Why are most California red wines not delicious or food-friendly?


Wine 151

Why are most California red wines not delicious or food-friendly?

Robert Lauriston | Dec 31, 2012 03:06 PM

Starting a new topic rather than continue derailing the "What type of red wine do I like" one.

Let's drop the cheap and expensive outliers and the old-school exceptions that need to be aged before you drink them and talk about California reds that (1) cost $20-40 bottle retail / $10-18 a glass in restaurants, (2) are technically well made in the sense that the winemakers are producing more or less the kind of wine they intend to, and (3) intended for drinking immediately after purchase.

I'm not unable to find such wines that I like, I just find it very, very difficult. I doubt I like more than one in 50 that I taste. As a noted in that other topic, when I go to places with "locavore" all-California lists, I typically taste all the reds, don't find one I want to drink, and end up drinking white when I would really prefer red.

My palate is not particularly eccentric in this regard. The food-hostility of these wines is one reason so many SF Bay Area restaurants that otherwise focus on local products have wine lists dominated by European imports.

What's going on?

First, most California vineyards are planted with inappropriate varieties. If you're trying to make a moderately priced wine for immediate consumption, nine times out of ten the most suitable grape variety or blend is not one that winemakers in Bordeaux and Burgundy use for their most expensive wines.

Next, the grapes are super-ripe. Traditionally, most grapes for red wine were picked at 21-23 Brix. Thanks to Robert Parker and mass hysteria, the average for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in 2008 was 25.7. The pendulum may be swinging back, but it has a ways to go.

These super-ripe grapes result in wines that are high in alcohol, which is exacerbated by many winemakers using new yeasts bred so that they would produce higher alcohol levels even at traditional brix levels. In the pre-Parker era, California wines (except for Zinfandel) were typically 12.5%. Today, it's rare to find a red wine under 14%, and 15% is common. That's 12 to 20% more alcohol, a radical change. It's not impossible for a balanced wine to have such a high level of alcohol, but (except for Zinfandel) it's rare.

Riper grapes have different, softer tannins and usually lower acid, which means the wines are more dominated by soft fruit flavors (which can be a plus with grape varieties that are traditionally used to make softer, fruitier wines). Softer tannins and less acid means they typically don't age well, though that's not an issue for wines intended for immediate consumption (unless you buy more than you can drink up while it's at its peak).

Another change from tradition is ubiquitous use of new oak. That used to be too expensive for moderately priced wines, but researchers at UC Davis figured out that you could use alternatives such as chips instead of barrels. Among other things, new oak makes the wine taste sweeter, exacerbating the super-ripe fruit flavors.

To my palate, without the harder tannins and higher acid of less-ripe fruit, the flavors of new oak are clashing and unpleasant. Some people obviously like the combination, but it's hard for me to imagine what food you could pair with such wines.

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