The Ascension of the California Wine Mosaic

GrapevineIf you’ve been following my recent columns, you know how well the United States is faring across the globe in the production and consumption of wine. From the back of the pack just 75 years ago, the United States has ascended into the elite ranks of wine-producing nations in production and consumption – quite a feat within the millennia of wine history in Western and Eastern Europe.

Over the last century we have opened our doors to immigrants who have persevered to introduce European grape varieties to the American palate. The popularity of California Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot has skyrocketed in the last 50 years. More recently, grape varieties have been planted that were rarely grown in the United States.

From Pinot Noir and Syrah (French origin), to Sangiovese (Italian origin), to Tempranillo and Albarino (Spanish origin), American winemakers have embraced these grapes just as American citizens welcomed European immigrants – with open arms and the freedom to pursue their dreams.

As diverse as we are as a nation, so too are our wine interests. American winemakers have created a mosaic of diversity and a melting pot of international varieties, and in the process, they have created new expressions of wines that are challenging age-old precepts about wine styles, structure and flavor profiles. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in California.

In this epicenter of the New Order (on its own, California is the fourth largest producer of wine in the world), there are, in my opinion, three distinct differences that set California apart from the Old Order in its quest for world recognition.

  1. Terroir. In the Old Order European countries, specific, defined geography determines the grape variety that is grown. Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Greeks and Romans experimented with various grape varieties and ultimately settled on specific grapes to be grown in specific areas. These practices have been carried forward to modern times. Across Europe, Pinot Noir still grows best in the Burgundy region of France, Sangiovese in Tuscany.

In California, the early pioneers of wine in the 1970s experimented wildly with numerous grapes across the state. Although certain areas are known better for one grape than another (Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa, Chardonnay in Sonoma), these same areas produce a mélange of other wines that have received critical acclaim. These grapes are generally not grown outside the boundaries of their Old Order ancestors – Spanish Tempranillo and Albarino, as well as French Viognier, to name a few.

California’s climate and soils are producing styles of wines that can be emblematic of Old Order wines or harbingers of individualized styles the wine world has rarely experienced.

  1. Regulation. In the Old Order countries, governmental bodies dictate which grape varieties may be planted in specific locales. For example, in Burgundy, only Pinot Noir may be grown for red wine production (although the Gamay grape is permitted in the southern extreme). In California, every region may produce Pinot Noir, allowing multiple expressions of style, thereby offering consumers multiple choices to suit their individual preferences.
  2. Food pairing. When tomatoes were introduced in Italy, they were paired with local pastas. To suit the rich acidic flavors of these dishes, Italians hybridized various grapes until they found the perfect match for their recipes, and Chianti was born.

In California, the hybridization of grapevines and experimentation with food dishes were mutually exclusive. The New Order winemakers focused on producing the best wines for the local region. They relied on (very talented) California chefs to pair their wines with appropriate dishes of varied cuisines.

California has fashioned a mosaic of divergent grapes and styles that is reminiscent of the mosaic of ethnic backgrounds that was woven as the fabric of modern American society. The future beckons with similar potential results.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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