Wine Talk

Snooth User: EMark

I Just Flew in from Super Tuscany, . . .

Posted by EMark, Jan 31, 2013.

. . . and, boy, are my arms tired.

I don't know when I first heard the term "Super Tuscan."  I'm guessing that it was 10-12 years ago.  I really did not know what it meant--me being very focussed on my California world.

I did, of course, learn that a Super Tuscan was a wine that was made from grapes that were outside the Tuscany tradition--specifically, grapes typically associated with the Bordeaux region.  So, these wines included things like Cabernet Sauvignon, or Merlot, or Petit Verdot, blah, blah, blah.

The wine labeling laws being what they are in Italy, the use of these non-traditional grapes precluded the makers from using traditiion geographic names like Chianti, or Montrpulciano, blah, blah blah.

Now I (probably mistakenly) thought that these growers and wine producers were trying to cash in on the popularity or cachet of the Bordeaux grapes or, possibly, for the American market, the popularity of California Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, to enhance the sale of their wines made from blends that included these non-traditional grapes.  Since they could not use the traditional geographic nomenclatures they had to invent a new wine name.  Voila--Super Tuscan.  This seemed to me a stroke of marketing genius.  The obvious connotation was that these wines transcended the pleasures and enjoyment of Chiantis, et. al.  I am pretty sure that the people that I met who were drinking Super Tuscans had no idea what they were drinking, but they were priced higher than Chiantis and Montepulcianos.  So, that, to them, was ipso facto proof that they were better.

Fast forward to two weeks ago. 

In a conversation that I had with a person who may or may not have the expertise to speak with  such confidence, I was told that experimentation with Bordeaux grapes in Tuscany started in the 1970s.  The finding was that these grapes actually grew better in Tuscany than they did in Boardeaux.  His opinion was that, in fact, the Super Tuscans were very admirable wines and, as often as not, superior to the traditional offerings.

Well, a few days later I tried one.  It was darned good.  Was it among the better wines I've ever had?  Probably.  Was it even the best wine I've had in the last two weeks?  No, but, then, I was on an exceptionally good streak.  Let me also add this disclaimer.  My appreciation of a wine is based on my enjoyment with the meal at the time.  I very rarely taste different wines side by side.  So, what my comparison of a wine with one meal to another wine with another meal may or may not be totally objective--but it is the way that I like to do it. ;-) 

So, here is the point of this epistle.  I don't think I have seen this topic discussed in the last year or so that I have been haunting the this Forum.  Is there a Snooth consensus on the merits of Super Tuscan wines?

Replies

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Reply by JonDerry, Feb 1, 2013.

I think the merits are fine, because many of the results have been successes, though maybe not as much for Gaja. Like most global wine brands, the best (or  most popular) are probably a bit over priced (Masseto is out of control), but overall the wines accomplished something the traditional varities could not, and they've definitely seemed to carve out a niche in the wine world. Traditionalists may differ, but Italy (Tuscany) proved they could compete on the international stage of Bordeaux varietals.

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Reply by gregt, Feb 1, 2013.

They go back long before 1970.  At least into the 1920s people were planting Cabs and Merlots. The problem was that at some point in the mid 1800s they had come up with some rules for what would be Chianti. Nobody really followed those. Then they had phylloxera and disease problems, then World War 1, then the great depression, then World War 2. 

In the 1930s they created the Chianti region. Now think of what was going on during that time. Mussolini and friends were coming to power. It's not like there was a democratic, reasoned drawing of political borders. Apparently he or someone liked Chianti because what had been the Chianti region was suddenly expanded to include a number of other towns beyond the original, or classico, region. And they established modified rules about what should or shouldn't be in the wine to be called Chianti.

But they made their rules at a time when Chianti wasn't very good. More importantly, remember that just like they did in Spain and France, most growers were simply growers. Farmers. They sold their grapes to bigger organizations that crushed them and made wine. The whole idea of estate bottling, etc, as the dominant paradigm is really quite recent. There were a few people who did their own thing, mostly old aristocratic families, but that was it.

However, because in the 1800s the rules required the addition of a few white grapes, that rule remained. And you had to use a few other reds as well.  And of course, the wines weren't very good, since there was no market pressure to improve.  BTW, as far as I know, you couldn't even make a 100% Sangiovese, which is why the people in Montalcino eventually changed their rules to require it.

