucent ruby hue, fresh mineral palate with abundant though never insistent fruit – wild blackberries and damsons, some welcome sagey herbal notes, violet perfume, excellent structure, ripe tannins carrying the whole wonderful understated cornucopia of flavours right to the end. Steve Matthiasson happily describes it as ‘rustic’, which it is, in the best sense, unmanufactured.

Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Napa Valley
Cathy Corison is one of Napa’s most eminent and respected winemakers, steadily crafting elegant Cabernets at her handsome green-painted ranch on Highway 29, between Rutherford and St Helena. Antonio Galloni described her Kronos 2010, from her famous vineyard, as one of the most ‘hauntingly beautiful’ Cabernets he’d ever tasted
The Cabernet here is sourced from Rutherford and St Helena benchland. Herb and even hay on the nose with a creamy undertow – still there are herbs on palate, with definite warmth and structure, very fresh, juicy, exuberant but anchored with dry tannins dissolving into juice, mint-laden freshness at the end. Bonné: ‘this could not be anything else than Napa Cabernet’. Serious tannic grip and length. One of my favourite of all her Cabs.

Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Napa Valley
Full, dense, minty blackcurrant palate. Grainy tannins and a depth of acidity. Nearly ten years old and utterly fresh and beguiling, still with primary fruit but with the tannins showing a hint of fuzziness round the edges, a softening to come.

Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Napa Valley
Along with classic black Napa fruit there’s sour cherry on this 06 which isn’t so noticeable on the others – 06 was a cooler year. The palate is tarry, intense, with precise but serious tannins that are softening (they were pretty tight for a few years, I imagine), and wonderful juiciness. Mouthwatering.

Smith- Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2009
'Bearded pioneer...' Stuart Smith
The Smith Madrone ranch high on Spring Mountain is a piece of Napa history, unchanged since bearded pioneers Charlie and Stuart Smith (on a quiet evening you can hear their guns booming from miles away – the estate is dotted with buckshot-peppered targets) arrived in the 1970s. The tasting room is a comfortable, ramshackle barn with armchairs you sink into. They have an extraordinary list (their Spring Mountain Riesling is renowned, and delicious, though not as original or unusual as their Cabernets). This 09 has a classic nose, blackcurrant and mint vibrating in the glass, then flavours that can only be described as Bordeaux-like, cassis and coffee, but with an additional layer of perfumed fruit that stamps it indelibly as Napa. High vineyards, long hot days and cool nights bring sharp acidity to the structure. Superb.

Broc Cellars ‘Skin Contact’ Roussanne 2011 El Dorado
From the Sierra foothills. Sweet and fresh nose, tactile, even grainy acidity, palate of pineapple, melon and apricot. Mouthwatering acidity. Charming

Broc Cellars ‘Cuvée 13.1’ Syrah 2012 Santa Lucia Highlands
Blended with the Chateauneuf variety Counoise. Palate with high notes of turkish delight, black pepper, spice, dark fruit, elastic though powerful tannins, sweet acidic length

Broc Cellars ‘Whole Cluster’ Cabernet Franc 2012 Lucia Highlands
Amazingly light, lively hedgerow perfume of nettles, cow parsley (how can a wine made in California taste of England?), white pepper, and then red cherry, lovely freshness, a delight

Broc Cellars Vine Starr Zinfandel 2012 Sonoma Coast
Creamy earthy damson on nose, very full palate with white pepper, spicy plum and damson, vibrant fruit and dry, structured but supple tannins and juice at end. This is not fat but voluptuous and elegant. Dry length ending in juiciness

Viano Hillside White 2012 Contra Costa AVA
Chenin Blanc, Muscat, Colombard
Bright and approachable and packed with good brisk fruit – some citrus and sweet stone fruit - not complex, but with juicy acidity. Rather too much toasted character at end palate

Viano Hillside Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Contra Costa AVA
Fresh and open nose with dark fruit, rustic leathery blackcurrant fruit and grainy tannins, not complex but fresh and very attractive and a very good price

