2020 Winter Wines | Part II

That old Black Magic from Carol Shelton Wines. | Lou Phillips

For the everything red installation of our winter wines series we are going to feature a heaping helping of California’s finest big, bold and warm offerings. It’s not fer nuthin’ that California reds rock in the winter because the sunshine and warm growing climates that prevail in the state create the ability to create major body and dark-ripe fruit components. Add to that the diverse geology and coastal influences that allow farmers to tailor their techniques to create wines that also have complexity.

Read Part I

Let’s proceed from the relatively lighter to the rich and thick, red winter wonders. There are few regions in the world that can match California’s ability to grow Pinot Noir grapes that are at once quite ripe and still have a sense of balance. Even some of the cooler regions such as Los Carneros somehow bring the heat while offering spice and even some minerality to Pinot Noir. The same can be said for the Central Coast areas of Monterey and Santa Barbara.

There are few regions in the world that can match California’s ability to grow Pinot Noir grapes that are at once quite ripe and still have a sense of balance.

Moving up the big/bold ladder we land on Merlot. By the way, please quit dissing this little blackbird, which is what the word means in French. Just ask your purveyor for a fully dry version from a quality growing region and you will get a bottle of joy. A good buying strategy for Merlot is to decide on your price point and ask your local wine purveyors for their favorites.

Central Coast Syrah from Ethan Winery. | Lou Phillips
Marvelous Merlot from Leonetti Cellar. | Lou Phillips

Next up is Syrah and Petite Sirah. Yes, they are two different grapes, but they share origin in France’s Rhône Valley and often express themselves quite similarly in California. Dark berries abound, accompanied by pepper spice and substantial tannins that California’s climate seems to tame quite well. In winter, look for versions from Lodi and Paso Robles for value offerings or Napa versions if you want to splurge.

You may be thinking, “Where’s the Zinfandel?” Well, the answer is, right here, but with a little twist. The twist is late harvest and it’s not just about sticky-sweet versions. You see, late harvest means the grapes were left to not just fully ripen, but also to partially dry on the vine. This concentrates and intensifies all the flavor components. The grapes are then fermented as far as yeast can take them, which does leave a little sugar; the other scent and flavor goodies are so powerful, the wines are balanced and complex as well as yummy and warming.

Take note: These are not the port-style versions, which have spirits added that halts fermentation so there is more sweetness and typically less balance. A couple of favorites are Carol Shelton’s Black Magic and Dry Creek Vineyard’s Late Harvest Zinfandel. These make great just-off-the-hill or in-front-of-the-fireplace sippers — and are a fitting end to our winter wines 2020.