Spirit of the West: David Lawrason picks nine bottles from California’s booming crop
Last year, for the first time in history, the United States consumed more wine than any other country (even out-tippling France and Italy), and most of it came from California. Golden State wine is booming beyond U.S. borders, too. Global exports totalled a record-breaking $1.25 billion last year, and in Canada, sales of California wines were up 21 per cent over 2010 as our loonie hit parity with the U.S. dollar. There are some great new Rhône-inspired syrahs and grenaches from the rapidly growing Paso Robles region, but by and large California is sticking to what it does best—chardonnay, cabernet, merlot, zinfandel and pinot noir—but with more refinement. Winemakers are matching grapes to their ideal micro-climates, using sustainable growing practices to ensure healthier soils and correcting the over-oaking and excess alcohol heat that has marred the state’s signature wines. Many of these sophisticated standards are now hitting LCBO shelves. Here, nine of my favourites.
$20 | Sonoma | 89 points
New to the LCBO, this chardonnay exemplifies the modern Sonoma style. The cool Pacific coast produces refined whites with bright fruit and less oak. Pear and apple flavours combine with vanilla, light clove and honeyed toast. They’re set in a fleshy, creamy texture. Very good length. LCBO 269738
$15 | California | 85 points
Cupcake, developed as a private label for giant U.S. retailer Cost Plus, has gone viral. Given the name, I expected this chardonnay to be drenched in vanilla sweetness—a common fault of less expensive chardonnays—but it’s bright, tight and surprisingly dry on the finish. LCBO 230821
$19 | Monterey | 88 points
Pinot noir vineyards stretch across the bench lands above the Pacific-cooled Salinas Valley. From a family operation with a stunning 1,200 acres, this pinot packs good complexity, richness and finesse for under $20, with flavours of cranberry, mint, cinnamon and background oak. It’s smooth and a touch sweet. Chill lightly. LCBO 226555
$22 | Paso Robles | 89 points
This artful blend of 79 per cent cabernet, nine per cent petite sirah, five per cent petit verdot and other grapes (to soften the cabernet’s green edges) is a favourite across Canada. It’s medium weight, smooth, dense and rich with ripe cherry fruit, chocolate, tobacco and herbs. Vintages. LCBO 656561
$23 | Napa Valley | 90 points
Inspired by the whites of Bordeaux, this fumé blanc is an exotic and intriguing blend of barrel-aged sauvignon blanc and Sémillon. It’s a complex tapestry of pineapple, green fig, celery, mustard and petrol set in a rich, smooth texture. LCBO 221887
$15 | Mendocino | 86 points
From a green-powered winery, this red blend is made in a Euro-Italian throwback style. Expect sour currant and plum fruit with herbal, olive and earthy hummus flavours set in a dense, chewy, tannic frame. Great with pizza and pasta. LCB0 229740
$15 | Central Coast | 89 points
Sterling is known for premium merlots, but they can be over-oaked and overpriced. This more affordable version from south of San Francisco is a better bet. It’s complex and well integrated with flavours of raspberry jam, fresh fig, mocha, herbs and leather. Best now to 2015. LCBO 622837
$40 | Paso Robles | 88 points
Cabernet-syrah blends could be the next big thing from California. This juicy, rich red needs more structure for $40 (and to achieve 90 points), but it will appeal to fans of big, easy-drinking wines. It oozes blackberry, pepper, black tea and licorice flavours. Excellent length. Vintages. LCBO 11221
$17 | Livermore Valley | 87 points
Wente planted California’s first chardonnay vines in 1936, and this white is a direct descendant. It’s fermented in oak barrels for seven months and then in steel tanks for another seven months to produce a fine balance of fruit and oak. The apple and butter flavours shine in a smooth texture. LCBO 175430
Scores: David Lawrason assigns scores on a 100-point scale. They reflect a wine’s overall quality.
A rating of 95 to 100 is outstanding; 90 to 94 excellent; 85 to 89 very good; 80 to 84 good.