California wines keep getting better and better. 2016 was no exception.
I did some serious wine drinking in 2016, people. And it was for you, of course — all for you. Sure it was. (Full disclosure: I spat most of it out. I am a professional.)
I also traveled up and down my fair state of California, marveling at the 130 or so wine regions (I didn’t get to all of them, of course). There is a huge diversity of choice in this state, one of the world’s great viticultural treasures. Here is my list of some of the best california wines – prices vary from $17-$170.
A few trends
These are things that have been happening for a while, but in 2016 they seemed to break through big-time.
1. More rule-breaking blends: Artisanal winemakers, especially on the Central Coast, are crossing traditional boundaries more frequently in their red (and less frequently white) blends. You’ll find varieties from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône thrown together; zinfandel and other Italian and even Spanish varieties are sometimes added to the mix.
2. Fewer fruit bombs, more balance: Younger winemakers in particular are harvesting their grapes slightly less ripe. This keeps alcohol levels lower and eschews manipulation once the grapes have been squeezed. The result is wine that is less fruit-forward and showy but more balanced, complex, individualized, food-friendly and age-worthy.
3. The rise (and rise and rise) of Pinot Noir: Once a light, mid-priced alternative for cabernet haters, California pinot from Anderson Valley, Sonoma, Russian River, Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Rita Hills and many other cool-climate AVAs is flooding the market. Yet prices are reaching Napa cabernet level: $50, $60, $70 … yikes. And the style, especially from the southern AVAs, is distinctly Californian: heavy and extracted, not light and Burgundian. We make anti-Oregon pinots here.
4. Rosé is here to stay: The French started it, but California winemakers have embraced the summer pink wine tradition wholeheartedly. The domestic version is often a tad sweeter than bone-dry Provencal rosé, and many winemakers depart from the customary Rhône varieties to make rosé from pinot noir and other non-Rhône grapes.
Field Recordings 2008 Chenin Blanc
5. Unusual grapes are appearing: Chenin blanc, which has all but disappeared in California, was a surprise hit for artisanal Central Coast winemaker Andrew Jones of Field Recordings. Others winemakers are finding a market for such un-California grapes as vermentino, tannat, alicante bouschet, fiano and valdiguié.
For the California AVA to keep an eye on…
6. Paso Robles is a respectable (dare we say world-class?) producer of Bordeaux: In September, Wine Advocate graced Paso winemakers with impressive scores. Those scores included 98 points for Daou Vineyards’ 2013 Patrimony and 96 points for its 2013 Soul of a Lion. Yet Paso’s best are not Napa clones: they have softer tannins, their own distinct terroir, and often much more petit verdot in the blend. And they’re less expensive than Napa cabs, too.
The year’s best
Here are the best 25 California wines that I tasted this year. I don’t go all Wine Spectator with this list. I list the wines alphabetically, not in terms of quality. Really, isn’t it silly to say “this Bordeaux is better than that sauvignon blanc”? I didn’t discriminate by price, region or type. Some of these babies are easier to find than others.
Before you get all up in my piece with accusations like, “No Pinot Grigio — how dare you!” let me remind you that I tasted a lot of other great wines this year that weren’t from California, okay? For practical reasons, I confine myself to the place I know best when making a list like this. If you want to peruse my tasting notes, you can find them here.
Top 25 California Wines of 2016
Byron 2014 Nielson Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay, $23 (90 points)
Calera 2013 Jensen Vineyard Mount Harlan Pinot Noir, $90 (96 points)
Chalk Hill 2015 Estate Bottled Sauvignon Blanc, $33 (92 points)
Cliff Lede 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap, $78 (93 points)
Donum 2013 Carneros Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, $72 (92 points)
Duckhorn 2014 Decoy Pinot Noir, $25
Frank Family Vineyards 2014 Carneros Pinot Noir, $35 (91 points)
Geyser Peak 2013 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $19
Giornata 2015 Fiano, $17 (90 points)
Gundlach Bundschu Mountain Cuvee 2012 Sonoma County Red Wine, $19
J. Lohr Riverstone 2014 Arroyo Seco Monterey Chardonnay, $14 (92 points)
MacRostie 2014 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, $25 (90 points)
Ramey 2013 Russian River Valley Chardonnay, $38 (90 points)
Rombauer 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, $25 (90 points)
Rosenblum Cellars 2013 RC10 Rutherford Zinfandel, $42 (93 points)
Sans Liege 2013 Offering, $29 (91 points)
Saxum Vineyards 2013 Broken Stones Paso Robles Syrah, $148 (95 points)
Wente 2015 Morning Fog Chardonnay, $15
ZD 2015 Chardonnay, $42