They do make great wines in California, but to enjoy them you must take your timeby Barry Smith / November 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Do they make great wines in California? It is the question still asked by traditionalists who never look beyond Old World wines. And I have some sympathy. We all know the cliché about over-ripe and over-oaked wines with high levels of alcohol. Sadly, the cliché is borne out by plenty of mass market, and some high-end, wines from Napa Valley. But the Napa wine industry is in transition.
We should remember the Judgement of Paris Tasting, organised in 1976 by Steven Spurrier, where Californian and French wines were compared in a blind tasting. A majority of French judges voted the 1973 Stags’ Leap the best Bordeaux blend over the 1970 Château Haut-Brion, and the 1973 Château Montelena the best Chardonnay. The world took notice and the French began to worry. Writing years later, Spurrier gave an explanation for this surprising outcome. In the 1970s, French winemakers had become complacent. By comparison, Californian winemakers were turning to new techniques and applying the science they had learned at the University of California, Davis. There was more attention to detail; drinkers were turning to California for cleaner, riper wines. But soon the pendulum swung the other way.
The French quickly picked up the new techniques. The introduction of the sorting table to eliminate poor quality specimens from the freshly harvested grapes happened after a fact-finding mission to California. In Bordeaux, they took note of canopy management and temperature-controlled maceration. Soon the French regained their edge.
At the same time, many younger drinkers began to tire of mass-market Californian wines, and went searching for something with a bit of edge. In Napa the hang time would take the grapes almost beyond ripeness, leading to lifeless wines. Now, things are changing…