Meantime a few people had been growing other grapes that they brought over from France, figuring that the local stuff wasn't all that great. Turns out some of those grapes - Cab, Merlot, Cab Franc, Syrah, did really well in Italy.  But by the 1950s and 1960s, Chianti was mostly plonk. In fact, people were talking about turning the vineyards over to grazing land, somewhat like they're planning with the city of Detroit today.

In the US at that time, there was a miniscule market for wine anyway, and the idea of eating "Italian" for most people was a kitchy thing - you would go to a restaurant with tables covered with red and white checked tablecloth, order spaghetti, and have some Chianit in a straw bottle. It was crap but that wasn't the point. I remember when I was a kid, a friend's father, who was quite the gourmand, told me about a local restaurant that was so authentic when you went in there and ordered linguine, they'd ask you whether you wanted white sauce or red.

In the 1970s, they modified the laws yet again, keeping the required grapes, etc.  But since the local aristocracy could pretty much do what they wanted, Tenuta San Guido had planted a lot of Cab and made wine for himself. Guys like him and Antinori were what they called jet-setters; they had cash, racehorses, nice houses, and they wanted nice wines too. When he decided to release his wine commercially, it was a huge hit. So Antinori did the same thing except that he had a larger point to make. He was a local Chianti boy and his family had been there for centuries. He felt that the existing rules didn't allow for great wine, so he figured he'd make great wine and forget about the rules. Eventually he even left the Chianti consortium, which caused all kinds of consternation. But he'd made his point.

It wasn't the Italians who came up with the epithet though, nor a marketing genius. Bolgheri wasn't even a DOC until 1994 so the Sassacaia had to be labeled as a table wine. Antinori was a bigger deal. From one of the old families of Chianti, he thumbed his nose at the local yokels and put out a wine with Cab in it, very pointedly called it a simple table wine, and charged a lot more money than anybody had ever dreamed of charging for Chianti.

And the wines hit the market with a bang, so everyone pretty much knew exactly what was going on. There wasn't a lot of wine writing in the US, I'm not sure if Parker had even started yet, but the British press loved the wines, especially as compared to the rustic and crappy Chianti that was more common, so some British reviewer / writer came up with the name "Super Tuscan" and that stuck. Basically it meant any wine that was made in Tuscany but that didn't follow the local regulations for grape composition, vinification, or aging. It could be 100% Sangiovese, 100% Syrah, or a blend of those and anything else.

The Italians, being practical souls and wanting Antinori back in the fold, figured it would be easier to change the rules than to make outlaws out of the people who had suddenly brought world attention to their region's wines. Besides, the noise the wines had made was encouraging outsiders to buy into he area, bringing outside cash, so they modified the rules again. Hell, everybody should make wine like Sassacaia and Tignanello - who needed Bordeaux?

That didn't exactly happen of course, but it was a good try.  Had they done it a few years earlier, I'm convinced that the US wine industry would have had more Italian grapes and wouldn't be so closely identified with the French grapes that dominate today. 

It wasn't really about cashing in on the cachet of Cab or Bordeaux grapes though - don't forget that at the time, it's not like there was any real popularity of Napa wine in the US - the market hadn't yet taken off and the wineries that were going to create it, like Heitz, Montelena, Stags Leap were just starting or releasing their first vintages. Stag's Leap Winery for example, was just started in 1970 and Antinori was already fed up and left the consortium in 1971. Montelena was older but was replanted and renovated and after years of construction, produced its first wine in 1972. So they weren't even in the picture. It was really a lot more about responding to the local plonk.

Those new outsiders also bottled their own wine on estates and that's now become expected, rather than selling to the the big co-ops like people had been doing up to the 1960s. The rules were modified again in the 1980s and just a few years ago, the Chianti Classico region adopted a new set of rules, separating themselves from the larger Chianti region that had been created during the time when fascism was rising and nobody was thinking about making great wine in Tuscany. And as of 2006, you can't use white grapes in the blend any more. 

