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Monday, July 27, 2009

Why California Wine Tastes the Way it Does

So, wines from Italy and France and ____(fill in the blank) taste different than California wines. Q: Which one is best?

A: It's a tie. Whatever works for you.

Current CA wine is not the same as it was 20 years ago. Is it better now? I dunno, it's certainly more popular.

What makes CA wine the way it is?

-- Winemaking, to include the education, mostly from UC Davis, to growing, to actually making it with all the stuff that goes into that: trellising, irrigation, abundant sunshine, etc. I'd say the two biggest reasons are UC Davis training of winemakers and the California climate which is nearly perfect for wine grapes.

-- Marketing to the American consumer. Or how do you get Americans who thought CA wine tasted like Thunderbird, who drink lots of Pepsi, and who actually like the taste of Wild Turkey to move to premium wines?

First CA imitated the French-style with lots of tannins, acid, not so much fruit, and a long wait for best drinking. Then came leaving a little sugar in to make it easier to drink now (good if you're sipping, bad if you're having a meal with it). Then fruit-forward wines easy to drink now, but usually lacking complexity.

So why is the fruit-forward style so popular? Because you can drink the wine now. Almost nobody takes wine home and puts it in a properly temp-controlled cellar for a few years.

The worst part of this trend is the high alcohol levels. This isn't necessary to make great wine. In fact, 12-13% alcohol is almost always better than 14-15%. So which is best--lower alcohol and fruit with higher tannins and acid or the fruit-bomb? I'm guessing somewhere in between. More is not always better.

This is what you call your full-bodied cabernet ...

Want to try a range of CA styles? Look for these and compare for yourself. Try these wines by themselves and with a meal. All of these are good wine; just different. I'm listing what I consider the most "new world" style second.

Dry Creek Vineyards and Mazzocco Zinfandel

Williams Selyem and Landmark Pinot Noir
(If you can't find a Williams Selyem or don't want to pay the price for an "old world" style Pinot from Sonoma then look for Carneros or Green Valley on the label or look for alcohol under 14%. This isn't a guarantee, of course).

Audelssa and Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay
(If you can't find Audelssa then look for anything saying "unoaked" or an appellation of Sonoma Coast).

Kenwood Jack London Ranch and Geyser Peak Cabernet