In the southwest corner of California's Riverside County, a scant one-hour drive from San Diego, the Temecula Valley wine country enjoys a surging popularity among day-trippers from densely populated Southern California.
The rolling hills of Temecula Valley, east of Old Town Temecula, are home to more than 30 wineries. Many of them have excellent restaurants. In fact, in 2016, Leoness Cellars was voted best winery restaurant in the nation by USA Today.
From April through October there are weddings galore, the vineyards and surrounding mountains providing an enchanting backdrop. By all accounts, virtually every winery sells every drop of wine it produces. Therein lies the problem: Temecula wines rarely make it into national distribution because it is far more lucrative to sell wine out the tasting-room door.
On the one hand, winery owners can take a bow for having such a successful business plan. On the other hand, convincing a skeptical public that Temecula Valley wines can be world-class is a bridge too far when most of the country hasn't seen, let alone tasted, a wine of the valley's origin.
For what it's worth, the smart money in Temecula has invested heavily in cultivating Mediterranean grape varieties. Because of the climate -- hot and dry during the day, with a cooling evening influence from the nearby Pacific Ocean -- Mediterranean grapes such as syrah, sangiovese, tempranillo, touriga nacional, pinot grigio and vermentino make sense and have become the backbone of Temecula Valley wine quality over the past 10 years.
Winemaker Jon McPherson of South Coast Winery and Carter Estate has gone big on tempranillo, the money grape of Spain, and touriga nacional, the money grape of Portugal. While still cultivating traditional international varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, McPherson has turned heads by thrice winning the coveted winery of the year award at the California State Fair. For good measure, McPherson also produces exceptional sparkling wines.
Next door to South Coast, Ponte Winery has earned a reputation with grapes that are indigenous to Italy, particularly sangiovese and vermentino.
Leoness Cellars produces one of California's finest, most elegant syrahs. Jim Hart at Hart Winery is also a master of syrah and other Rhone grape varieties, and his dry rose is one of the finest around. Thornton Winery, under winemaker David Vergari, has rebounded from a bad patch several years and is now a force with award-winning chardonnay and cabernet franc, and a portfolio of excellent sparkling wines.
To be sure, there are a few mom-and-pop wineries with spotty wines from time to time, but the best of Temecula can play on the world stage. But hardly anyone outside of Southern California knows it. And that's a shame.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Matanzas Creek 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley ($20) -- Matanzas Creek's track record with sauvignon blanc is solid and certainly won't be diminished by this beauty from the Alexander Valley in the 2016 vintage. For one thing, it exhibits remarkable complexity for a sauvignon (with a touch of semillon in the blend). On the nose, grassy notes emerge with hints of citrus and peach. On the palate, there's an additional note of fig. Well-balanced with excellent length, this is a sauvignon that will pair well with grilled fowl and Mediterranean tapas, or can simply be enjoyed as a summer quaffer. Rating: 93.
Lamole di Lamole 2013 Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG, Tuscany, Italy ($32) -- Chianti classico from top producers continue to lead the world in value. Great price for the quality in the Chianti district is at an all-time high, as this 2013 Riserva from Lamole di Lamole demonstrates so well. This is a rich, mouthwatering Chianti that exhibits impressive depth and complexity without losing the balance and elegance that are hallmarks of the best of them. Notes of black cherry and oak spice dominate. There is a lingering floral touch in the background, and smooth, supple tannins will allow for immediate consumption. Otherwise, it should do well in a properly maintained cellar for up to 15 to 20 years. Rating: 96.
Kettmeir 2015 Pinot Bianco, Alto Adige, Italy ($22) -- The French call the pinot bianco grape "pinot blanc," and they love to caress it with oak. The Italian pinot pianco, at least as expressed by Kettmeir, is fresh, crisp and clean and shows exceptional fruit purity along the lines of green apples and lime. Bone-dry but with good richness, it is an excellent foil for roast chicken and fish. Rating: 91.
Decoy 2015 Pinot Noir, Sonoma County ($25) -- What the world needs now is more everyday pinot noir that is affordable and tastes good. The 2015 Decoy fits the bill. This tasty gem offers bright cherry aromas, modest tannins and immediate drinkability. It goes down easy, and so does the price. Rating: 88.
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