Stories like that are why it's kind of ridiculous to talk too much about "tradition" in winemaking. In Brunello for example, a few years ago people were bothered because maybe someone didn't use 100% Sangiovese. But that always struck me as a phony injury. Things have always changed. That's the real "tradition".

Anyhow, having tasted 50 or 60 Brunello wines yesterday, I'm thinking that tonight I'm going for a nice Cab!

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Reply by amour, Feb 1, 2013.

Just popping up here briefly to say that the topic Super Tuscans was discussed in various forms and fashions on Snooth over the years.  I did contribute, as did the famous Snooth poster DMCKER.  And our Mentor, Gregory, did visit many wineries in Tuscany and wrote the most informative accounts.  Try to read these posts and stories!

Meanwhile, I did taste 1996 Vigna d'Alceo, some years ago, a leading wine, it was very structured, quite refined and elegant, with very very fine tannins; it surprised me! From Castello dei Rampolla.

The thing is, many of the Super Tuscans were too too expensive!

And there were so many of them, especially from Bolgheri, where Bordeaux Blend Sassicaia of Tenuta San Guido is from.  (1997 Sassicaia was $400 per bottle some years ago.)

Masseto, another one which was very very popular, even in its unspectacular vintages, like 2002, which were less rich and deep and textured.

I liked the Merlo Super Tuscans, like Redigaffi, from the Tua Rita Winery.

In Miami, several restaurants promote Antinori Super Tuscans, like Tignanello.

Will be back on this topic!

Hope to hear from others as we revive Super Tuscan commentary, tasting and, of course, drinking!

 

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Reply by EMark, Feb 1, 2013.

Thank you, everybody, for your comments.  This has been VERY interesting and eye opening for me.

My bad, Amour, that I did not search the forum for previous discussions.  I will take a look.

I also agree, that the prices do seem to be a tad higher than I normally care to pay.  However, I now have an interest that may supercede my reluctance.

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Reply by JonDerry, Feb 2, 2013.

If we ever get around to a tasting Mark, I've got a mid-priced 2008 called Cabreo that I thought enough to pick up some additional bottles of, and also have a couple modern vintages of Sassicaia (07' 08') which I've kind of regretted buying, but am sure they will be fun to open when the time comes. Also have a mag of 06' that I grabbed with my famous derby winnings a while back, but I'll probably hold this one for the long haul. Wish I had more Rec's but good luck with whatever you wind up pulling the trigger on, there are values and busts amid the herd, so caveat emptor.

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Reply by gregt, Feb 2, 2013.

There are plenty of good wines for sure, although the designation doesn't really mean as much these days.  Viticcio Chianti Classico for example, usually contains like 10 - 15%  Merlot if I'm not mistaken, which once would have made it a "Super Tuscan", and with the rule change, Tignanello can now be sold as Chianti, although they're not going to do that.

But I sometimes think that Tuscany might be the best place in the world to grow some of those Bordeaux grapes - their Cab Franc is sometimes just outstanding, and their Merlot as well.  Le Macchiole for example, puts out some great wines.

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Reply by EMark, Feb 2, 2013.

Jon, I'm going to try to get my hands on another bottle what I had.  (It will take a while, though.)  If I can do that, then I'll have something we can compare it with yours.

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Reply by vino in love, Feb 8, 2013.

@Gregt

Tignanello cannot be sold as Chianti. The wine does not follow the requirements of the Chianti DOCG. Tignanello is produced with 80% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon & 5% Cabernet Franc.

In order for a wine to be classified as Chianti DOCG, a total of 15% of Cabernet Sauvignon & Cabernet Franc can be used. Tignanello uses 20% (15%+5%). Therefore Tignanello cannot be classified as Chianti DOCG.

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Reply by gregt, Feb 8, 2013.

Which set of rules are those? The rules I've seen are as follows:

Article 2

“Chianti Classico” wine must be made from grapes grown in the production zone delimited by the following article 3 whose vineyards are composed of the following grape varieties:

  • Sangiovese from 80% to 100%

The wine may also be made from red grapes of varieties suitable for cultivation in the Tuscany Region to a maximum amount of 20% of the varieties listed in the Vineyard Register.

