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Things to be thankful for: California wine keeps getting better

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Every once in a while I like to play around in Wine Enthusiast’s database and check out the trending of my scores. In years past, my highest ones have gone overwhelmingly to Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, almost exclusively from Napa Valley. But since last Jan. 1, my 15 highest scores have been given to a Merlot, four Pinot Noirs, a sparkling blend, a red blend of Cabernet and Syrah, three Chardonnays, four Cabernet Sauvignons and, at a perfect 100 points, a Bordeaux blend. (You can check out the magazine’s free searchable database to see the specific wines.)

It’s remarkable for such a range of varieties and types to be among my best scorers, particularly if you consider that there are a couple Syrahs not far behind. I don’t think Merlot, sparkling wine or Syrah would have scored so highly five years ago, or even Chardonnay, for that matter. I’m a fan of Chardonnay, especially the big, buttery, oaky ones, but I also recognize that whatever such wines possess in sheer razzle-dazzle, they tend to lose in subtle complexity. That limits their score.

So why are my highest-scoring wines so much more broadly based than they used to be? There are probably multiple explanations, but my guess would be vintage. Most of my top-rated wines this year have been from the 2009 and 2010 vintages, both of them cool years that resulted in wines of lower alcohol, greater clarity and elegance, and more overall balance. (And soon to come, the remarkable 2011s, followed by the much-hyped and possibly stupendous 2012s.)

Elegance and balance: those are two descriptors that are hard to define, but make all the difference in the world. Any wine can be ripe, especially from sunny California. Any wine can be oaky. Any wine can have its natural acidity adjusted, if need be, or have its tannins refined. California leads the world in the production of well-made, clean, properly varietal table wines filled with sunlight and fruit. But these are wines that score in the mid- to high 80s, maybe 90 or 91–in other words, good, but not great. What makes a wine superlative are elegance and balance; and for those, you really need, not just a good vineyard or vineyards, but for the weather to cooperate.

If you’re the winery, you also need, I suppose, money–cash to invest in the most finicky vineyard techniques, equipment, sorting and barrels, costs that are passed onto the customer. These top wines are not inexpensive. They range in price from $44 (for one of the Chardonnays) to $450; six are in triple digits.

This increase in quality as well as price over the years can be explained simply: California wine has come of age. We’re no longer the scrappy “boutique” upstart in the world of wine. California is a fully matured wine region, “New World” in only the geographic sense. Where, in the 1970s, the possibilities were endless, and California “style” was something no one quite knew how to define, today the horizon has shrunk. We can sense a limit to the possibilities (although, within that limit, there is endless range to explore). As for a California style, well, we know what that is: fruit. There’s no getting around it, so people might as well stop complaining and apologizing. The trick is to have fruit along with balance and elegance. What more could anyone ask for?

Happy Thanksgiving! Back on Monday morning.

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  1. Daily Wine News: Saying Thanks | Wine 2020 - [...] Heimoff is thankful that California wine keeps getting better. The HoseMaster is thankful for all sorts of [...]

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