Alice Fiering, prominent critic of the ripe, low-acid, high-alcohol international style of wine, examines a trend among some California winemakers moving away from the standard, jammy California style. But blazing this path may prove more difficult than it seems at first glance.
From a viticultural and winemaking point of view, yes, of course wineries could harvest earlier and favor cooler vineyards to achieve higher acidity and less ripe, heavy wines. To a point at least.
There are many technical factors at play limiting winemakers in California from creating fresher, more balanced old-world styled wines. Not least of which is climate. Its a lot warmer in California than say Burgundy or Bordeaux or even the southern Rhône Valley, especially the further south you go. So more moderate micro-climates become more and more important.
The history of wine in California makes it clear that old world styles are possible. After all, it was primarily European transplants who started making wine in California in the 19th century and the traditional, understated European style was the model emulated well into the 1980s.
The Judgement of Paris in 1976, marked the point when California proved to the world it could make wine to that measure at the highest level-even to French palates. You will be hard pressed to find ambitious California wines higher than 12.5 or 13.5% alcohol before then. Nowadays 14-16% is the norm.
The additional heat of climate change has increased the challenge of getting back to the California wines of the 1970s and earlier. A few years back I asked Michael Mondavi, winery owner and son of legendary California wine pioneer Robert Mondavi, directly about this point. If a more elegant style was desired in his new winery and by others interested in reversing some of the excesses of California style, why not simply harvest earlier to retain acidity and avoid the heaviness of high alcohol and overly ripe flavors?
Michael explained that harvest times have crept earlier and earlier from the added heat and shortened the growing cycle. The result of shorter, hotter growing seasons is that you can easily reach partial ripeness, and lots of sugar and resulting alcohol. But you might not reach full phenological ripeness and could still have significant green, unripe flavors.
That is the heart of the challenge for California winemakers in search of old world elegance. To find a way to retain acidity and keep alcohol levels down without green, under-ripe flavors. Michael also touched on the importance of cooler, higher altitude vineyards to help extend the season and attain both freshness and full ripeness. Most interestingly, he mentioned that in the old days, before all the modern vineyard treatments and vine clones, various vineyard ailments reduced the vigor of the vines and naturally extended the growing season.
However, a greater hurdle for a change in California wine style may be more commercial than technical. American wine lovers, especially more casual drinkers, have developed a strong taste for the rich, fruity flavors California wine has become known for. Since the 1990 vintage in Bordeaux marked the informal arrival of the ripe, accessible international style, consumers have come to love the jammy side of California.
Because national tastes are slow to change it may take decades for preferences to shift back toward more classic styles, at least in significant numbers. Regardless of how styles evolve, there is no doubt that this is an exciting time to sample California’s latest efforts. Whether reviving styles going back toward its European roots or incorporating the organically minded trends growing worldwide, the path along the way will be marked by many probing-and hopefully delicious-explorations of California’s wine identity.