Tasting Notes from California

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."

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