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Michael Broadbent December 2010 column

First, a jolly little oddment that turned out to be far better than expected: a half bottle of California Syrah.

What had attracted me was the very original decorative front label: a faux Medieval woodcut of a man wearing a floppy red hat sporting a large feather, his left arm clutching a cornucopia of flowers, the right holding open his voluminous coat to display pockets secreting bags of gold.

In panels, above and below, ‘California Syrah’ and ‘Bonny-Doon-Vineyard’. No indication of vintage until I spotted three tiny Roman numerals: MMI. To help those without a classical education, ‘2001’ appeared prominently on the back label. The winemaker’s name did not appear anywhere, but it could only be Randall Grahm, an innovative, somewhat bizarre character in Santa Cruz specialising in Rhône varieties.

I had high hopes of something really interesting. The wine was deep and rich, with a plummy rim, ‘on the turn’ – neither youthful mauve nor obviously mature – but surely ready for drinking at nine years of age? Its nose a bit indefinable, slightly meaty but with good fruit; on the palate soft, fleshy, a touch of cloves, surprisingly moderate 13.5% alcohol and good length. Daphne and I enjoyed it.

My next aim was to isolate my books on Californian wine to find out more about Grahm’s pioneering work. I should, at the outset, have fished out any edition of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book. I did – among other bits of information – find Grahm described as a ‘rabid Francophile’ leading ‘the charge towards Rhône varieties’. But instead I found myself immersed in Leon D Adams’ comprehensive classic, The Wines of America. Adams, whom I first met at the time of its publication in 1973, was born in 1905 and, post prohibition, became the supreme chronicler of American wines. Living in California, his first major ‘day job’ was founder, and for 20 years the director, of The Wine Institute. I found him a fount of knowledge and wisdom. He was well into his late-80s when he joined the pantheon of vinous luminaries.

Browsing through Adams’ tome, I was amused to read his report of ‘Boone’s Farm apple wine, labelled 11%’, which had, by 1970, become ‘the largest-selling single wine of any kind in the United States’. It was followed a year later by ‘Strawberry Hill, a carbonated apple wine with strawberry flavour’, then by ‘Wild Mountain, tasting mainly of Concord grapes’, and ‘Ripple, the wine with the Ring-a-Ding flavor’. Guess who was behind all these? E&J Gallo.

Yet, California was already making some excellent wines, particularly in the Napa Valley. Though Napa is Cabernet dominated, André Tchelistcheff, the most renowned winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards, made one of the greatest Pinot Noirs I’ve ever tasted – his famous 1946.

There were other pioneers in the ’60s and ’70s like Joe Heitz, a brilliant but occasionally irascible wine maker. When visiting him in the early ’80s, I tactlessly expressed my incredulity that in his winery shop on the St Helena Highway, he was selling his 1970 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon at the same price as 1970 Château Latour.

But I digress. Dipping into my current tasting book: a rare six-star wine, Château Climens of the outstanding 1971 vintage, just one of the great treats poured at an intimate dinner hosted by Decanter to celebrate my 400th monthly article. Medium-deep amber gold with a touch of orange; rich, fragrant, with the impenetrable depth of age; still sweet, languidly intense with glorious flavour, great length and lingering aftertaste.

On another occasion, at a tasting of Italian wines presented by a group of distinguished family producers (alas, too many to mention), my favourite red was the Lungarotti family’s Rubesco, Vigna Monticchio Riserva, Torgiano 2005: 70% Sangiovese, 30% Canaiolo: a soft, gentle colour, a beautiful nose anticipating its rich yet understated fruit and wonderful texture. Most distinctive. A gracious family making gracious wine.

Among the whites, Ca’del Bosco, Franciacorta Brut 2007 – 100% Chardonnay. Very pale; fragrant, delicious flavour, very good acidity, spicy finish, all the more interesting in the company of the generous, larger-than-life man behind Ca’del Bosco, Maurizio Zanella. I’d first met him many years ago leaning on his Rolls Royce in Place de la Concorde in Paris. At the Masters of Wine tasting at Vintners’ Hall I only just recognised him, for gone were his flowing locks (mind you, my hair had changed from dark to white) but still his exuberant self. Great characters make great wine.

Written by Michael Broadbent

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