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California reds under £30 / $30: Panel tasting results

Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir dominated as expected, our judges finding this a solid, consistent tasting, if lacking the elegance or complexity they had hoped for.

Susy Atkins, Keith Kirkpatrick and Romain Bourger tasted 84 California reds, with one Outstanding and ten Highly Recommended.

Entry criteria: Producers and UK agents were invited to submit their Californian red wines with availability in the UK and/or US, with a retail price of up to £30/$30

See all wines tasted here

There may have been no fireworks, but our expert trio were encouraged by improved levels of quality in this competitive price bracket, if slightly disappointed by an overarching fruit-forward simplicity.

‘I was pleasantly surprised,’ said Susy Atkins. ‘It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted so many Californian wines in such a concentrated period of time and I do think the quality has gone up.

‘There’s a lot of good wine – even very good wine – for the price point, but I was disappointed that there were few really stellar wines, which we know California can deliver.’

Keith Kirkpatrick felt that Californian producers need to understand the UK market better before their wines are fully appreciated. ‘Our European palate is quite different from the North American palate,’ he explained. ‘Even for wines at entry level, not everybody is looking for sweet, forward fruit with lots of oak and alcohol. We want savouriness, elegance and balance as well.’

That finesse seemed most lacking in the Pinot Noirs which, nevertheless, were roundly enjoyed by all three judges. ‘I was looking for elegance and balance in particular, and was pleased that there weren’t too many overly sweet wines, though some tasted rather overcooked,’ noted Atkins. ‘But what was sadly lacking were the more complex notes – that lovely earthy, forest floor quality that Pinot can give.’

Unsurprisingly, the other consistently good-quality variety highlighted by all the judges was Cabernet Sauvignon. While Romain Bourger was impressed by the wines from specific AVAs, Kirkpatrick praised the entries that already had some age and therefore more aroma and flavour interest beyond primary fruit. ‘The younger 2018 wines were as I expected – powerful, ripe and intense – but at this stage of their life quite homogenous and often simplistic,’ he said.

In the Zinfandel flight, Bourger and Kirkpatrick preferred the lighter, more ‘old-school’ wines to the more concentrated, high-alcohol styles appreciated by Atkins. ‘But in general, whatever kind of Zinfandel you like there were some good, balanced, well-made examples,’ said Bourger.

Kirkpatrick was disappointed there were so few Syrahs: ‘California’s doing some great things with Syrah and I’d like to see more in the UK. So far we tend to see only those at a mid to high price, but I think it’s a grape that could work at a more affordable level too.’

Our expert trio found the ‘mixed bag’ flight of varieties such as Barbera, Carignan, Counoise, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Valdiguié hard to judge as there were no benchmarks. However, all agreed that while it was exciting to see the diversity of choice available, the wines would struggle in the UK in terms of price point, compared to more authentic, higher- quality counterparts from Europe.

As usual in Decanter panel tastings, prices were not revealed to the judges, nor which wines were available in either or both of the UK or US markets. But the consensus was that lovers of Californian wine on both sides of the pond had good choice and quality available to them. As Bourger concluded: ‘We’re lucky to have some excellent wines at the top end and some perhaps not so good wines at the cheap end, but if what we tasted here is an example of the intermediate range coming from California, there are some encouraging signs.’

Discussion copy by Tina Gellie. 

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Affordable California reds

Is there a middle-ground in California? Our three expert judges assessed how the state’s producers perform up to the £30/$30 level, aiming to find where the best value lies, writes Susy Atkins…

California dominates US wine production, delivering 81% of the country’s output. Pitted against whole nations, the Golden State emerges as the world’s fourth largest wine producer, yielding $43.6 billion in retail value and $1.36 billion in exports. According to California’s Wine Institute, there are 5,900 wine grape growers in 49 of its 58 counties, and across 139 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), with some 110 varieties grown. This is big wine country.

