July is always a good time to reflect upon the fact that I’m an American, born and raised. And I know that the US is certainly capable of making world-class wines, as already proven by the likes of Shafer Vineyards, Château Montelena, Ridge Vineyards, Dunn Vineyards, Opus One, Dominus, and many others, large and small. Notwithstanding the severe effects of El Niño the US has the both dirt and, the collective acumen of very capable people.
I continue to hear and read about what might be a new shift in direction for California wines: dialing back the use of super-ripe fruit by picking earlier, therefore being committed to reducing the stockpile of fruit weapons that have been carpet bombing our nation for the past couple of decades; an arms treaty of sorts between wine estates and wine connoisseurs. Even the rumor of this pleases me so imagine my joy if it turns out to be true; I’ll be in Napa and Sonoma this week hoping to find answers and will report back to you. Why should California be exempt from producing wines that actually express its terroir?
With over-ripe wines, there isn’t much room for real expression of the grapes, vineyards, or anything really, other than a bravado posture of winemaking. Think about it. A wine that has enormous fruit extraction would also require huge acidity, tannins, and alcohol in order to be balanced. There’s nothing wrong with alcohol, per se, but it creates wines that don’t harmonize well with foods, nor do they age well, and how to account for acidity? In very ripe grapes, acidity becomes markedly diminished so a winemaker must either choose to leave it out, often making a dull, flat, flabby wine, or add acidity. Adding acidity to wine (usually tartaric acid) is never a good choice with the result typically being very angular and not well integrated into the wine. Also for balance, big fruit and alcohol require big tannins, which winemakers have been removing to make wine more approachable upon release, thereby contributing to lack of structure and the ability to age.
Sadly, a number of Old World regions are also slowly bombing the world with fruit, so it’s not just a California thing, it a market-share thing! My belief is that Australian wines started this trend some two decades ago or more and it caught on in a big way in America. California had to compete with Australian wines that were taking the nation by storm so US winemakers emulated the super-ripe, fruit-forward style of winemaking. Earlier in California’s history, domestic winemakers emulated French winemaking techniques that had restraint, with much less manipulation, and before there were technologies that facilitated one to play God with the weather each vintage. Then, wines had the structure to age just like the best of those from France and Italy.
Even though California’s older wines weren’t a perfect replica of the great French wines (with differing terroir, célébrer la différence), there were many remarkable instances of quality wine that were age worthy and very expressive. These wines stood on their own and were excellent examples of the highest caliber of California winemaking talent and its terroir. At a tasting not that long ago a group of somms and collectors gathered with older California wines from the 70s and 80s and I could hardly have been more impressed. These wines not only developed beautifully over the years, but also were multi-dimensional gems that revealed a lot of information about vineyards, the weather of a particular vintage, and what a great wine should taste like. This is what France does so very well. Truly, I was blown away by these Californian wines and had I known about them back then, I would have coveted them, just as the collectors that brought them to this tasting did (I was already entrenched with French wine at that time).
Here’s the thing: California indubitably has the bandwidth in all respects to create wines with éclat and dazzle the world with something incredibly special. I understand the American way of thinking, the consumer demand for instant gratification, and companies that wants to fulfill the needs of consumers. It’s how business works. Hopefully American palates will become ever more sophisticated and educated to allow for more wineries to succeed in making wine that lives up to its potential. The term ‘Made in America’ would then have a new meaning in the world of wine.
photo: two of the many great California wines tasted recently