Why Californian wine is so expensive in the UK

It’s easy to forget how new California is to making wine. Whilst in Napa Valley last month, I had the good fortune of meeting John Shafer – founder of the eponymous estate situated in the Stags Leap district. He is one of the founding fathers of Californian wine, and though hardly a spring chicken, is still as sharp as a knife. Their first vintage was the 1978. To give it some perspective, Barone Ricasoli in Chianti, for example, has been making wine since 1141.

One charge that is often levelled against Californian wine in the UK is that it is so expensive. John brought it up before I had the chance to, and I had to admit that it is still seen as an issue over here. It is possible to buy good value Californian wines, but they are relatively few and far between, particularly at the £8 - £20 mark, compared to most other famous wine regions such as the Rhône, the Mosel, Chianti and Rioja.

That wineries are relatively new in California, compared to many of the great wine regions of Europe, is one reason. Being a relatively young winemaking region, many wineries are still being paid for, and this investment is still being recouped by factoring it in to the price of the wine. The hardware required to set up a winery is very costly, and there is a large initial payout required before you can even start making any wine. Added to this, particularly in Napa, since there have been so many success stories of cult wineries charging huge sums per bottle, land is extremely expensive to buy.

Many of the great wine estates of Europe were established and paid for generations ago, so they aren’t still obliged to recoup their initial outlay in the wines they are selling today. As such they can afford to charge less. And as Ted Lemon of Littorai pointed out, not so long ago you could get an EU grant to help set up a winery in European countries. Not so in California – you have to stump up the cash yourself.

Pricing in California seems rather more meritocratic than in Europe. If a wine tastes good compared to its peers, then that is the most important factor when it comes to justifying a price in the local market. Whether it reflects terroir or if it has a long-established reputation is secondary to the quality of the juice in the bottle.

Many of the wine producers I spoke to were keen to see their wines better represented in the UK, but when they speak to UK agents and shippers, the winery is told that their wine is simply too expensive and it just won’t sell over here. And since many of the top wineries have no problem selling all of their production in the States, it doesn’t make sense to drop their prices and make less money just to get their wines on the shelves in the UK. But while there is any disparity in value between Californian wines and those of the other great winemaking regions of the world – due to recouping investment, less brand recognition, an (incorrect) perceived lack of quality compared to other regions, or a general lack of understanding of the region – the UK is likely to remain underrepresented when it comes to the greatest wines of California. And as drinkers, we will be all the poorer for it.


Waitrose: Still the best supermarket for wine

This year Waitrose have won all four major drinks awards for ‘Supermarket of the Year’ (International Wine Challenge, International Wine & Spirit Competition, Decanter World Wine Awards and Drinks Retailing Awards) and it’s not hard to see why. Their recent range tasting was not without its ups and downs, but the diamond bottles outweighed the underperformers. They have been at the top of their game for a number of years now (with an honourable mention to the excellent EH Booth who have 26 stores around the North of England).

It’s a shame that they continue to list some of the less interesting, big brand wines from the likes of Blossom Hill and Yellow Tail; as long as that is the case, it’s hard to recommend them unreservedly – it is still possible to pick up something dull if you don’t know what to avoid. But largely the wines on show at the tasting at least were of a high quality. While we are seeing more and more good quality independent wine merchants crop up at the moment, they are still a relatively rare sight. In the meantime, Waitrose offer one of the few high street shops in England (well, the South of England at least) offering a reliable, good value wine selection over multiple sites.

One great new initiative that they are looking into is reducing the weight of glass bottles in their wines and spirits. Many winemakers see a big heavy bottle as an important signifier of quality, so insist on putting their wines, especially their top bottlings, in thumping great lumps of glass before shipping them off around the world. This seems to be a particularly common practice in North America, and especially South America. A bottle of wine is a heavy enough thing to have to cart around as it is without pumping it up like a steroid-addicted body builder. This will not only help to reduce carbon emissions, but it will also mean that less money is spent on packaging, so more can be invested into what goes inside it. Keep up the good work.

www.waitrosewine.com

 

Some highlights:

 

Reds

 

Henri Fessy Brouilly 2010
100% Gamay grape from Beaujolais, France
£10.99 available at most Waitrose stores

Dry, but with silky, juicy sweet fruit. Medium bodied with flavours of small red berries and a nice tannic grip. Good length and interest. 89 points, good value.

Tino da Ânfora 2008
A blend of 50% Aragónez, 30% Tinta Nacional, 10% Trincadeira, 5% Alfrochiero and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Alentejo, Portugal
£7.99 available at most Waitrose stores

Intense dark sweet fruit, well balanced with admirable length. Good quaffing stuff. 88 points, good value.

Villa Antinori Rosso 2008
55% Sangiovese, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 5% Syrah grapes from Tuscany, Italy
£14.99 available at most Waitrose stores

Deep, inviting, earthy nose with a some herbal aromas. Medium to full bodied, juicy and modern. Approachable and enjoyable with a pleasingly long finish. A crowd pleaser. 88 points, fair value.

