The current state of American wines
There has been a fashion, originating and much followed in the USA, for “fruit bombs”, BIG, over-ripe wines that were fruity but verging into or well within the realms of jamminess. Oak has also featured highly in many US wines, particularly in Californian Chardonnays to the extent that in blind Chardonnay tastings it was often possible to label a wine as American as soon as the wine was sniffed. In addition the alcohol level of US wines has tended to be very high, some US wines having ABVs as high as fortified wines which have distilled spirits added to them.
This trend for jammy, oaky, high alcohol wines was driven to a large extent by (certain?) wine critics who have had a tendency, admittedly in the past, to award higher scores to the richest, jammiest wines.
Many winemakers were quick to adopt the style in a bid to win the points and medals that would help them to market their wine. But did the preferred taste of consumers drive the trend or did consumers follow the points? It is a bit of a chicken and egg situation.
Who’s to say that those consumers are wrong? It’s a matter of taste after all. But it is noticeable that US wines tend not to be highly in favour by the majority of wine drinkers in the UK. So is it the style of the wines that is putting us off or are there other factors at play?
Overripe fruit in wines & quality; are they compatible?
Let's just say that the fruit bomb is not a style that lends itself to what is generally considered to be a top quality, well-balanced wine – see my previous blog What makes a wine a good wine?. The problem is twofold.
Firstly the longer the grapes are left on the vine to extract really ripe fruit flavours, the more sugar they accumulate and the alcohol level of the wine therefore rises. Given that US wines were predominantly produced in California, a state known for its sunshine, it is not surprising that alcohol levels can tend to be high.
In addition to the higher sugar levels of grapes left on the vine for a long time or in very hot climates, there is also a decline in the acidity of the grapes. Acidity helps to make wines taste fresh on the palate and with low levels of acidity wines become “flabby” (flat, heavy) and short-lived wines. Higher alcohol and lower acidity can therefore mean that the structure and balance of the wine is compromised. And balance of fruits, tannins, sugar or alcohol and acidity is crucial in well-made wines.
I have written about growing grapes in hot weather should you want to learn more.
Are American wines changing?
The jammy fruit bombs are making way now particularly at the premium end of the market for wines that combine fresher primary fruit flavours, secondary and tertiary flavours from the development process (more on these flavours in a future blog), structure and elegance.
Whilst the vast majority of US wines still come from California, there is more of a focus on the cool climate parts of that state - like the new Eagle Peak AVA in Mendocino county - and on other cool climate regions like Oregon, Washington and New York. And a cooler climate helps maintain the fresher fruit flavours and the acidity.
Nor should we ignore the general trend worldwide for less oaky wines and for lower alcohol levels - this has also had an impact in the USA.
The fruit bombs will not disappear altogether as there are still a large number of fans – but it is good to have choice.
So why is it hard to find good US wines in the UK?
The former fruit bomb fashion was not one generally followed by wine lovers in the UK which may account for why it has been difficult in the past to find decent US wines over here.
Another factor however is that the USA is the biggest consumer of wine in the world and whilst it is the 4th largest wine producer in the world after France, Italy and Spain, it is only the world’s 6th largest exporter. This shortage of wine exports is one reason why we also generally have to pay more to get our hands on the really premium quality US wines. Given they do generally cost more, it is important to chose carefully.
25% tariffs imposed in 2019 on European wines by the Trump administration - and the threat of 100% tariffs being imposed in 2020 - mean that imports of EU wines into America have declined already and may decline further which will surely mean that the USA will export even fewer wines - and that will undoubtedly mean we will end up paying even more for the better wines. Maybe when the UK strikes its trade deal with the USA this will be taken into consideration.
My advice in the interim would be to stock up - and make sure you pick premium US wines if you want to avoid too much jam, oak and alcohol.
Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.
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