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Tasting notes from California

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on California.


david ramey David Ramey rushes in to meet me straight from a meeting with a very well-known winery, to discuss the fruit they buy on contract from a Sonoma vineyard, which David has just purchased. This is the first ever vineyard owned by Ramey Wine Cellars, until now a strictly négociant company set up in 1996 and owned by David and his wife. "Just us, no investors, it's all down to us," says David.

The bulk of the Ramey winemaking will continue to use contract fruit from both Napa and Sonoma counties, but there are more plans afoot including a new visitor centre due to open soon, on a riverside location across from the cellars of Williams Selyem. For now offices and cellars are based within the town limits of Healdsburg.

David tells me that his appellation series of wines (i.e. those that are not vineyard designated) are all made identically, in the belief that it is the sites that will show through in the finished wines. Chardonnays in this series typically see only 25 to 30 percent new oak, and spend less time in barrel with whole cluster pressing, native yeast ferments, ageing on the lees with battonage and full malolactic. "Everything is made the way it used to be 100 years ago," says David. "It's neo-Burgundian Chardonnay."

Though he professes a deep and abiding love for Scotland (where he once had a sun-soaked holiday that he enjoyed so much he almost sold up in California to buy a small distillery), it is France that is in his heart. Though having made wine at Matanzas Creek and Chalk Hill, David worked at Pétrus too, making acclaimed vintages including the 1991 and 1994, spent "many winters working in Burgundian cellars," and was the man that Christian Moueix choose to set up Dominus in the Napa Valley.

David's approach to winemaking leans on a European model. For example: "Acidification of the juice is commonplace in Burgundy," he tells me, "so I do it too. Robert Parker doesn't like acid, so too many people make fat wines with the structure of a white Hermitage." David has plenty to say on the subject of wine making, or more pertinently, the trendy soundbites one hears from so many winemakers: "I also reject the notion that 'we don't want to mess around with it, we don't want to add anything.' That's like saying 'I want to cook great food but won't use salt.'"

But that's not to say everything can be organised in a strict Bordeaux or Burgundy model. "Our soils have much more vigour than in France - their soils have seen 1,000 years of farming, ours maybe only 50 years, so they are much richer in organic matter. Our vines can produce really good quality, even at only seven or eight years old." Though for his single vineyard wines, age of vine is one factor he does consider: "Generally they'd have to be at least seven years old, but what really makes a vineyard suitable for single vineyard treatment is clone. My Chardonnays are almost all from Sonoma and the old Wente clone, which is originally from Burgundy. It has small berries and a 'hen and chick' tendency (which the French call 'Millerandage') with some underdeveloped seedless grapes, and clusters that are half the size of many common clones."

the wines

UK importer of Ramey Wines is Fields, Morris &' Verdin and the wines are available through Berry Bros. & Rudd. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Ramey Wine Cellars, Russian River Chardonnay 2009, California
A 'village wine', from the Russian River AVA which has a slightly warmer climate compared to coastal sites. Charming hazelnut nose, with a little orange and crunchy apple fruit. The palate has delicious roundness and full fruit sweetness, a really delightful, shimmering balance and fresh acidity, there is even a little salty mineral tang to this, a pithy clarity. 90-91/100.

Ramey Wine Cellars, Russian River Chardonnay 2010, California
A little tighter, a little leaner aromatically, with a really fresh grapefruit and orange character in the mouth, lots of tang, lots of energy and vivacious character, ending with a touch of toast and a touch of spiced and tobacco as well as that mineral freshness coming through. 91-92/100.

Ramey Wine Cellars, Platt Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, California
From Sonoma Coast, four miles from the Ocean. First of the vineyard designate Chardonnays, planted in 2003, originally went into Sonoma Coast bottling but has been bottled as a single vineyard. Lots of minty freshness here and a minty oak quality, but also such fruit intensity, with really good acidity, very nice lemon and lime peel tang and grip, the density of the fruit really needs that acid balance and the creaming touch of extra oak to smooth it out. 92-93/100.

Ramey Wine Cellars, Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, California
Russian River Valley, planted in 1972 in the old 8 x 12 system of wide planting. Goldridge loam soils. Less flamboyantly aromatic, the oak seems a little more background, with hazelnut and creaminess and a very ripe apple fruit quality coming through. Juicy and fresh, but a weighty and concentrated wine, with a big stripe of lemon pith and lime acidity running through this, long and powerful stuff this. 92-93/100.

Ramey Wine Cellars, Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, California
Carneros, Napa Valley. 11- to 30-year-old vines. Very clear and clean stuff, lots of freshness here, even a touch of grassiness amongst the aromatics, a blast of grapefruit and lemon zest, this is very dry on the finish, very lean and linear, that pithiness again that great succulent core to this wine, mouth-watering and has massive acid presence. 91-92/100.

Ramey Wine Cellars, Rodgers Creek Vineyard Syrah 2010, California
Sonoma Coast. From vineyards at 800 metres on mount Sonoma. Poor volcanic soils, 20-25% whole bunch, 27 months in 100% new French oak. Very highly aromatic, loads of apricot and floral aromatics, the 7% Viognier really marking the nose, lovely lift to the black fruit too making this a very aromatic style. The palate is delicious, with a lovely streak of red and black berry fruit wrapped in chocolate, the tannins supple and firm, the cocoa and toast of the barrel just adding a charry but not overdone oak note, spice, a touch of meat stock and lots of decisive character here, delicious, pure stuff with bags of character. A big wine, but a hugely successful one. Interesting this is aged on its lees. 93/100.

Ramey Wine Cellars, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, California
Aged on the lees, two years in oak, half of it new and a mix of French and American. 88% Cabernet with Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, there's a touch of something herbal here - a pleasing green edge that is very CS, with cedar, meat stock and loads of deep bramble and blackcurrant. In the mouth a delicious edge to this wine, has the acidity again and has lovely richness and supple texture: fills the mouth, stopping short of 'hedonistic', yet with loads of flavour and of rich, chunky fruit amongst the more refined tannins. 92/100.

Ramey Wine Cellars, Napa valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California
96% Cabernet Sauvignon in this vintage, with no Malbec component. Cedary, quite floral, with the oak a little more prominent at this stage, but again that lightly herbal , lightly briary note. There's a bit of a resinous quality on the palate here that suggest to me that this needs a little bit of time. But then there is such fantastically refines and supple fruit on the mid palate, really suede-like, smooth tannins and lovely juicy acidity, but has the freshness and that chicory and liquorice edge. 93-94/100.

Ramey Wine Cellars, Pedragal Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California
Pedragal means stony place in Spanish, this was the 6th vintage form these iron-rich stony soils, converted to organic farming in 2008. 24 months in new French oak, 7% Petit Verdot in the blend. Fabulous, big nose, with a great purity to the fruit, that little wild yeast, slightly sauvage character is delicious, animal notes, very savoury, with fabulous length and concentration, the smoky, tobacco-scent and incense of the oak and fruit quality comes through in a superbly layered and complex wine. 94/100.

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