 

Whites


Simonnet-Febvre Sauvignon de Saint Bris 2010
100% Sauvignon Blanc grape from Burgundy, France
£9.49 available at most Waitrose stores

Appealing gooseberry and fennel nose, not too in-your-face. Medium bodied and balanced with noticeable acidity and a softness to the impression on the palate. Appetising, would work well with food. 89 points, good value.

Catena Chardonnay 2010
100% Chardonnay grape from Mendoza, Argentina
£11.99 available at most Waitrose stores

Full bodied Chardonnay with a smooth, silky mouthfeel. Tropical fruit and peach balanced with good acidity with a long spicy finish. Irresistible at this price. 89 points, good to very good value.

Domaine Paul Blanck Gewurztraminer 2010
100% Gewurztraminer grape from Alsace, France
£13.99 (down to £10.99 from 19/10/11 to 08/11/11) available at most Waitrose stores

I’m a sucker for Gewurz, the sluttiest of white grapes. This one has a relatively restrained nose of lychees, with that tendency to soapiness that it can have sometimes. Fat and full bodied with a hint of sweetness, but shot through with zingy acidity. 90 points, good value, very good value on offer.

 

The following are less widely available but worth seeking out:

 

Palacio de Fefiñanes Albariño 2010
100% Albariño grape from Rías Baixas, Spain
£15.99 available at Waitrose Wine Direct and 6 branches

One of the oldest producers of Albariño in Spain, Fefiñanes make one of the best, and this new vintage is no exception. Floral (jasmine) nose with a medium-bodied but intense peach and apricot palate. Buzzing acidity right into the long, mineral, almost saline finish. A really vibrant and refreshing wine. 91 points, good value.

Domaine des Escaravailles ‘La Galopine’ Rasteau Blanc 2010
A blend of 45% Roussanne, 45% Marsanne and 10% Viognier grapes from Côtes du Rhône, France
£18.99 available at Waitrose Wine Direct and at John Lewis, Oxford Street, London

Enticing pineapple, peach and apricot fruit on the nose and the palate, with a pleasing full bodied, almost oily mouthfeel, shot through with piercing acidity. Good length, with a hint of aniseed and dill, and a toasty finish thanks for fermentation in oak barrels (25% new oak). Real complexity and lovely balance. 91 points, good value.

 

One to avoid?

All in all the wines on show were to a high standard. Although I do have reservations about a few of their English wines. And:

Williams and Humbert 12-Year Old Collection Oloroso Sherry NV
Palomino grapes from Jerez, Spain
£7.99 for a half bottle available in some Waitrose stores

Lacks intensity and depth of flavour for an oloroso. A lightweight amongst what is otherwise a good range of fortified wines. 82 points, not great value.


The Wine Society: Impressive value

In a world of Enomatic machines, crowd sourcing and Twitter fire-sales, The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society Limited might sound like a bit of a throwback. They are a co-operative society; they have ‘1874’ proudly stamped on their logo; they are based in a large office in Stevenage. Sexy they are not. But their wines are. And they are unbelievably cheap.

It is one of over 5,450 independent co-operatives in the UK in fact, but the only one whose sole purpose is wine. It was set up to provide authentic, high quality bottles to members in the late 19th century by a Major General Henry Scott, and continues to do so today. Its status as a co-operative explains why its wines are such good value. It is a not-for-profit company owned by its members, so their buyers are not concerned with making money. All they need to do is source the best wines and sell them on at the lowest possible price.

Once considered very much part of the Establishment, they were possibly the least cool place you could buy your wines from. But they have been gradually bringing themselves up-to-date, using new media like Facebook, Twitter and their iPhone app to reach a new audience. Ten years ago the average member was in his or her mid-50s. Now it’s mid-40s. But they do have members in the 20s and 30s too as their membership base widens. Winning both the Decanter National Wine Merchant of the Year 2011 and the International Wine Challenge Merchant of the Year 2011 should help bring more attention to the quality and value of what they offer.

So what’s the catch? There’s a joining fee of £40. But you’ll probably save that much on your first case or two, so don’t let it stop you. And once you have membership, you have it for life. You can even bequeath it to someone in your will. Some of their members are fifth generation, the original membership having been bought in as early as 1875 and handed down ever since. Now that is getting your money’s worth.

I tasted through 60 new additions to their range the other day, and the quality was very high. In general their list is strong in most regions, particularly classic French such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhône. It’s complemented by sizeable, well-chosen selections from the other most recognised Old and New World countries, and a few more unusual ones such as Greece are also present.

If I had to pick holes, it would be nice to see some older mature wines back into the 90s and beyond available; some more natural wines (though there is a section for organic and biodynamic wines); and some more adventurous Champagnes. And if you really want to splash the cash on the very top end, you’ll have to go elsewhere, as few bottles go over the £100 mark. But overall this is a interesting, reliable, high quality list.

www.thewinesociety.com

 

Some highlights:

 

Whites

 

L’Orbois, Jean Christophe Mandard 2010
Orbois grape from Loire, France
£7.95 from The Wine Society

An unusual grape variety from an unusual part of the Loire. Apple and quince on the nose with a musky note not unlike Chenin Blanc. Medium bodied with zippy fruity acidity. Very dry mineral finish, like sucking a stone. Characterful and great value. 89 points, very good value.