So, one would expect a huge diversity of wine styles at different price points to pour out. However, that’s at odds with the generalised perceptions of the state’s portfolio. There’s a strong belief that California produces either wildly expensive, dazzlingly complex, ageworthy premium wines, or cheap, rather sweet and oaky mass-market brands, mainly from the more obvious grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. This view holds that, in-between, there’s not enough finesse, nuance, or value.

This tasting puts those preconceptions to the test by looking at California reds under £30/$30 (we’ll look at whites next month). As well as the big three red varieties grown in California (see below), there are wines made from Syrah, Carignan, Grenache, Barbera and more – even such relatively obscurities as southern France’s Counoise and Valdiguié.

The big questions

In the past, producers here tended to put variety before provenance. But the modern-day move towards better site selection (often in cooler spots) has perhaps thrown that generalisation into question. Would generic California labels provide the best value in our tasting? Or which of the specific AVAs might triumph? While red blends are increasingly popular, California is known as a producer of varietal wines: which would take the lead? And would any single-vineyard wines be among our high scorers?

In 2018, Napa Valley had California’s highest average price per US ton of grapes, at $5,571, so one might not expect to find any Napa entries meeting our £30/$30 cut-off. Nor might we dare hope our best bargains would come from more marginal cooler climates where grapes can retain their natural acidity. Yet this balance between ripeness and freshness was exactly what we were looking for – particularly in the Pinot Noirs. Would we find it?

It stands to reason that California’s best-value reds should come from the state’s hot, dry, relatively fertile traditional farming heartlands, such as Lodi in the Central Valley, 160km east of San Francisco. Here, 40% of the state’s Zinfandel is grown, some from ancient, low-yielding vines. As with any full-bodied reds, you need balanced tannins, restrained sweet ripeness. Did they deliver?

Also a key factor is the judicious use of oak. American and French oak barrels are widely used in California, but still plenty of chips and staves too, especially for more commercial, entry-level wines. The most compelling question of all, perhaps, was whether smaller wineries or the often-derided big brands would rise best to this challenge of affordable Californian reds. The results were intriguing…

California’s Big Three: did you know?

source: California Wine Institute

Cabernet Sauvignon

The second most widely planted wine grape in the state (after Chardonnay) at 37,200ha. Average price per US ton: $1,553. Many of the best-known plantings are concentrated north and south of San Francisco in warm wine regions with significant temperature fluctuations between hot days and cooler nights. The first vineyard-designated Californian wine was Heitz, Martha’s Vineyard 1966 from what would become Oakville AVA in Napa Valley. It cost $7 a bottle (the winery’s regular bottling was $1.63).

Pinot Noir

The third most widely planted grape in the state at 18,300ha. Average price per ton: $1,688.Pinot didn’t become popular in California until after Prohibition ended as it was considered difficult to grow. By the 1970s and ’80s it was planted widely, generally in cooler spots, and sometimes for sparkling wine. By the 21st century, most quality Pinot was being grown in cool locations, often with fairly direct exposure to the Pacific ocean.


Ranked fourth in California with plantings of 17,480ha. Average price per ton: £591. Zinfandel is concentrated in the north and central part of the state, especially in the Gold Counties of El Dorado and Amador in the Sierra Foothills. It was the most widely planted red variety in California until Cabernet Sauvignon overtook it in 1998.

A large proportion of the fruit is used for white/blush Zinfandel. The oldest documented grape vines in the state are the Zinfandel vines in the Grandpere Vineyard in Shenandoah Valley, Amador County, planted in 1869.

Affordable California reds panel tasting:

84 wines tasted

Entry criteria:

Producers and UK agents were invited to submit their Californian red wines with availability in the UK and/or US, with a retail price of up to £30/$30

Exceptional 0

Outstanding 1

Highly Recommended 10

Recommended 49

Commended 20

Fair 4

Poor 0

Faulty 0

Top scoring affordable California wines

See all wines tasted here

Read next:

Napa Valley Cabernet: Best value 2018 wines under £50/$50

California Cabernet 2016: Panel tasting results

Smith-Madrone: Tasting a Napa Valley pioneer

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