The SOMM Journal

August / September 2015

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Page 28 of 132

28 { THE SOMM JOURNAL } AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2015 { bottom line } WHAT DO WINE LOVERS WANT? Recent proponents of In Pursuit of Balance have been hammering away at that ques- tion, rallying themselves, wine producers and, ultimately, consumers towards lower alcohol and less simple fruitiness in our finer wines. Is this progress, or just wishful thinking? When I started in the business in 1974, almost all commercial wines were finished at about 12% alcohol (or 13%, if you really wanted to go wild). Anything topping 14% was considered weird, a freak of nature. Most California red wines were aged in tree-sized redwood vats until their varietal fruit qualities were smoothed (or dried) out, and virtually no white wines saw aging in small "center of France" oak barrels. The reason why Californians, in par - ticular, were producing less ripe, lower alcohol–style wines pr ior to the 1980s was because in those days they didn't have better ways of doing it. Trellising and viticultural practices of the past made it difficult to grow grapes beyond 22° or 22.5° Brix (sugar levels that conver t to just 12% to 13% alcohol and, thus, diminished fruit expression). It wasn't so much a style choice as an only choice. But face it, the reason we reached a point where, today, ultra-ripe, oaky, 15% alcohol wines have become the norm (and 14% alcohol wines are now considered light) is because we can; and most of the trade, consumers and especially 100-point critics have liked them that way. We're Americans, not Europeans. To us, the richer and bigger the better. Still, change is inevitable. Wines are bound to lighten up, aren't they? Actually, I doubt it. If anything, I think the transition we are currently going through has more to do with increased appreciation of the different grapes wines are made from, and of the places they are grown, not so much the way these wines are crafted. The IPOB movement is focused on the correct issue—too many wines are unnecessarily big—but its goals are askew. The variety of growing regions in the U.S., after all, is far too vast to appropriate sensory standards. That would be daft. The most mature winegrowing cultures are European, countries where classification systems are based entirely upon identifi - cation and regulation of regions—places where wines come from—not so m uch on how the wines end up tasting. How far along is the American wine industry on this path? Honestly, not very far. Because we put the cart before the horse, most of us still define the quality primarily in terms of "varietal character," or sheer intensity of fruitiness. Worse yet, we expect all varietal wines to taste the same no matter where they come from. Long ago, we even began to apply the same expectations to European wines, despite their intrinsic resistance to varietal profiling; and 100-point score systems have clearly exacerbated this distorted view. But even while we pursue more sensible ideas of balance, we are bound to stumble on to more logical conclusions. Like the fact that Priorats, Châteaneuf-du-Papes and Amarones are big and aggressive, whereas Picpouls, Côte de Nuits and Mosel-Saar- Ruwers are light as feathers. The most interesting wines are products of their envi - ronment, not arbitrary notions of "balance." Hence, a humongous Syrah from Fair Play or Ballard Canyon should be no less valid than a lighter, skimpier Syrah from Sonoma Coast or Santa Lucia Highlands. We should celebrate the fact that Zinfandels from Lodi or the Sierra Foothills are leaner and earthier than the more ferociously intense Zinfandels of Sonoma or Napa Valley. Even I will admit that those monstrous, 200%-new-oak Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons can be impressive, although I'm liking the silkier, herbier, moderately scaled styles from Paso Robles better. The bottom line is that when it comes to the best wines, it is not so much a matter of balance as sense of rightness: being true to a grape, a region or vineyard's identity, or even a winemaker's peculiarities. No real "rules," just following the evolution of wines towards a more natural order. Consumers are bound to get smarter about this. It's our job to be even smarter. A Sense of Rightness WHAT A WINE LOVER REALLY WANTS by Randy Caparoso

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