There’s been a lot of press recently about “The Judgment of Paris” in 1976. This was a tasting where wines from a few wineries from Napa – then considered a curiosity in the international wine industry – were pitted in a blind tasting against notable French wines and, well, two of the California wines (a Stags Leap Wine Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay both of 1973 vintages) topped those from France.
Back in those days the wines of France were the bar of excellence. Generally the French climate is cooler than California’s and tends to produce wines from grapes that ripen differently and are harvested at relatively low sugar levels. The resultant wines are often described as age worthy, sophisticated, balanced. French wines are aged and often become better with time so that older vintages were sought after and relished. California winemakers endeavored to emulate this style of winegrowing and making and used the techniques and mindset of the time to produce wines that ultimately proved to be similar in style and excellence as their French counterparts.
A lot can change in 40 years…
Now the current style of California wines can be generalized in these descriptors: fat, rich, high alcohol, overripe, big, bold. This style is a result of using our warmer climate to push ripeness further thus increasing alcohol content and ripe, fruity flavors. Wines such as these can be immediately gratifying in that they don’t require much bottle ageing and actually often don’t age well or for very long.
There’s also an accompanying trend right now that I call “vintage discrimination”. If you aren’t selling a “current” vintage (ie 2014, 2013) then something is wrong with the wine. This mindset has come about, partially, because of the fat, rich, overripe, fruity wines that are very common in California these days that are drinkable young but fall apart in the bottle after only a few years. I also think that to a certain extent contemporary wine drinkers in the United States expect a wine to be open and fruity immediately upon opening much like a opening a soft drink or can of beer.
I’m dismayed by this trend and a little confused by the whole thing. “Wine gets better with age”, at least that’s what I grew up believing so I’m confounded by the thought that anything older than last year’s vintage is flawed or passé.
Luckily, there seems to be a counter trend building both with current winemaking and thinking about wines. I’m hearing more winemakers talking about wanting to make more elegant, food friendly wine these days partly in response to the heavy handedness of the past 15 years – sledgehammer winemaking is my own coined term – and partly because they are looking for more substance, more character and the expression of greater dimensions in the wines they are making. More winemakers are also waiting to release wines until they’ve “opened” up in the bottle rather than releasing the wine soon after bottling.
Here in Monterey we experience a cooler climate than most of California. Our wines naturally have higher acid and slightly lower alcohols than those from warmer regions like Paso Robles or Napa. Higher acids deliver more structure and a little more “pop” on the palate – these wines tend to pair well with foods. Lower alcohols are derived from less ripe grapes. Together, these wines tend to deliver a more elegant, sophisticated wine that will age much longer than one that has lower acid and higher alcohol. These wines, however, sometimes take a little longer to open up in the bottle. At Cima Collina we will release wines when we feel they are ready whether that takes 6 months or 6 years and are happy to do so. I like to see it as a reflection of the climate we are in but also a certain “Old School” value of producing wines that are true to the roots of traditional winemaking and wine drinking.