American Innovation- Spann Vineyards’ Betsy’s Backacher


Spann Vineyards, Lot 10 Betsy’s Backacher, Sonoma County, California.

Ambassador Wines NYC,$21.77.

European wines rose to their position of dominance through tradition- which is best exemplified by the QWPSR (Quality Wines Produced in Specific Regions).  Whether it is the AOP of France, the DOC of Italy, or the very precise (confusing?) German wine classification system, each essentially does the same thing- ensure the end buyer can expect a minimum standard from the bottle of wine they purchase.  By controlling nearly every aspect of wine production, from grape yields and varieties, to use of oak, the wines of each European region will display a certain homogeneity and sense of place, creating worldwide demand for many of the finest examples.

However, it can be argued that this unwavering set of restrictive rules can also hamstring innovation in Europe.  If you step outside the traditional rules, you  lose the branding of the region in which your grapes were grown- a bottle with Bordeaux on the label is going to command a greater price than one that says Vin de Pays, so few wineries can afford to innovate with restricted grapes.  There are, however, occasions when innovative wine makers step away from these restrictions and create something fantastic- the Super Tuscans in Italy are a prime example.  These wines have their roots in the Chianti DOC in the north west of the country in the 1970s.  At this time over-production and restrictive DOC rules were seeing a steep decline in the popularity of their wines.  A group of renegade wine makers took a risk and introduced Bordeaux grapes to their blend to produce the ‘Super Tuscans’.  Falling outside the DOC these wines were labeled as table wines, but soon began to command impressive prices as their popularity surged, proving that there is a demand for good wines, not just wines that have the backing of a regulatory body.  More recently, the Languedoc region of southern France has cast off its bulk wine status and is embracing grape blending innovations.

All of this is a long-winded introduction to the wine above, which was produced on the other side of the world, in Sonoma County, California.  Unshackled from the interference of European regulatory bodies, New World wineries often have more freedom to express innovation and have some fun with their grapes.  More importantly, they have a ready and willing market to sell it in to.  Produced by Spann Vineyards, and named for the steep vineyards the grapes grow on, this wine is a blend of seven grapes.  Unlike European wines, the blend is a mix of white and red grapes and are from different vintages- again almost unheard of in European still wines.  It was first created for the workers in the vineyards and close family and friends, but word of its quality spread quickly, so was Spann made the wine available to the public.  I bought this bottle on the other side of the USA, in a small wine shop on Second Avenue in New York, and I’m glad I squeezed it in to the suitcase to bring home.

It is a deep, vibrant red in the glass, smelling of spice, tobacco, sweet red cherries.  A hint of vanilla from the oak is in there also.  The taste was fabulous too- freshness, fruitiness, spices, mint all hitting the palate.  It is quite heavy bodied, but very fresh and clean with a good long finish of sweet fruits and tobacco.  This wine is not meant to made to be cellared or lain down gathering dust, but drunk young and fresh with friends.  I like wineries that don’t take themselves too seriously- or for that matter New World wines that try to be European.  This is an all-American, fun, quirky wine.  Just a shame I only had space in the suitcase for the one bottle.

Rating: EXCELLENT 4.5/5

Home Ranch Pinot Noir 2009

PinotMarks and Spencer. On Special €16.00-25%= €12.00.

Although this wine retails at slightly over my Weekday Wine limit, I tend to bulk buy my wines in Marks and Spencers when they offer 25% off six bottles, so this Californian Pinot Noir was only €12.  Made by the respectable Hahn Winery of Monterey, this came highly recommended, so I was really looking forward to trying this wine.

Monterey claims to be the first scientifically identified location for viticulture, when a 1935 study recommended it as being comparable to the premium areas of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Sonoma and Napa.  It wasn’t until the 1960’s, however, that the area began producing top quality wines and despite being voted as Wine Enthusiast’s top wine destination in 2013, you can find wines from Monterey that won’t burn a hole in your wallet- more than can be said of near-neighbours, Napa Valley and Sonoma County.  As well as this, the 2009 vintage was one of the best of the decade, so was very hopeful that Hahn Winery had plenty of good fruit for this M&S bottling.

So, as you can tell, I was looking forward to this wine, keeping my fingers crossed for a rare Pinot Noir bargain.  Rusty orange in the glass, the nose was full of ripe bramble fruit, as well as vanilla, nutmeg and hints of lavender and violets.  It was obvious from the nose, as well as the 14.5% alcohol, that this was not going to be a restrained, refined Burgundian style Pinot.  Instead it was heaving with fully ripened fruit and heavy oak.  If the winery can control this fully ripened fruit, it can produce a fantastic expression of Pinot Noir.  Unfortunately this wine was out of balance in the glass.

Medium-to-full bodied, the heavy bramble fruit, vanilla and spice followed through on the mouth, but unfortunately so did the heavy alcohol.  After lovely primary notes, the alcohol simply takes over and that is all that remains for the length.  Shame, because it was very close to being a real bargain find.

This wine is not one of Marks and Spencer’s best value wines at full price, but certainly not plonk by any stretch.