Mount Eden Domaine Eden Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Santa Cruz Mountains
Lovely grassy nose with hedgerow aromatics, complex palate with black fruit, blackberry, menthol, garrigue (sage, thyme), grainy tannins showing all the way through to a fine, long-lasting finish. Excellent

Mount Eden Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Santa Cruz Mountains
Intense deep fruity palate with black fruit, more evolved than the 2010 – ripe dark plum rather than blackberry, herbs drier, but lots of juice after dry, tight tannins. Very good

Mount Eden Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Cruz Mountains
30% whole bunch fermentation. Very sweet cherry on the nose with red fruit compote and raisin. Unusual raisined palate along with earthy notes and very attractive ripe strawberry; the mid palate slightly hot

Tatomer ‘Kick-on Ranch’ Riesling 2010, Santa Barbara
Winemaker Graham Tatomer says ‘some skin contact’ on this one, which gives it its dry grip. Creamy fresh secondary aromas on nose – not petrol but perfumed wool – open breathy palate with lime, grapefruit, saline hint of boiled lobster, full and mouthfilling, dry tannic length with juice at end. Overall dry length. Serious tannic grip

Tatomer ‘Kick-on Ranch’ Riesling 2011, Santa Barbara
Like its sibling but less evolved – less secondary petrol aromas, more sour lime, cut apple and pear, cooler, lighter, flavours more tail-wagging than quietly welcoming. Still with that attractive dry tannic length. Coolest labels in the house, by the way

Tatomer ‘Meeresboden’ Grüner Veltliner 2013, Santa Barbara
A lovely example of the dry style. Intense minerality, spicy lime, fresh white flowers (jasmine, hibiscus), structured acidity. Restrained but very expressive. Delicious

Sandhi Wines Chardonnay 2012 Santa Barbara
Some of the finest Chardonnays to come out of California are made by Sashi Moorman and star sommelier Rajat Parr, who also own Domaine de la Côte in the Santa Rita Hills. This has a daub of light cream on the nose, dense, sweet tropical lime, apple and a hint of tropical ripeness. Lovely power and body

Sandhi Wines ‘Sanford & Benedict’ Chardonnay 2011 Santa Rita Hills
Very, very fine nose with toasted notes (the wine spends 11 months in 500-litre barrels), sweet citrus, spicy cedar, some earth and floral notes. Excellent

'elegant rot': Dme de la Côte 
Domaine de la Côte Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Rita Hills
50% whole bunch ferment. Lovely deep nose with elegant rot - cream and sweet very ripe cherry – utterly beguiling sweet violet perfume, fresh, minerality and some salinity – mouthwatering juice at end after dissolved chalky dry tannins. Endless length

Domaine de la Côte Lompoc Wine Co Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Rita Hills
Fully destemmed. Superb bright fresh cherry and perfumed spice. Exotic. Full warm length, dense and creamy with mineral buzz

Domaine de la Côte ‘Bloom’s Field’ Pinot Noir 2011 Santa Rita Hills
90% whole bunch ferment, unfiltered and unfined. Bright hue, robust grippy tannins, sheer minerality, raspberry and damson and this lovely spicy plum. Delicious

Domaine de la Côte ‘La Côte’ Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Rita Hills
Whole bunch ferment. Herbal aromatics on the nose, very delicate cushioned juice (bolstered by fruit), supple ripe tannins carrying through to a fine open and generous finish

Piedrasassi Syrah 2010 Central Coast
Made by Sashi Moorman. Powerful stink on the nose, earthy and elegant, reminiscent of the farmyards of my youth (as distinct to the industrial silage stink of a huge modern farm). Wild briar fruits, black pepper, but the whole slightly reduced and not showing its best

Piedrasassi ‘Rim Rock’ Single Vineyard Syrah 2010, San Luis Obispo County
This is more like it, herbal aromas on the nose, more blackberry and dark forest fruits, exotic spice notes (sandalwood is there), white pepper, powerful knitted tannins exploding juicily at the end. Elegant and muscular


  1. good notes adam, glad you liked so many of the wines, as did I

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