It almost sounds like a prompt on the Master of Wine exam: Discuss which of the world’s wine regions produces excellent Barbera, outstanding Malbec, edgy Vermentino, meaty, peppery Mourvèdre and richly tannic Tempranillo.
The answer is California—but not the California you’re probably thinking of. Quality winemaking in the Golden State is often misconstrued as the provenance only of Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast. However, numerous wine regions exist outside the limelight that are pushing the envelope with relatively obscure grape varieties.
This month we reviewed 188 wines from the state’s outsider appellations including Mendocino and Lake counties in the north, Amador and El Dorado counties in the Sierra Foothills, and Livermore Valley on the fringe of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Look to Lake County for its specialty, Sauvignon Blanc, but also for good Tempranillo, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. Mendocino is famous for its Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, but also makes one of the state’s best Vermentinos and dry Chenin Blancs.
Long known for old-vine Zinfandel, Amador County at the base of the Sierra mountains produces well-balanced Barbera and even the occasional Grenache Blanc. Higher in elevation, neighboring El Dorado County turns out an extremely wide array of concentrated wines, particularly red Rhône varieties that are frequently estate grown and bottled. These grapes have caught on in Livermore, too, once identified strongly with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Devil Proof 2015 Farrow Ranch Malbec (Alexander Valley); $150, 94 points. From the oldest block of a dry-farmed, hillside site, this bold, beautiful red is a celebratory expression of crushed rock, dusty soil and floral teases of rose and lavender. Hearty, thick and rich in its youth, it offers a wealth of blue fruit, leather and brown sugar. The oak is integrated and the tannins are grippy yet beginning to show polish. —Virginie Boone
Sol Rouge 2014 Mourvèdre (Red Hills Lake County); $36, 93 points. This wine is bold but nuanced, too, showing a blend of very ripe black-fruit, oak-spice, black-pepper and roast-beef flavors on a firm structure of moderate tannins and good acidity. It turns creamy in texture on the palate and lingers on the finish. —Jim Gordon
Ruby Hill Winery 2015 Jewel Collection Series Estate Reserve Malbec (Livermore Valley); $50, 93 points. Powerful and earthy, this rich and concentrated wine is full bodied, broad in texture and has envelope-pushing spice and leather aromas backed by well-concentrated wild-berry and plum-compote flavors of significant depth. It’s seductive and lavish in character. Editors’ Choice. —J.G.
Tablas Creek 2017 Estate Grown & Bottled Vermentino (Adelaida District); $27, 92 points. This is a dynamic and lovely white wine that checks all the boxes. Aromas of melon and Meyer lemon meet with honeysuckle and wet cement on the nose. The palate is framed by a grippy tension, yet shows welcoming flavors of nectarine and pear. A powerful streak of lime acidity slices through it all. Editors’ Choice. —Matt Kettmann
The Withers Winery 2015 Ruben Mourvèdre (El Dorado); $39, 92 points. Moderate fruit flavors, light spices and a firm texture make this medium-bodied wine appetizing and food-friendly. Made from 86% Mourvèdre grapes plus Grenache and Syrah, it’s a tenor rather than a baritone and gives a brilliant performance. Editors’ Choice. —J.G.
Wise Villa 2015 Estate Barbera (Alta Mesa); $40, 92 points. This is a compelling take on a sometimes simply fruity and lively varietal from risk-taking winemaker Kevin Luther. It’s medium bodied, well balanced and has a complexity in the aromas and flavors that is fascinating to taste. It blends tasty cherry and raspberry notes with accents of tamarind, black tea and clove. Editors’ Choice. —J.G.
Monte Volpe 2017 Vermentino (Mendocino County); $18, 91 points. It’s a treat to welcome a new producer of Vermentino in California. This wine balances vivid herb and ripe apple flavors with vibrant acidity for a mouthfilling but still refreshing character. Touches of lime and lemon perk up the palate while an almost sweet apple-tart note kicks in on the finish. Editors’ Choice. —J.G.
Charles B. Mitchell 2015 Reserve Tempranillo (Fair Play); $25, 91 points. Floral aromas and plenty of black-fruit flavors nicely fill out the full body of this ripe and opulently textured wine. The color is black almost to the rim, the aromas are spiced with vanilla and cocoa, and the flavors are so ripe with dried berries and cherries as to taste slightly sweet on the finish. —J.G.
Derby 2014 Derby Vineyard Malbec (Paso Robles); $46, 91 points. Roasted blackberry and black-plum aromas meet with milk chocolate and baking spice on the nose of this bottling, which sees 21% new oak. The flavors are broad and rich with violets, black currants and blueberries, framed by strong tannins and a persistent deep acidity. —M.K.
The Winery SF 2014 Tempranillo (North Coast); $27, 90 points. This wine offers gorgeous fruit flavors, subdued spices and great balance. It feels poised on the palate, lifted by good acidity, braced by moderate tannins and well filled out by plum, prune and cherry flavors shaded by hints of nutmeg and vanilla. —J.G.
Septentrio 2014 Tempranillo (Lake County); $28, 89 points. This full-bodied wine exudes aromas of new leather, sandalwood and black cherries, while the flavors are ripe and mouthfilling. Plenty of tannin coats the palate before the wine slowly releases dark-chocolate and cherry-candy notes on the finish. —J.G.
Feist 2016 Reserve Cooper Vineyard Barbera (Amador County); $32, 89 points. This is a big wine that shows concentrated berry and black-pepper flavors, with accents of rosemary and wood smoke. Firm tannins and good acidity give plenty of grip. —J.G.