If you're a Eurocentric wine drinker who thinks of all Californian wines as big and oaky with a heavy dose of ripe fruit, think again. There's a growing group of California wine producers who are taking a light handed approach to winemaking, giving us fresh, juicy, zippy wines with balanced fruit and good acidity.
Some call them the "New Wave", while Brian Mckee of Encore Wine Imports (the distributor of Chris Brockway's wines) refers to them as the "New-New World". Whatever term you choose to use, this particular group of California-based winemakers are exploring dry farming (causing the roots to burrow deep into the soils, picking up nutrients and minerals along the way), earlier harvest dates (hence less sugar in the grapes), and spontaneous yeast fermentation (because many feel that ambient yeasts are an essential part of the terroir).
Want to taste for yourself? Here are three winemakers to check out.
Hardy Wallace of Dirty and Rowdy
After wine distributors Jenny & Francois showcased Dirty and Rowdy's wines at a recent portfolio tasting, the enthusiasm among the industry was so high that the company sold out almost immediately. This is the third vintage of Dirty and Rowdy from Hardy Wallace and Matt Richardson. The two were known in the blogesphere for their ramblings on Dirty South Wine and Rowdy Food, hence the moniker for their current winemaking project.
A number of great Californian wine producers have ushered the two along their way, including Kevin Kelley, formerly of LIOCO (who hosted Dirty and Rowdy's first vintage at his winery), and Pax Mahle from Wind Gap (the couple housed several barrels of Dirty and Rowdy's aging wines). Wallace also mentions the fantastic Napa-based grape-grower and winemaker, Cathy Corison, as a huge influence.
For many of the new wave Californian producers, owning land isn't an affordable reality, and owning a winery is a pricy pursuit. To overcome the expenses, Dirty and Rowdy use a custom crush facility in Santa Rosa, CA. They work with four different grape growers, about half the vineyards are certified organic and one vineyard is dry-farmed. Wallace and his wife Kate have also spent time farming blocks of Mourvèdre at Shake Ridge Ranch Vineyard.
The fruit for his juicy and fresh 2011 Mourvèdre was sourced from the Santa Barbara Highlands, from a high elevation vineyard on a mix of sandstone and clay soils. According to Wallace it is "wayyyy in the middle of nowhere, and almost polar opposites to the rest of Santa Barbara County. It is a special place. I love the energy of that fruit," he says.
The wine clocks in at a mere 12.2% alcohol. Wallace explains, "We pick when we think the fruit is ripe and in balance at each vineyard, but I think our sense of ripeness is probably lower than a lot of people. I like to think that we're right on time but I think people would say we pick pretty early."
Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars
Chris Brockway's name was floating all over the internet when writers and members of the wine industry with a penchant for naturally-made wine got a taste of his whole cluster 2010 Cabernet Franc and his 2010 Cuvee 12.5, a Grenache and Syrah blend named after its level of alcohol—super-low by California standards.
We recently tasted Brockway's 2011 Valdiguiè and found it refreshingly light and easy to drink. The little-known Valdiguiè grape is a variety that mostly grows in the Languedoc-Roussillon and was long mistaken for Gamay in California. The grapes for Brockway's Valdiguiè comes from 70 year old vines, planted in an organically farmed vineyard in Solano County. The vines grow at an incline, in volcanic soils, and the vineyard is less than 10 miles from the San Pablo Bay, it benefits from cool breezes and moisture. Made by carbonic maceration (a common method in Beaujolais, where intact bunches of grapes are put into a vessel, sealed with CO2, and fermentation takes place within the grapes), Brockway explains, "Since the grower still calls it Gamay, and his father before him, I decided to vinify it like Gamay."
Phillip Hart of AmByth Estate
AmByth is a producer of natural wine situated in Paso Robles. The wines are unfiltered, unfined, and fermented on their native yeasts and contain little or no added sulfur. The estate is certified organic and biodynamic; they have 20 acres of vineyards and another 22 acres of rambling woodlands—all the vineyards are dry farmed.
Most of AmByth's wines are made from their own fruit, save for a few, including the Bailey Zinfandel. The wine is an honest taste of place, showing dark, sun-baked fruit, herbs and rocky minerals. Hart tells us, "When I discovered the many 'tricks' of winemaking, I was appalled. Very simply, if I couldn't do it my way, I had no interest in being in the business. I started drinking more natural wines from around the world. By and large, they are unique, interesting and different—what more does a wine drinker want?"
About the Author: Pameladevi Govinda is a New York-based freelance writer whose contributions have appeared in Imbibe, Vibe, Decanter, Daily Candy, Spain Gourmetour and more. She has also worked and written for some of New York's best wine shops including Astor Wines & Spirits and Chambers Street Wines. She currently writes and sells wine for Thirst Wine Merchants in Brooklyn's Fort Greene area.