 

Pinot Bianco Isonzo del Friuli, Lorenzon 2010
Pinot Blanc grape from Friuli, Italy
£8.75 at The Wine Society

Perfumed, fresh, subtle but very drinkable and classy wine. Medium bodied, with bright, clean aromas and flavours of freshly cut conference pear. Elegant and balanced with a mineral finish. Understated, not in your face but good quality. 89 points, good value.

 

Domaine de Bellivière ‘Prémices’, Jasnières 2009
Chenin Blanc grape from Loire, France
£16.00 at The Wine Society

Fresh victoria plum on the nose with a faintly oxidative element. Honey and sweet fruit (apple, quince) that ride on into the finish on the back of a firm acidic streak. Finishes dry. A rollercoaster. 92 points, good value.

 

Maycas Qebrada Seca Chardonnay 2008
Chardonnay grape from Limari, Chile
£20.00 at The Wine Society

Chalk dust and honeycomb – still young and not giving off much fruit on the nose. Lots on the palate though – tangy, limey, fresh and intense. Long honeyed, toasty finish. Waves of complexity and flavour with a really appetising texture. Exciting and exceptional. 94 points, very good value.

 

Reds

 

Percheron Old Vine Cinsault, Boutinot 2010
Cinsault grape from Western Cape, South Africa
£5.95 from The Wine Society

Fresh and floral with bright cherry fruit. Lots of body and flavoursome sweet fruit. Long finish for such a cheap wine. Unusual and refreshing. 89 points, very good value.

 

Thymiopoulos Naoussa 2009
Xynomavro grape from Macedonia, Greece
£10.95 at The Wine Society

Fragrant raspberries and blueberries with aromas of dried herbs. Medium bodied, with a nice viscous mouthfeel, all cut through by lively fresh acidity. Flavours of licorice and strawberry go on into the finish. Real finesse and balance. 91 points, very good value.


New trends in California: Moscato and Primitivo

White Zinfandel is dead. Long live Moscato!

It is ubiquitous, and uniformly awful. It tends to have the aroma, sweetness and complexity of a bag of penny sweets that has been sitting in the sun. So I for one am pleased to hear that White Zinfandel is finally falling out of fashion in California. “That’s what my mom used to drink when she was young” was one comment. Now, younger drinkers looking for something easy drinking with a bit of sweetness seem to be turning towards Moscato.

It is being vinified in a number of different ways: from medium sweet to dry, varietal and blended, sparkling and still. What they all have in common is the floral, grapey aroma from the Moscato or Muscat grape. I tried a couple, and both were very different.

 

Ravenswood Sparkling Moscato 2009
Muscat à Petit Grains grape from Sonoma, USA
£13.00 from Ravenswood

Medium sweet with just about enough acidity to keep it in balance. Grapey, with assertive turkish delight and floral aromas. A touch of fizz and the low alcohol adds to the refreshing aspect of the wine. “A party in a glass” they say. Not one you would want to stay at for that long to be honest, but fun while it lasts. 83 points.

Available ‘White Wine’ 2010 12.5%
A blend of 20% Sauvignon Blanc and 80% Muscat from California £8.50 at ACME Wines, St Helena

An off-dry version, with purity and length of flavour. An altogether more serious wine compared to the Ravenswood, with enough Sauvignon Blanc to give it interest but not to overwhelm the more delicate, perfumed Moscato aromas. 86 points.

 

I was told that the real reason Californian White Zinfandel came into existence was to try to save money after a disastrous crop of red Zinfandel one year. Failing to get enough colour out of this thin-skinned variety, a sweet rosé was the result. The unnamed winery must have had an ace salesman, as they still managed to find a market for this failed vintage. Others saw their success, and replicated it. And thus a monster was unleashed.

Great Muscats have been made for centuries, particularly in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, and it is a versatile grape that is capable of really delicious and attractive wine. Hopefully this trend will soon be exported to the UK, and White Zin will be relegated to the spittoon of history.

 

Primitivo. Not Zinfandel.

It has long been accepted knowledge that Zinfandel is none other than the Italian red grape Primitivo under a different name. But it turns out things aren’t quite as simple as that. Although essentially the same variety (they are in fact different clones of the same variety) they produce wines that are quite different. Zinfandel typically produces intense, full-bodied wines that are packed with black fruits with a hint of peppery spice. When grown in California, Primitivo tends to produce wines that are spicy and not quite as intense as Zinfandels. Although Zinfandel is by far the more popular version, there are some producers growing and bottling varietal Primitivo.

 

Uvaggio Primitivo 2009
Primitivo grape from Lodi, California
£11.20 from The Wine Garage, Calistoga

Medium purpley-red, faintly spicy strawberry fruit on the nose. Only just medium-bodied, this has a good medium to high level of acidity making it relatively light and fresh. Low to medium tannins. Medium length and with a dry, liquoricey savoury finish, but a little jolt of sweetness during the taste. To compare with a typical Italian Primitivo, it is less full-bodied, less tannic and a little less dry. Perhaps more adapted to food than a typical Californian Zinfandel? I’ll be trying more on the strength of this example. 87 points.