California wine producers, surfing a wave of export growth, are facing a pivotal moment. You might call it feast before famine.
Exports have been soaring, hitting a record $1.56-billion (U.S.) in winery revenues last year, up 16.4 per cent from 2012, according to the California Wine Institute. A good chunk of that change, $454-million (almost a third), came from Canada, its No. 2 foreign market, which spent 12 per cent more on Golden State wine in dollar value and accounted for a 10.7-per-cent jump in volume.
Per capita, Canadians put back vastly more California wine than No. 1 export destination Europe (at $617-million) and No. 3 Japan ($102-million). Our robust exchange rate for much of 2013 (remember that?) helped make those imported wines look like great buys, as did a big marketing campaign featuring surfboards, sunshine and the state's richest resource: slim, tanned blond people. Sales to Alberta in particular have been booming.
According to figures from the Canadian Vintners Association and Association of Canadian Distillers, U.S. wine sales in Canada passed the 5-million-case threshold in 2013 for the first time, vaulting ahead of France to claim our No. 2 import spot, behind Italy. California produces about 90 per cent of U.S. wine.
The past two years also have seen outstanding quality as well as quantity thanks to good weather and expanded acreage. Preliminary figures from the California Department of Food and Agriculture indicate a record crop in 2013 of 4.23 million tons, up five per cent from the previous 12 months.
So much for the great news. It will come as little surprise to Weather Channel addicts that California confronted a devastating drought for most of the winter; winter precipitation is critical for restoring soil moisture and groundwater lost during the generally dry summer. Experts have predicted that there will be a decline in grape output of 25 per cent for the 2014 growing season because the dormant vines are not getting the water they need. The likely upshot for us: higher prices, eventually.
The price tags on some of the recently arrived luxury wines below will already seem steep to most consumers. There's another way to look at it: They could be a steal compared with next year.
Dominus 2010 (California)
SCORE : 97 PRICE : $170.95
Is there a more solidly structured California red than storied Dominus, created by Christian Moueix of Châteaux Petrus fame. Where many Napa reds have the soft, bouncy, sweet ride of a Detroit sedan, the tight suspension here is more like that of an autobahn-tuned Porsche. The 2010 is powerful and bracing, with Dominus's classic vice-grip tannins. With dense, pronounced blackberry and plum jam, it's also earthy for a Napa blend of 95-per-cent cabernet sauvignon and five-per-cent petit verdot, with forest floor and stone under that fruit. Cellar it for at least five years or, ideally, 15 to 20, if you can. $155 in Quebec.
Cade Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (California)
SCORE : 92 PRICE : $99.95
Cade – the name comes from Shakespeare, a generic Elizabethan term for wine casks shipped from Bordeaux to England – rests high up on Napa's Howell Mountain. It's owned by the principals of another esteemed California producer, PlumpJack, whose name also was inspired by the Bard. This is concentrated juice with a sweet berry-like core laced with vanilla, chocolate, toasty oak, cedar and wood spice. Framed by vibrant acidity and dry tannins, it comes across like sunny Napa genuflecting in the direction of Bordeaux. Decant it for current pleasure or cellar it for up to 10 years. Available in Ontario.
Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (California)
SCORE : 92 PRICE : $55.95
Perfectly ripe, neither lazy and sweet nor too thin, this is lively, elegant cabernet with a tip of the hat to Pauillac. Pure cassis and cherry mingle with damp earth, pencil shavings, cigar and minerals set against a moderately firm tannic frame. It should improve for up to 10 years, maybe more. Various prices in Alberta.
Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (California)
SCORE : 89 PRICE : $21.95
Medium-full bodied and relatively light on its feet, this juicy Sonoma County cab offers up tart cherry, currant and vanilla mixed with pronounced black-olive tapenade. $24.99 in B.C., various prices in Alberta, $24.99 in Saskatchewan, $22.30 in Quebec.
Ravenswood Vintners Blend Petite Sirah 2011 (California)
SCORE : 89 PRICE : $18.95
Full-bodied, chunky and seamless in texture, this cuddly red offers up big fruit along with peppery spice and cigar overtones. It's the smooth jazz of wine, mercifully more David Sanborn than Kenny G: smooth but a little bit gritty. $18.99 in Saskatchewan, $19.99 in Nova Scotia.
Clos du Bois Cabernet Sauvignon (California)
SCORE : 88 PRICE : $15.95
With cassis, dark chocolate and a dusting of herbs all on a seamless, polished texture, it's a commendable cab for the cash. $17.95 in Quebec.
Wente Southern Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (California)
SCORE : 88 PRICE : $15.95
Very ripe, as though the grapes had fallen into bed (or the fermenting vat) with a few of the California Raisins, this is smooth, roundish fare with a satisfyingly dry, lightly tannic backbone. Good for the money. $18.99 in B.C. (The above price represents a $1-off discount, until March 30, to its regular $16.95 price in Ontario.)
Simi Chardonnay 2012 (California)
SCORE : 88 PRICE : $19.95
Full-bodied and sweet in the middle, this ultimately finds sound balance in fresh acidity in the second act. Candied pineapple and citrus are filled out with well-integrated vanillin oak. Various prices in Alberta.
McFadden Spirit Drink (Ireland)
SCORE : 93 PRICE : $49.95
Not a wine, no, and not from California. It's a "whisky" from Ireland – because Monday is St. Patrick's Day. I put the word whisky in quotation marks because, while it tastes entirely like whisky, the production methods fall outside the tightly guarded legal definition. West Cork Distillers, the producer, uses a proprietary oak-infusion process, which I suspect means the spirit did not mature in actual casks, at least not for the required period. "Oak filtered" curiously appears on the front label. Also, this fine product was steeped in malt according to an age-old and virtually extinct process. So much for techniques and legalities. I think it's a grand way to celebrate the day. Medium-amber in colour, it comes across with plenty of dry, Weetabixlike cereal and rounded malt character supported by caramel, roasted nuts, tobacco and tangy Irish soda bread.
Writers Tears Irish Whiskey (Ireland)
SCORE : 93 PRICE : $51.05
One of my new favourites from the Emerald Isle, this is lovely stuff, with honey, ripe melon, spice and farmhouse cheddar dusted with spice. $57.52 in B.C., various prices in Alberta (Purple Valley Imports), $49.99 in New Brunswick, $45.99 in Nova Scotia.
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The Flavour Principle, by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol, was named best Canadian Food & Drinks Book in the 2014 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Published by HarperCollins.