JOINING THE TOP TABLE BY STEVEN SPURRIER
"Napa has achieved protected name status in the EU. Rightly so - its latest Bordeux blends are a rival to the real thing," says STEVEN SPURRIER.
BETTER THAN BORDEAUX? SPURRIER'S STANDOUTS
2004 Vintage: Keenan Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon
5 Stars - Number One
2003 Vintage: Keenan Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon
4 Stars - Number Two
On 24 May this year, a reception was held at the German Consulate in San - Francisco - Germany currently holding the presidency of the European Union - to announce that the Napa Valley had been officially recognised with Geographic Indication (GI) Status as a protected name in the EU, the first such recognition of an American wine place name. Napa therefore joins Champagne, Jerez, Chianti Classico, Tokaji and Port as signature members ofthe Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place and Origin. The law highlights and protects the unique identity of wine places around the world.
For the consumer, this is all about truth in labelling - just as one would expect Jersey tomatoes to come from Jersey, it is reasonable to assume that wine whose labels read Napa should come from the Napa Valley. In the past, this was not always the case, but now the Napa name is protected, at least in the EU.
The Napa Valley may well be the most recognised wine region in America, but it represents only 4% of California's wine production. Yet this 4% actually accounts for 25% of Cdifornian wine sales. Despite this, and though the decision is a great victory for the Napa Valley Vintners, a non-profit trade association now in its seventh decade, the sad truth is that Napa's wineries have very little penetration of the European market. Although California has now reached third place in volume sales to the UK, the vast majority of these are made up of brands. During my visit to California earlier this year, I was approached by several producers, such as Trefethen or Heitz, whose wines had been almost household names thanks to the pioneering Geoffrey Roberts in the 1970s and 1980s, but no longer had importers in Britain. At London's annual California Wine Tasting, a good third of the stands had that ever so hopeful tag, 'seeking representation'.
Yet in Napa itself, optimism seems to know no bounds. After being one of the panellists at the annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood - which showed that wine writing in America is alive and well - I was able to attend the Premiere Napa Valley Barrel Tasting, a marvellous overview of wines mostly from the excellent 2005 vintage from 187 producers. The impression I was left with was one of vibrant fruit and good vineyard origin, and my palate did not pick up on the high alcohols for which Califronia is so often castigated.
Good vineyard management produces ripe, healthy grapes and there is no doubt that global warming is compounding this natural richness. Napa already enjoys a Mediterranean climate, so a 14.5' wine is as normal to Napa as a 13.5'wine now is to Bordeaux. Twenty years ago, one degree could have been lopped off these figures.
The words 'plummy' and 'chocolatey', not very positive in castings of barrel samples from Bordeaux, lose all negativity when the wines are bursting with fruit and so enjoyable. I am not against'high alcohol wines per se, but I am against them when they lack balance. Napa whites fare less well in this regard, due to lack of acidity, but the reds have tannin structure that actually needs sufficient ripeness to see it through.
'Most 1970 vintage Bordeaux wines did not have the concentration needed to age for the next generation. Napa Cabernets from this period did'
That such wines will last into their second decade - the most that all but a tiny handful of wines are kept for - is not, in my view, in doubt. The key is that they do not need to. Bordeaux vintages of the 1960s and 1970s had to have time to soften the edges of unripeness and rough tannins. That many of them, as witnessed by the re-run of the 1976 Paris tasting last year, did not last 30 years, whereas their California counterparts did, was simply because they were not ripe enough. Bordeaux 1982s, even 1959s - hot years in a pre-technology, pre-selection era - are still going strong. Even though 1970 was viewed as a very good year in Bordeaux at the time, most wines did not have the concentration that is needed. to age for the next generation. Napa Cabernets from this period did.
Three decades later, while I expected the older Bordeaux to emerge triumphant, I forgot to consider the styles of wine being made back then. This would have told me the extra depth of ripeness from California would show through.
Throughout the 1990s, Bordeaux has moved towards a perfect balance of ripeness and concentration. California, and Napa in particular, was making impressive gains in concentration, but losing elegance along the way. The critics were not without blame, witnessed by the fine 1998, derided as a weak vintage, which is showing particularly well today. Following the tasting of the original red wines, younger vintages, mostly 2000, were tasted and this time California came off worse, its wines appearing chunky and sweet by comparison. Yet there now seems to be a search for vitality to match the vigour natural to a warm climate and in the 2005 wines I found a lift and personality not evident in the 2000's.
Steven Spurrier is Decanter's consultant editor and chair of the Decanter World Wine Awards.