Top Californian red wines

Wine news

Fri 12 Mar 2021

^ California is home to some of the finest red wines in the world

Wine lovers in the UK have an uneasy relationship with California. For many, the Golden State is synonymous with excess: big wines at big prices. There’s truth in every stereotype. California produces some very expensive wines indeed, and it can also produce wines that are powerfully oaked with mighty tannins and spoonfuls of ripe fruit.

At the cheaper end, the state has a reputation for sugary rosés (think blush Zinfandel), and untold gallons of gluggable whites. The ubiquitous, cheap and cheerful Barefoot, owned by the giant Gallo, is reliably one of the five top-selling UK wines from any region.

For well-heeled collectors, Californian wines (particularly those from Napa) are among the greatest and longest-lived in the world. Those who want a wine for a beach barbecue are similarly well served, but the vast ranks of aficionados who take their wine seriously but are unwilling to spend more than £100 on a bottle tend to be ill served. The truth is that between the top and bottom shelves there’s a huge hole in the California wine offering.

We’re only recommending California reds here. One of the main reasons for this is that while there are many world-beating whites from California (Napa’s Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 was the winner of the 1976 Judgement of Paris; both Napa and Sonoma produce brilliantly acidic cool-climate Chardonnays and Rieslings), at the quality end, we tend to see far more California reds in the UK.

If you know where to look, California is so much more than cults and jug wines. While the great appellations of Napa and Sonoma tend to get all the press, there are wonderful wines produced from Santa Barbara on the Central Coast to Anderson Valley, 500 miles north.

Paso Robles, between Santa Barbara and Monterey, is a region of farms and homesteads; although it’s one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the US (the early missionaries planted vineyards there 200 years ago), it’s only now building a reputation among the wine cognoscenti, particularly for Cabernet Sauvignons. The Hope Family’s Austin Hope is an example of the sort of quality that’s coming out of Paso nowadays.

The results of the 2020 IWSC show Napa and Sonoma need not be inaccessible. Francis Ford Coppola produces wonderful wines at every level: his flagship winery, Inglenook in Rutherford, is one of Napa’s oldest and most revered wineries, but Coppola also produces millions of bottles from his eponymous Sonoma winery. His Diamond Collection Pinot from Monterey, with its “fresh balanced acidity and gentle tannic structure” is absolutely affordable and well worth searching out.

You’ll see very few of the wines we list here on the high street, but that shouldn’t be a barrier: they can be readily found online. California at this level demands slightly more outlay and a bit more searching out, but anything that brings this beautiful, infinitely varied and rapidly evolving wine region to a wider audience is well worth the effort. Here are some of the best Californian red wines as recommended in the 2020 IWSC.

Award-winning Californian red wines

Lucienne Smith Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017iwsc-top-california-red-wines-1.png

Richly complex displaying ripe plums, raspberries and cherry spice with hints of floral. Elegantly balanced oak with crisp acidity and generous redcurrant brightness leading to a prolonged spicy finish. 14.5%

Black Girl Magic Red Blend 2017iwsc-top-california-red-wines-2.png
McBride Sisters

Generous aromas of cedar and cassis on the nose, with some complex herbaceous notes. Soft palate with bright, balancing acidity and a hint of savoury complexity. Precise, elegant wine. 13%

Pinot Noir 2018iwsc-top-california-red-wines-3.png
Black Stallion Estate Winery

Soft and sleek, displaying regional typicity, ample purity of black and red fruit ripeness and gentle sweet spice. Balanced and light with ripe tannins, crisp acidity and alluring minerality. 14.5%

Dragon's Tooth 2017iwsc-top-california-red-wines-4.png
Trefethen Family Vineyards

Bold, dark and ripe fruits on the nose, with rich sweet spice. The fruit on the palate is supported by firm, fine, ripe tannins. Long finish. Clearly a smart wine that's had plenty of attention. 14.7%

Diamond Collection Pinot Noir 2017iwsc-top-california-red-wines-5.png
Francis Ford Coppola Winery

Appealingly restrained nose of clean red fruits with a touch of green. Light and fruity, fresh balanced acidity and gentle tannic structure. Varietal elegance with a slightly sharp finish. 14.1%

Director's Cut Cabernet Sauvignon 2017iwsc-top-california-red-wines-6.png
Francis Ford Coppola Winery

Enticing aroma of ripe blackberry and dark fruits. Smooth tannins with finesse and elegance elevate the palate with hints of dark chocolate and milk. This wine shows character and lingers on the tongue. 14.5%

Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2017iwsc-top-california-red-wines-7.png
Trefethen Family Vineyards

Subtle floral notes on the nose, with a hit of cassis, spice, leather and tobacco. Soft, supple palate freshened by acidity which compliments the fine grain tannins. Long finish. 14.2%

Boneshaker Zinfandel 2017iwsc-top-california-red-wines-8.png

Generous, juicy but not overpowering dark fruits, hints of vanilla, cedar and cigar box sweetness. It has lovely elegance and ripeness with refreshing acidity, smooth tannins and a long finish. 15%

Austin Hope Cabernet Sauvignon 2017iwsc-top-california-red-wines-9.png
Hope Family

Excellent nose geographically and varietally defined with mint, cedar, cassis and blackcurrant. The palate is elegant and structured, the tannins fine-grained and plenty of fresh acidity. Classy. 15%

Director's Cut Zinfandel 2016iwsc-top-california-red-wines-10.png
Francis Ford Coppola Winery

A sweet core of ripe black cherry with a touch of earthiness, followed by lovely sweet, smooth chocolaty tannins on a generous palate. 

Limited Release Cabernet Sauvignon 2016iwsc-top-california-red-wines-11.png
Black Stallion Estate Winery

Black fruit, spice and intense cassis, with a nod of minerality coming through. Silky with a lot of acidity featuring flavours of loganberry, blackberry and black olive. Well-judged tannins with a subtle spice finish.