Stars, stripes, reds and whites

Great wines ... California's Napa Valley produces excellent cabernets.
Great wines ... California's Napa Valley produces excellent cabernets.

When was the last time you bought a bottle of American wine? Never? You wouldn't be alone. But this might be about to change.

The Americans are mounting a push here, buoyed by the strong Australian dollar, which makes imported wines more affordable than we've seen in many years.

The puzzle is why so little American wine is drunk here, given we drink a lot of wine from overseas. As the American ambassador, Jeffrey Bleich, pointed out during a recent trade tasting: although the US is Australia's primary export market in terms of value, the US is only number nine in the list of nations that export wine to Australia.

''In the past five years, the Australian wine import market has more than doubled,'' Bleich says and, although US imports have kept pace with the overall growth, ''in real terms, our presence is still far too modest''.

American wine imports have risen from just less than $1 million in 2006 to about $2.2 million in 2011.

In an attempt to boost its profile here, the US opened its consul generals' residences in both Sydney and Melbourne to importers, who exhibited more than 100 wines. These covered most of the important grape varieties, wine styles and west-coast regions, although there were a few glaring gaps, such as riesling from Washington state and Oregon - perhaps the feeling is this would be a coals-to-Newcastle exercise. All the wines but one came from California or Oregon, the latter strictly pinot noir and pinot gris. The lone exception was a massive Columbia Valley (Washington state) syrah made by Australia's John Duval: Sequel 2007 ($75).

The selection was red-dominant and concentrated on cabernet sauvignon, syrah, pinot noir and merlot, with the odd zinfandel, barbera and sangiovese thrown in. The whites were mostly chardonnay and pinot gris with the odd sauvignon blanc, viognier and roussanne. Two of the top sparkling winemakers, Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer, were there.

The US has long made some great wines at the top end: the great Californian cabernets from Napa Valley and Sonoma, superb pinot noirs from California's central coast and Russian River, as well as Oregon. The warmer parts of the central coast, such as Paso Robles, produce excellent Rhone-varietal reds and whites, and several regions make zinfandel and some very good chardonnays. But in the middle and lower classes of wine - where most wine drinkers buy - the value for money hasn't always been great. Australian wine has been more competitive, which explains the unequal balance of trade between our countries.

The tasting proved there's now some good-value drinking in the mid-market. Curiously, the two wineries that did best in this area both have Australian winemaking connections. Broken Earth has former Hunter Valley winemaker Chris Cameron at the helm, and J. Lohr had one of Philip Shaw's sons, Daniel, on board for six years until 2008. Both producers are in Paso Robles. The J. Lohr reds (cabernet, merlot and syrah) are $27 to $30; whites (chardonnay, valdiguie and riesling) are $20 to $27, and they also have a cheaper range called Cypress Vineyards that I did not taste, all $16.

Broken Earth also has two lines: the regular range of red and white varietals at $23, and the Pull series at $21. These are decent, well-priced, value wines.

As always, the excitement was at the top end. Of the many pinot noirs on offer, I was generally under-impressed until the Littorai Savoy Vineyard '07 from Anderson Valley ($93), a beautiful wine, impeccably balanced and utterly delicious. Others were too oaky or otherwise overbuilt, but I did also enjoy Byron Santa Barbara County 2010 ($32), the A to Z Wineworks Oregon 2010 ($37) and all the Cristom wines, also from Oregon. They comprised 2009 Mt Jefferson ($56), 2008 Sommers Reserve ($79) and 2009 Eileen ($95).

Two more lovely pinots came from Sequana: a 2009 Santa Lucia Highlands ($60) and 2009 Russian River ($75).

In Bordeaux styles, I loved the La Jota wines from Howell Mountain, Napa Valley: 2009 cabernet sauvignon ($125) and 2008 Heritage cabernet sauvignon ($175) as well as 2008 merlot ($137), plus the majestic 2007 Philip Togni cabernet sauvignon ($195) - but then, you do have to pay Napa Valley prices. A surprise from the Napa was X Winery cabernet sauvignon 2008, terrific value at $38.

I'm very picky when it comes to California zinfandel. Too many are porty, desiccated and spirity. But the Sonoma County trio from Seghesio was exceptional. They ranged from 14.8 per cent to 15.6 per cent alcohol and none tasted unbalanced. The trio, Sonoma 2010 ($43), Old Vine 2009 ($63) and Cortina 2009 ($66) were all fleshy, fragrant, clean and delicious, the first two showing some peppermint in their very fine bouquets.

I found the pinot gris decent wines at fair prices. But chardonnay … Where do we start? Much American chardonnay is ridiculously overripe, over-oaked and over-alcoholic. You do have to drink the stuff at some stage.

If you like the old-fashioned oaky, buttery, golden-coloured chardonnay style, Kendall- Jackson Vintner's Reserve 2010 ($23) is the way to go. But I confess to enjoying the Landmark Overlook 2010 ($57), from Sonoma County. A deep, intense, complex chardonnay, not particularly subtle but very good. Indeed, all three Landmark wines impressed, including a spicy, fleshy 2009 Steel Plow syrah from Sonoma Valley ($57) and a sweetly cherry-fruited, soft-tannin Grand Detour pinot noir 2009 from Sonoma Coast ($65).

All in all, there is plenty to like.

Wholesalers that handle US wine

Sequel, Seghesio - Negociants Australia, (08) 8112 4233.

Littorai, Philip Togni, X Winery - Beaune and Beyond, 0419 598 278.

Byron, A to Z Wineworks, Cristom - Pinot Now, (03) 9329 4243.

Sequana, La Jota, Broken Earth, J. Lohr, Gloria Ferrer, Schramsberg, Landmark - Vinsense, 9943 0301.

Kendall-Jackson retailer is Dan Murphy's.

This story Stars, stripes, reds and whites first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.