California Wine all tastes the same? Says who?

Well, finally back to blogging. After an intense weekend at the Wine Bloggers Conference, followed by four full days of running around Sonoma and Napa – and Fairfield, and Berkeley and San Francisco – and then returning to a new position at the newspaper in Quebec City, and mulling over about twenty different potential post subjects, I finally managed to focus long enough on one subject. And here it is.

One of the things that truly struck me, throughout the tastings I attended at the Wine Bloggers Conference and in the days that followed, was the great diversity of wines I tasted. Yes, there were a good lot of big, fruity, oaky cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays, but there was also a great deal more, in terms of grape varieties, climate variations and winemaking styles. More than I had expected, certainly.

Over my week, I had everything from grassy sauvignon blanc to jammy zinfandels, rustic carignan to elegant cabernet sauvignon, fruity cinsault, tightly-wound mourvèdre, bright chardonnays and subtle pinot noirs. And did I mention the bold tempranillo (thanks, Twisted Oak!), the round and aromatic riesling, yummy petit verdot, apple-y pinot gris and exotic-tasting viognier? I saw everything from ultra-modern to minimalist winemaking, old-vine mountain vineyards to sun-drenched young vines on the valley floors. Talked to winemakers looking for hang-time and ripeness, and others seeking acidity and freshness.

Even within a single grape variety, on a single appellation, variations were quite significant. Take the informal tasting of Dry Creek Valley zinfandels we had on the first evening of the WBC. The range of flavors, from peppery and well-structured to jammy and luscious, was quite significant. I liked some of the bigger ones, like the one from Rued Vineyards, which had structure and a lot of stuffings, enough to balance out the 15.8% alcohol level. On a (somewhat) lighter note, which does not mean light wines, the Truett-Hurst, Quivira and Unti Vineyards zins, all biodynamically farmed, had a bit more pepper and spice and felt more food-friendly, each with its own balance and flavor profile, ranging from red to black fruits of all kinds, among other things.

With a range going from the more restrained and elegant zin from Nalle Winery (with 13.7% alcohol) to the spicy and deep, well-structured cuvée from Preston of Dry Creek’s old vines, all the way to intensely jammy quasi-ports, it’s actually difficult to identify a “signature” style for those zins. And that’s just in one appellation.

I was pleasantly surprised as well by an Appellation St Helena tasting where two flights of Cabernet sauvignons (20 wines in total) offered the full range of flavors: fruity, toasty, earthy and spicy, herbaceous and torrefied, candied or chocolatey… I felt there was as much range in those wines as there would be in a similar tasting of any Bordeaux appellation. (I’ll come back to that tasting in another post.)

Even when it comes to pinot noir, which doesn’t benefit from the variations that a proportion of other varieties (petite syrah, merlot, cabernet franc, syrah, etc.) included in the blend can bring to the zins and cabernets, there is quite a bit of variety available on the market – at least, if you take the time to look for it.

Recently, an article by Eric Asimov, in the New York Times, discussed the negative effects that the limited number of vine clones present in California vineyards has on the state’s pinot noir production. By relying on limited genetic material, California winegrowers are producing wines that are uniform and, says Asimov (along with Matt Kramer of the Wine Spectator and Allan Meadows of Burghound) quite “boring”.

There are a number of good arguments brought forward by Asimov and company, regarding this excessive sameness of Golden State pinots. In a column published in June of 2007, Asimov quoted Matt Kramer about high alcohol and its effects on a wine’s flavours:

“Just when a grape is deemed ‘ripe’ has changed dramatically in the past decade,’’ he writes. “This has resulted not only in more alcoholically powerful wines but in more uniform-tasting ones, too. When a grape gets overripe it loses its more subtle flavor shadings.’’

I heard similar arguments from Pat Garvey, vineyard manager (and knowledgeable hockey fan) from the excellent Flora Springs Winery, at the Appellation St Helena tasting. After presenting the great diversity of climates and soils present in this section of Napa Valley, he asked if Napa wineries weren’t “missing something” by picking grapes at 26 or even 28 brix, to make high-alcohol wines and thereby masking that great diversity. I tend to agree.

Add to that the push to produce more pinot noir generated by the Sideways effect, with a fair bit of wine from very young wines coming to market, as well as a fair number of new producers coming on the scene to ride the wave, and you have the recipe for finding a number of relatively unfocused wines in your average wine store.

Yet maybe that impression of sameness is reinforced by proximity. In other words, if you’re tasting California pinot noir week in, week out, they probably feel a lot more similar than they would to the average drinker. In Quebec, there aren’t that many on the market at any one time: SAQ stores will typically hold only a couple dozen different labels on the shelves throughout all of the province. (A quick search on Wine.Com yielded over 70 results, as I was writing this blog). So even trade tastings wouldn’t yield that many wines to compare.

In other words, I haven’t had time to get bored. And my recent travels in California sure weren’t boring either. As I tasted cool-climate Sonoma Coast pinots from the likes of Peay Vineyards, Littorai or Flowers, or balanced and flavorful Russian River pinots from Inman Family vineyards, to name but a few, I found a range of styles and terroir characteristics that was truly satisfying, and will keep me coming for more.

And as far as uniformity is concerned, I’ve certainly found something much more boring than California pinot noir. At the Wine Bloggers Conference, we had a New Zealand wine tasting, which was interesting in many ways, but included, of course, a great number of sauvignon blancs, the country’s signature wine and spearhead on export markets. I never saw such a line-up of same-tasting grapefruit and grassy flavours: finding one that didn’t fit the darn mold was exceedingly difficult. If there is a family likeness between a good number of California pinot noirs, the Kiwi sauvignons felt positively inbred.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted November 7, 2008 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    Hey Remy, thanks for adding me to your blogroll!

    Like you, I was impressed by the side by side tasting of all those Dry Creek Valley zins and how much varierty they showed (I was fond of the Nalle also!).

    Unlike you, I found there were some of those NZ that I really liked and some I didn’t. There were a number of yes ok grapefruit once again and ok here’s grassy…but some of them did it much better than others, I thought, and I have to say a number of them were bland and flat. The Kim Crawford, with all its Parker points and which is the only one available to me locally, didn’t do it for me. (I liked Saint Clair Pioneer Block a lot). I went to the NZ tasting on Monday at Spago in LA; David Strada had a couple of different wines there than at WBC. One in particular which impressed me was a 2004 gewurz by Vinoptima.

  2. Posted November 8, 2008 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Finding the gems from New Zealand can be a bit of a treasure hunt. Imagine trying only the grocery store wines from California and calling it representative of what is in California.

  3. winecase
    Posted November 8, 2008 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    I should specify that I was specifically pointing out the sauvignon blancs, and that I had interesting and even excellent wines in the other categories: an Isabel Estate pinot gris, Carrick and Mt Difficulty pinot noirs, as well as a Hans Estate cabernet/merlot that was just terrific.

    Ron, you have a point in terms of general availability on the market, but there were close to 60 different (so to speak) sauvignons blancs at that particular tasting, so I imagine that it must be at least somewhat representative. Only one of the SBs, from Gunn Estates, really stepped away from the mold, as far as my palate and I were concerned. In other cases, I’ve had many successful treasure hunts for riesling, chardonnay and pinot from New Zealand.

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  1. [...] want to say there’s no diversity elsewhere – I did write, a couple of years ago, that there is great diversity in California wines, if you take the time to look for it. But that’s the thing: you have to look for it, in [...]

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