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A critic confesses: California wine can be too sweet

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Lord knows I’m a big defender of California Cabernet Sauvignon against the bashers who say it all tastes like a candy bar, but I will admit to occasionally having my own moments of despair.

It happens when I set up a flight of 10 or 12 Cabs to review. Normally, I try to segregate them by appellation–all Napa Valley, for instance. But it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, lately I’ve been concentrating on the wines of Paso Robles, including Cabernet and Bordeaux red blends. It’s seemed to me that the wines have been getting better, for a variety of reasons. One way to check that out is to taste Paso Cabs against Napa Cabs, which are the gold standard, to see if they have anything to be ashamed of.

As far as I can tell, few other reviewers do it that way. They’ll go to Paso Robles and taste, or they’ll receive the wines at home, and then taste them openly–which invites preconceived notions about Paso Robles. And we all have them, don’t we? It’s too hot, etc. etc. Yes, it is hot, but no more so than Calistoga (I can send you the temperature statistics if you want), and there are areas in Paso (particularly in the west and south) that are cooler than, say, the Estrella flats along 46E. So its only fair to take ambitious Paso Cabs and set them next to the best of Napa and see what’s up.

I can see some eyebrows rising high in scandalized incredulity. What? Taste Paso Robles Cabernets next to great Napa Cabernet? Yes; why not? It’s not against the law. And I’ll tell you that some of these Paso Cabs stand up remarkably well.

But what I was writing about was my moments of despair. Let me explain. If you do a search on my wine reviews using the words “candy,” “candied,” “sugary sweet,” “jammy,” you’ll get an awful lot of hits, and not just for Cabernet. Syrah, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, there really is a lot of treacly stuff out there, the kind that drives the Europeans mad. Tasting through a flight of such wines can start to be tedious, so much so that, on occasion, I start thinking to myself, “Maybe Terry Theise has a point. Maybe even Raj Parr has a point.”

There used to be a saying, “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” which makes no sense at all literally. It means that the way you see and experience things depends on your perspective. Now, having a perspective is complicated business. You may have inherited a perspective from the way you were raised. You may have developed a new perspective through education. The Europeans, who grew up with wines in the 13%-14% range, naturally recoil from a 15.5% L’Aventure Cabernet. To them, it tastes utterly bizarre, not like wine at all.

I didn’t grow up with a European perspective. When it came to wine, I had no perspective, as we didn’t drink it in my parents’ home. My perspective concerning wine developed after I moved to California, and fell in with other amateurs who liked California wine quite a bit. In that environment, I developed an affection for our style, which may be riper and sweeter than it was 30 years ago, but not all that much. California wine (especially red) has always been about fruit.

So when I start thinking that there’s an awful lot of candied sameness out there, it forces me to dive deeper to discern which wines are balanced with candied sweetness and which ones aren’t. For there is such a thing as a Cabernet that’s sweet and jammy and chocolatey, yet maintains perfect balance. To give just one example, the Paul Hobbs 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon, which clocks in at a hefty 15.2% alcohol, and which I gave 96 points. That wine has balance, despite the glyceriney, fat unctuousness. I sometimes think the people who bash this style throw the baby out with the bathwater. They dismiss all California wines of this style without realizing or understanding that there are grand wines made in all styles.

Having said that, yes, my Europhile friends, there are a lot of candy bar wines in California.

  1. Years ago a friend of mine commented how much she loved California Cabernets because they were “like liquid berry pie.”

  2. Steve,

    Pls forgive this second post, but wasn’t it Prial of the NY Times who, a couple years ago, recommended that wines should be described as either “sweet” or “savory?”

  3. Tom–

    Mr. Prial did no such thing in my memory, but Eric Asimov, the current winescribe at the Times has made statements like that.

    Here, for the record, are some comments made recently by Mr. Asimov about a German Riesling: “lightly mineral, lightly floral, delicately nuanced and yet with an underlying power that unified the disparate elements”.

    Nothing wrong with that as far as I can see–but it does far beyond “sweet or savory”.;

  4. tom barrass: I don’t know the answer to your question.

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    I’m curious about that Paul Hobbs wine and others similar to it. My main question would be what was the potential natural Ph and TA of the wine prior to any adjustment as opposed to the finished product, and I am most certain that the wine and others with similar alcohol levels have undoubtedly had to be adjusted. Hell, it was once my job to mix up the medicine and pour it into the top of the tank, and this was at a winery known for producing “balanced” and “European style” reds. The development that these wines take, I feel, is one of the biggest shortcomings of the blockbuster Napa Cab style more so than their initial cloying “fruitbomb” character and subsequently the greatest argument against their being priced equal to great Bordeaux, Barolo or Rioja.

    At a 15th year tasting of 100 point Parker wines from the 1994 vintage, a most common criticism (voiced equally by those at the table who were fans of Napa Cab–we had to get the bottles from somewhere–was that the wines were “falling apart” in a literal sense. The acid structure had become disjointed from the body of the wine. One taster metaphorically described many of the wines of leaving their acid sticking out like the ring around a draining bathtub as the fruit matured and dried out.

  6. Bill–

    Two comments.

    The 94s in general were open, juicy and less structured than we might expect of long-agers. Nonetheless, it all depends on which wines you had.

    Recent verticals of Spottswoode and Shafer Hillside showed both of them in fine fettle.

    The 91s and 95s will turn out to be much sturdier over time.

    But, Bill, judging by your past comments, you do not like anything that smacks of ripeness or richness–which makes we wonder what you think of the 2009 and 2010 Bordeaux.

  7. Bill Haydon, couple things. I don’t know the pH or TA of the wine prior to any adjustment. Concerning pricing, the market determines that, not the opinion of wine experts.On ageability, I don’t doubt that the modern, 15% + style of wines will age as long as the lower alcohol wines of the past. But then, that’s not what they’re about. They’re about lusciousness, smoothness and sweetness early on. I don’t see what’s wrong with that, except it’s not for everyone.

  8. Charlie,

    You ARE absolutely right, it WAS Asimov who wrote that on 2/22/11:

    “In fact, consumers could be helped immeasurably if the entire lexicon of wine descriptors were boiled down to two words: sweet or savory.”

    Thanks for the correction!

  9. I think Eric was not entirely serious when he made that remark.

  10. People generally attribute acidity to much of the reason long lived wines age so well, but I wonder if anyone has ever considered the differences between naturally acidic wines and those with a dose of acid “medicine.”

    I guess I would like to think that the naturally well balanced juice would fare better than the adjusted musts, but has there been any work with regard to this?

  11. Concerning the question of whether wines with adjusted acidity age differently than naturally acidic wine: I question the very premise that ageability has much to do with acidity. It this were the case wouldn’t we be cellaring Albarino and Greuner Veltliner instead of white burgundy, or Chablis over Mersault? What to make of Semillon, which in my experience crashes in acidity much over 21 brix, but ages beautifully (think Hunter Valley Semillon). In reds it is more complicated, as “buggy” wines will surely deteriorate more quickly at high pH (low acidity), but other than that phenolic profile seems to have more to do with aging ability.

    Concerning “candy bar” wines it looks to me like critics score these wines in the 95 to 100 point range, while great wines with balance and finesse seem to garner 90 to 94 points.

  12. Bill Dyer, great points. Not sure I have an explanation for the ageability thing. Agree with you on the score thing.

  13. Especially in regard to your second-to-last paragraph, a gentleman who cellars here would like a clarification of what you mean by “balanced,” as in a “balanced wine.”

  14. Cave Wine Storage, I could write a book on balance. In general, a feeling of equilibrium of all the parts of a wine, as well as a complexity that’s hard to explain.

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