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Friday, January 28, 2011

Changes in California Wine

Over the three decades I've been drinking California wines there have certainly been style and quality changes, as to be expected. And yeah, prices have changed a bit, too.  Overall I'd say the quality is better as there are fewer duds now.  

But the style changes are not all for the good.

Quality
  Meaning a lack of faults (astringent, oxidized, vinegary, etc).   California wine has definitely improved in this respect over the past 20-30 years as has wine from most major wine-producing areas.  There's a ten-point rating system that you never see anymore as it was used basically to find wine faults, not deal with, "is this wine a 89 or a 91 point wine?"  That ten-point scale is pretty much useless now as most wines would receive a ten (no perceptible faults).

Drinking Window
  Most California wines are meant to drink now, not in a decade or two.  This is especially noticeable with Cabernet as it's the variety generally needing the most time to smooth out its tannic nature.  Most Cabs are much easier to drink young now.  The question to ask here, is this bad?  Is not having to wait a bad thing as the vast majority of people don't age wines?   Some will say (correctly) that there is nothing like a properly aged high-end Cab.   Others will say (incorrectly) that a wine which will age for decades is automatically better than one that won't.

1984 Zinfandel. 13.6% alcohol
Fruit-forward
  This means the main characteristic of a wine is fruit flavors.  In a red wine this is usually bright red fruit flavors from overripe grapes (high sugars, low acids). Winemakers are purposely going for the big red fruit which leads to ...

Alcohol
  Fruit picked riper has more sugar leading to more alcohol after fermentation.  Alcohol levels have increased a couple percent in the past 20 years.  Many of these wines have a hot, alcohol taste and are out of balance plus are poor choices for a food wine.

Finesse
  Subtle is out, bold is in.   You can't have a 16% alcohol wine and call it subtle because most of the nuances of the wine have been washed out.

2006 Zinfandel. 15.8% alc
Complexity
  This is lacking in so many California wines as bright fruit and alcohol predominate.  For instance, Pinot Noir can have characteristics such as tobacco, leather, rose or violet flowers with noticeable acid rather than just getting blasted with a mouthful of cherries and heat.  Zinfandel can be a complex, brambly, peppery, "spaghetti wine" instead of simplistic red fruit flavors.  
  Many California wines have gone from a balance of acid, sweetness, and tannins with herbs, spices, mixed fruits and other characteristics to a mouthful of cherries followed up by heat.  
  Think Dr. Pepper with a shot of tequila.  I don't know about you, but that's not what I want with dinner.

Balance
  Some will say, "As long as it's in balance..."   I say, "bullcrap."  Balance is not the only characteristic of a good wine.   This balance often happens because of dealcoholization--removing alcohol by further processing of the wine including adding water.  Once the alcohol percentage is toned down artificially then it in itself may not be a fault in the wine, but this doesn't make it a good wine.

Why We Like Fruit-forward Wines
  American adults were brought up as the Pepsi Generation so that makes it easy to like soft, sweet tasting wines.   It's also tough to drink a lot of tannic or acidic beverages in a day, say when you are out wine tasting or you are judging wines.

What Started the Fruity Style
  Looking  back it seems the 1997 vintage in California may have kicked this off.  It was a hot growing season meaning a lot of the wine grapes were very ripe when picked so the wines were very fruity and easy drinking (easy drinking = low acid).  Robert Parker, and others, loved them.

Wine Trends
  I'm not totally ignorant of the marketing aspect. If people will buy it then they will make it.  But I'm not clear why almost everybody has jumped on the fruit-bomb bandwagon.   I won't even say I've never bought high alcohol wines as I occasionally find one I like.  But after trying three or four of these in a row I find them really boring.
  Things cycle in the wine industry like oaky Chardonnays, White Zinfandel and Merlot.  There's a lot of "follow the trend" in the wine biz.  Merlot was over-planted; now it appears Pinot may have been. So now almost everyone has to make high alcohol fruit-bomb wines.
  Hopefully, more people will get it before too much longer and stop trying to make wine taste like soda pop.  Or maybe I'm in a very small minority of wine lovers.