BERINGER Vineyards in California has only had seven winemakers since German brothers Jacob and Frederick Beringer bought their first 215 acres in the Napa Valley in 1875.
So chief winemaker Laurie Hook could have been forgiven for feeling pressure when she took over from her mentor, Ed Sbragia, in 2000.
Yet Hook has risen to the challenge superbly and is creating wines that stand up to anything her predecessors have created. Like many of the best winemakers, Hook learned her trade at the University of California, Davis, but followed that with six months of practical work in Australia in 1986.
Her hands-on experience proved invaluable when she joined Beringer that same year and became Sbragia’s assistant in 1997. Hook says they worked brilliantly together thanks to her German temperament and his Italian ancestry.
The thing I like about Beringer is the way it covers a range of price points in a region where land values and tradition make inexpensive wine something of a rarity. Although they deliver Napa wines incredibly well, value is achieved by extending their operations into the Central Coast region and other areas, and by experimenting with varieties such as pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah in places like Santa Maria.
When I asked Hook to nominate her favourite European regions, I was delighted to hear her mention Greece and the terrific white wines made from assyrtiko, along, of course, with the usual suspects (Bordeaux and Burgundy). Although she was less clear cut about favourite grape varieties, Hook and cabernet sauvignon go back a long way and she speaks tenderly about the way it changes and blossoms during the ageing process.
It’s no surprise then that Hook is particularly proud of the 2012 Beringer Founders’ Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Majestic currently has the 2010 vintage at £11.99 with the 2012 waiting in the wings). This, she believes, delivers classic cabernet characteristics at a reasonable price. After some initial woody aromas, the wine evolves on the palate to yield up blackcurrant, cinnamon, raspberry and toasty flavours wrapped around with gentle tannins and a good acidity balance. It rides out on a lingering red cherry finish.
On the nose, 2010 Beringer Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (predictably, around £29 at Majestic or online at Armit Wines or Farr Vintners) from the Regional Estates range, has more liquorice, oak and tobacco than the Founders’ Estate wine. It follows up those influences with bramble, damson and vanilla on the palate, and sweeter spice and dark chocolate with touches of cedar on the finish. This is dense wine, with firm tannin, and a savoury backdrop, but above all it centres around smoothness, ripeness, intensity and viscosity.
The 2012 Beringer Founders’ Estate Chardonnay (£11.99 also at Majestic) has similar smoothness and depth. There are vanilla, ripe mango and orange aromas on the nose, with white raspberries on the palate giving way to minty and tangerine citrus flavours to provide a complex, fresh white.
Despite her success with those three varietals, Hook believes California’s next steps should be with assemblage – coyly referring, with typical American nervousness about litigation, to “Bordeaux-inspired” and “Rhone-inspired” blends. Given the Golden State’s climatic variations, optimising what a range of grape varieties can bring to the party certainly could add an important extra dimension to the Beringer stable.
2012 Tesco Finest Sangiovese Di Romagna
Italy, 14 per cent
Nearby Italian regions can often give better value Sangiovese than Tuscany. Here is a case in point, providing chianti fans with all that classic intense but smooth black cherry and damson fruit (with firm tannin, fresh acidity and a chocolate backdrop) but at a great price.
£5.99 – instead of £7.99 until 1 July - at Tesco
2013 Jordan Unoaked Chardonnay
Stellenbosch, South Africa, 13 per cent
If you need justification for paying a tenner for wine, this is it. Luxuriate in the layered, ripe and integrated peach and orange flavours made the more complex by spice and delightful citrus-based acidity.
£9.99 – instead of £11.99 until 16 June – at www.slurp.co.uk