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NorCal Wine Blog

California's Greatest Wine Grape?

In his blog yesterday, Steve Heimoff made a convincing argument for Chardonnay being California's greatest grape. I respectfully disagree though.

Of course dubbing one grape greatest is hard and something that there will never be majority agreement on. It's like naming the world's best guitarist or the world's best breed of dog. Fortunately, in the case of California wine grapes, there are few serious candidates from which to choose. In order to make a claim on the title "best in the state," I think the grape should be one that is grown widely throughout California. And I believe it should be a grape that is made into good wine on average, not just by the top 5% of the state's wineries. Those criteria cut out most of the varieties grown here. I would say only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon are in the running.

Merlot can be great, but is far too often mishandled. Syrah has a lot of potential, but a lot of work still needs to be done in finding the best areas and techniques for growing it. Sauvignon Blanc has a lot of potential and there are some excellent ones out there, but not enough. There are still too many wineries, and wine drinkers, that don't take it seriously.

While Pinot Noir has been produced at very high-quality in California for decades, it's only been in this first decade of the 21st century that it has become on the states most popular wines. Unfortunately, with the rush to increase volume and take advantage of post-Sideways demand, sufficient care has not always been taken when selecting vineyard sites, tending those vineyards and making the wine. There is some fabulous Pinot Noir out there and the average level of quality is improving year after year. But I don't think it's good enough yet to take the title.

Zinfandel is the wine most uniquely identified with California. At its best, Zinfandel is deliciously charming when young and, after 30 years of bottle age, can be hard to distinguish from old Bordeaux. Zinfandel in California is also distinguished by the number of 100+ year-old vines still in use.

I have two primary arguments against Zinfandel being California's greatest grape. First, It's not taken very seriously outside of the United States. There are many people within California that would consider it our greatest. Outside of California, and especially outside of the United States, few would. It's not among the "noble grapes" of Europe and is often seen as quaint and juicy American oddity rather than a serious wine. The other reason I lean away from Zinfandel is that I think it's a wine grape that is, in most cases, best blended with others. There are some fine 100% Zinfandel wines. More often, though, it is substantially improved by adding a bit of Sangiovese, Petite Verdot, Carignane, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. Many of the best old vine Zinfandel wines are actually field blends.

My main argument against Chardonnay is that is not made at high levels of quality frequently enough, especially at moderate price points. Too many of the mainstream wines just aren't very good. I haven't tasted as broadly as Steve Heimoff, but my sense is that there is more good Cabernet Sauvignon from California at less than $30 than Chardonnay.

My vote for California's greatest grape goes to Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a very long history in the state and is widely-considered by non-Californians to be what our wineries do best. Our Cabernet Sauvignon has it's share of detractors around the world, but so do all of our other wines. Cabernet Sauvignon is also the California wine that receives the highest scores from wine critics. One may disagree with individual critics or scoring methods but I believe they need to be taken into account. They drive public opinion and sales. And they taste so many bottles of wine every year from all over the globe that I believe credit must be given to their choices.

Chardonnay is a much more neutral grape than Cabernet Sauvignon. If treated properly, it can let more terroir show through. However, when not treated ideally, it can be too easily dominated by oak or over-softened by malolactic fermentation. Cabernet Sauvignon falls victim to excessive oak as well, but at least it has the power to fight back.

Cabernet Sauvignon also has the capacity to be very expressive of terroir, whether it be on an AVA level or on a vineyard-by-vineyard basis. People contrast mountain and valley Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley. That's far too general of a delineation. Which mountain? Which part of the valley? Which soil, which facing, what slope, etc.? All of these variables make a huge difference in the final wine. And those differences between the wines, on top of their quality, makes the grape California's greatest.

We'll never agree on the answer, but it's fun to have the discussion. Do you agree with me or with Steve, or do you have a different choice entirely?

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