All of America’s 48 mainland states make wine, but California produces 90 per cent of the country’s output. This makes California the fourth largest wine region in the world after Spain, France and Italy.
California has been winning awards for Bordeaux style blends and chardonnay since the mid 1970s. Franciscan missionaries planted the first vines two centuries earlier.
The event that put California on the world wine map was the 1976 “Judgement of Paris” – featured in the movie Bottleshock – where a Californian chardonnay beat a range of French burgundies in a blind tasting.
California’s success can be attributed to a range of factors such gentle vine management and ultra-hygienic cellar practices, plus the influence of damp air from the Pacific Ocean that cools vineyards during summer.
Robert Keenan Winery in the Napa Valley remains one of California’s most consistent performers. For the past eight vintages, the famous American wine critic Robert Parker Jr has awarded 42 wines between 90 and 97 points.
Peter Conradi recognized the area’s potential in the late 19th century when he planted zinfandel and syrah grapes in the Mayacamas Range, 520 metres above Napa Valley.
Conradi Winery went out of business during Prohibition, after the US banned all alcohol sales from 1919. More than half a century later, in 1974, Robert Keenan planted 73 hectares of grapes at the site.
Robert Keenan’s son Michael, the company’s current president, said only the crumbling walls of the original winery remained but his father believed the elevated location would be perfect for wine. The first harvest was in 1977 and next year the cabernet was voted best in California for that vintage.
The vineyard focuses on chardonnay, the various cabernets and merlot, and produces about 14,000 cases a year. The reputation of Keenan merlots was enhanced in 1988 when tastings against world famous merlot-based Petrus wines ended in a “virtual draw,” Michael said.
Another property from the Mayacamas Mountains, Fisher Vineyards, displayed its Bordeaux-style reds at the same tasting. It started one year earlier than Keenan when Fred and Juelle Fisher bought 40 hectares at about 450 metres elevation.
Fred’s father came from Germany and made a living handcrafting car bodies. Fred’s daughter, Cameron Fisher, said the coach insignia on the vineyard’s label was meant to honour the tradition of attention to detail.
“The Coach Insignia cabernet represents the pinnacle of our winemaking craft,” Cameron said.
Fred’s other daughter Whitney Fisher is the winemaker. The tasting notes on the vineyard’s web site says the reds were “built to last” with solid tannin structure.
The 2008 Coach Insignia cabernet has a silky quality with aromas of blackcurrant, coffee and spices like cardamom. Cameron said grapes were allowed to hang longer than usual, which produced thinner skins and thus less tannin, though the structure meant it would “age gracefully for many years ahead”.
Grapes were harvested at night and the wine fermented in concrete tanks. It is a blend of 88 per cent cabernet sauvignon and 12 per cent cabernet franc, aged on the lees for 21 months in 100 per cent new French oak.
Fisher’s Wedding Vineyard offers a nice story. Fred and Juelle Fisher were married there, along with two of their children. Cameron, the youngest, said she was “still interviewing” prospective spouses but also planned to be wed there. Cabernet was first planted at the Wedding vineyard in 1973.
A key issue when comparing Fisher and Keenan wines is the difference in oak treatment. Fisher uses only new French, while Keenan prefers a combination of new and old, and both French and American.
I preferred the Keenan wines, because 100 per cent new French oak can overwhelm some Californian Bordeaux blends.
The 2001 Keenan Mernet, made from vines only three years old at the time, is a standout. Its name comes from the fact it is a blend of 50 per cent merlot and 25 per cent each of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc – thus mer(lot) and (caber)net.
It offers aromas of mint, liquorice and blackcurrant. Tannin, fruit and acids have integrated superbly.
Michael Keenan described the vineyard site as “merlot heaven,” noting this grape variety sang beautifully of the region, but also accepted it had taken 20 years “to learn to make cabernet”. It was important, he said, to show restraint when picking fruit. “It’s very easy in California to pick fruit when it’s too ripe.”
The vineyard’s success is a tribute to Michael’s belief in sustainable viticulture. After pruning, the wood is left on the ground. Soil quality is improved by growing a range of grasses under the vines.
The pruned wood is shredded when the grasses are mown, producing humus that preserves water for the soil during the heat of summer. “It’s vital to treat the vines gently.” Keenan has developed its sustainability credentials by installing solar power, so that the vineyard is entirely self-supporting for electricity.
Published 2 May 2013 at WineTimesHK. Find a link here.