Californian wine is gradually growing in popularity and well worth exploring.
When I think of Californian wine in New Zealand, I immediately think of Chris Carrad, the man who's behind bringing some of the most exciting labels from this massive wine region into the country.
Carrad sells many of these out of his international treasure trove of a wine store, Wine Circle in Huapai, from which he also supplies a growing number of retailers and restaurants keen to offer their customers a taste of the States.
How long have you been importing Californian wine?
We've been importing for six years now. The first winery was Au Bon Climat and we had a big gap on the shelves for the first weeks when we first opened with "California" written above it as we eagerly awaited for the shipment to arrive.
What intrigues you about the region's wines?
There are so many variables. These include California's willingness to try different varieties and different styles, while possessing a maturity in the industry to drop them if they don't work. As we know from New Zealand wines, not all varieties will work in all places and anything not pulling its weight tends to go in California.
We have recently imported Qupe's Bien Nacido Hillside Estate Roussanne. It's an unusual variety and we wondered how much we would need at $75 a bottle. Apparently a hell of a lot more than we bought in! The wine was stunning and so much more interesting than "another chardy".
What have been the most exciting developments there in recent years?
A slight pull-back from the huge alcohols is very welcome, and gives more balance in my view. Having said that some wines can still carry 15 per cent alcohol without appearing hot or clumsy.
Its wines can be quite pricey - are they really worth it?
And Bordeaux, Burgundy, Grange and Stonyridge aren't? Yes, they are worth it, but as for anything you pay for quality. As far as bang for albeit higher buck goes, California delivers compared to other regions. When a Napa cabernet is good, it is just sublime.
Why is there so little Californian wine currently being brought into NZ?
It is increasing in terms of volume, but for many it is an unknown. With the slightly higher price points many won't risk it unless they have tasted the wine first or have been to a real wine merchant who knows the wines and it passionate.
Given it's such a niche product, what is the perception of Californian wine in New Zealand and is this changing?
Perceptions vary. Some people have been to the States, drunk the cheapest wine they could find and found it awful, so the think all US wine is awful. If you drank the cheapest NZ wine on a visit, the result would be the same.
For those interested in exploring Californian wine country, where should they head?
Visit the Napa Valley, outside San Francisco, and go down the Golden Mile where you find names such as, Opus One, and see what money can buy! After that go out to the back blocks as there are some really good smaller producers out there.
It's also worth doing the tour of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. This is the winery that won the "Judgement of Paris" for their 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon and put Californian wines on the map.
From Los Angeles there are loads of really good little wineries in Santa Barbara district in Santa Maria (slightly further north), such as Au Bon Climat and Qupe, which both operate out of the same winery and have enough quality wines of all varietals to put you well over your customs limit on return.
Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, California 2010 $40
In the past Californian chardonnays have often been alcoholic and oaky brutes. This has been changing and Au Bon Climat is one winery that's been producing elegant examples, such as this fresh and poised chardonnay, with its layers of subtle stonefruit, zesty lemon, hints of white flowers, vanilla pod, nut and mineral undercurrent. (From Wine Circle, Wine Direct, Caro.)
Qupe Santa Barbara County Marsanne, California 2011 $42
Qupe's Bob Lindquist was one of the so-called "Rhone Rangers" who rode across California championing varieties from the French region, such as syrah and in Lindquist's case, the lesser known white, marsanne too. This is a fine example, with a fleshy, weighty palate that combines notes of nectarine and orange zest with a hint of thyme. (From Wine Circle.)
Viader Napa Valley Syrah, California 2006 $80
A big brooding syrah with super-concentrated dark fruit laced with roasted spice supported by fine tannins and a fresh acidity. (From Wine Circle.)