John Alban makes some of the most aromatically complex and explosively rich wines in the New World from traditional Rhone varieties. Since 1989 he's worked entirely with fruit from his own superb clonal material, planted on chalk-rich hillside vineyards in Edna Valley. This master of Rhone varieties makes a thick, chewy, dry Roussanne of remarkable aromatic complexity, with stone fruit and mineral elements supported but not overwhelmed by spicy oak. Other labels include Pandora, a blend of Grenache and Syrah, as well as several vineyard-designate bottlings. The wines have the exotic yet varietal-accurate character and creamy sweetness to provide immediate pleasure but have the balance and structure to age. Alban's barrel-fermented Viognier is also fragrant and rich.
The Central Coast covers a huge swath of territory south of San Francisco, including the following seven counties: Alameda, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz.
Although the term "Central Coast" would seem to apply to every vine between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it's good to remember that the term is most often used to identify a wine made from grapes grown in two different counties. Chardonnay is by far the most widely planted variety in this region, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel.
It is remarkable that an industry essentially less than a half-century old could capture the attention of the American wine-buying public to the degree that California has. Powerful consumer interest in California wine is driven by two major factors. The more obvious reason is that California's best wines, which come from grapes grown in a benign climate featuring endless sunshine, very warm summer days, and generally dry harvests, and wonderfully fruity, full, and satisfying, and rarely too austere or tannic to be enjoyed from day one.
California is blessed with an extraordinary range of soils and microclimates, allowing for the successful cultivation of many varieties. In at least three out of four years, the best sites produce healthy, ripe fruits that are the envy of European producers in more marginal climates. The other reason Americans buy so much California wine is that California is the home team. Clearly, a high percentage of domestic wine drinkers are more comfortable buying American wines (and not just wines of California) than imports. Then, too, foreign bottles are generally identified by place name, rather than by the more familiar varieties that American wine drinkers have come to know and enjoy.
Moreover, in much of North America, outside the top 15 or 20 largest metropolitan markets, consumers have limited access to imported wines even if they wanted to buy them.
For many, Napa Valley is California wine, and Cabernet is king in Napa Valley. Meanwhile, the Burgundy varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have gravitated to cooler areas, generally closer to the Pacific, such as the western stretches of Sonoma County, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, and the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys within Santa Barbara County. Syrah vines have yielded interesting wines in a range of styles all over the state, in regions as disparate as Mendocino County, the Sonoma coast, Carneros, Paso Robles, and Santa Maria Valley. Very good Zinfandel similarly comes from multiple growing areas, although to date the age-of-vines variable has been almost as important as geography. Zinfandel, though its roots are in Europe, is a true California original and the only California wine imitated abroad. It's also a variety of which there are still significant plantings of very old vines, in some cases dating back to the end of the 19th century.
Richly aromatic yet delicate white wine, some with a bit of residual sugar
Spicy cuisine, shellfish
Emerging from the tiny appellation of Condrieu in the northern Rhone, Viognier has become a rising star in California vineyards, as our American palates have evolved to appreciate more aromatic white wines. Still, the most desired bottlings of Viognier continue to come from Condrieu, a region just south of the city of Lyon.
Centuries of cultivation here have taught producers how to deal with some of the temperamental characteristics of the grape. Viognier is highly sensitive to mildew and generates low and unpredictable yields. Proper harvesting is also a challenge: if picked too early, the grape fails to display its full profile of flavors and aromas; picked too late, the grape makes wines that are oily and lacking perfume.
In Condrieu, local conditions are also unique: the Mistral winds off the Mediterranean play a moderating role in viticulture, cooling the wines after the heat of the summer. Vines grow on steep, granite-rich slopes, allowing grapes to reach great concentration. The age of the vines also makes a difference, for Viognier vines don't hit their peak until at least 15-20 years of age-- some of Condrieu's vines are at least 70 years of age. The result is a delicate white with the aroma of a powerful sweet wine.
Viognier from Condrieu is also an exception to the rule under which expensive wines are also age-worthy wines. Condrieu is generally best in its first year or two after release, because its distinctive aroma often mellow after this period. Yet this wine is not cheap; the small size of the appellation limits the amount of wine produced. Look for wines from E. Guigal and Yves Cuilleron.
The improving quality of California Viognier has provided an lower-priced alternative to the wines of Condrieu. Viognier is a bit of trail-blazer-- its success in California helped pave the way for other Rhone varietals, like Roussane and Marsanne. Here, Viognier has recovered from an early impulse among producers to apply vinification techniques better suited to Chardonnay. Now, the best examples retain the aromatic complexity of the grape-- ill-fated experiments using lots of oak barrels are largely resigned to the past. Look for wines from Cold Heaven and Alban Vineyards.
Thanks to its aromatic intensity, Viognier can stand up to spicy foods like Thai or Indian cuisine better than most wines. Another reliable bet is chilled seafood, especially shellfish.