 

Articolo 2

Il vino “Chianti Classico” deve essere ottenuto da uve prodotte nella zona di produzione delimitata dal successivo art. 3 e provenienti da vigneti aventi, nell’ambito aziendale, la seguente composizione ampelografica:

  • Sangiovese dall’80% fino al 100%.

Antinori says the blend is 80% Sangiovese, with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Cabernet Franc. The reason it couldn't be called Chianti at the time it was first released is because he did not use white grapes, which were then required.

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Reply by vino in love, Feb 8, 2013.

The regulations for Italian wines can be found on the Italian Ministry of Agriculture (Mipaaf). Download the zip file and open Chianti DOCG.

 

But I just saw that you cited Chianti Classico DOCG regulations. Chianti Classico DOCG has, compared to Chianti DOCG, less strict rules that don't restrict the amount of Cabernet to a maximum of 15%.

 

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Reply by gregt, Feb 8, 2013.

Aha!

I only cited the Classico because that's where Antinori is. Regardless of what he calls the wine though, I do like it.

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Feb 9, 2013.

GregT's comment that "Super Tuscan" can mean anything from 100% Sangio to 100% Bordo varieties is worth expanding on a little bit.

Some ST's try to improve upon the local "traditional" wines by adding something traditionally associated with France to the Sangio base.  This is actually pretty much what the rule in Scansano is about Morellino--it can be any other grape, but the amount is limited.  Merlot, Syrah, Cab.  Lately I have been enjoying the wines of Eric Banti of Morellino, who makes all-Sangio premium wine, a blend that can be called Morellino di Scansano, and a blend that has too little sangio to be anything but IGT (a notch above "table wine").  I've also tasted a few sangio-based Super Tuscans, as it were.  It's interesting to see how these "improver" grapes can overwhelm sangio, cab and syrah particularly, or soften it's sometimes harsh character, as merlot seems to.  But one thing is clear:  The wines are noticeably different when you blend in these other grapes. 

Long before the Brunello-gate controversy, it was a badly kept secret that Tuscan wine bottlers brought in cheap bulk red from other regions.  Where was all that primitivo or nero d'avola going before people wanted it for itself?

So called STs have become so popular that many of them now have a much less expensive "2nd wine" a la Bordeaux.  Antinori makes Villa Antinori, which I have been told retailers have to carry in order to have Tignanello available to them.  Not sure I believe it, as I see it in plenty of places that would never have an interest in Tignanello because their customers don't buy such expensive bottles.  I think it's an effort to put a decent quality wine into the mass market at a decent profit, and it succeeds well on those terms.  Brancaia makes Tre, which is a few bucks more than Villa Antinori, and is really quite good. 

I have to admit I fall for the tradition shtick to a degree.  For instance, I don't buy Syrah from Italy, although I keep reading that it's a great deal.  I want my Northern Rhones from the Northern Rhone, dammit, except when I want them (and my cabs and my pinots and my grenache and my mourvedre) from California.  I think I figure that California has a huge area that can grow excellent wine and no native vinifera, so it gets a pass.  But Italians should grow Italian grapes and the French should grow French except for stealing grenache and mourvedre, and the Spanish should grow Spanish grapes.  (Super Priorat, anyone? They did the same thing there, sometimes not to long term benefit.) But GregT is of course correct--in fact, while the history of wine is quite long, the enjoyment of it is relatively recent.  What we know of as wine bears little resemblance to the sour but safe beverage consumed during most of civilization's course, unless you buy a lot of Frank Cornelissen's "wine," which one might view as experiments as much as beverages.  Hobbes said life in a state of nature was poor, nasty, brutish and short.  Wine in a state of nature might be poor, nasty, sour and just drinkable.  Which is not to say we should be drinking spoofy junk, but a reminder that we like tradition a lot better when we've gotten some distance on its worst aspects.  Kind of like old flames, I guess.

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Feb 9, 2013.

GT, wanted to ask you to explain a comment you have made.  You have said here and elsewhere that, had things come along a little later in California, they would have planted Italian varieties instead of French.  I understand that from the point of view that the epitome of cuisine sort of shifted from French to Italian, although the techniques used in fancy restaurants, even Asian ones, are usually based on the French to this day. (Mirrepoix, pate choux, and who hasn't sliced off a fingertip on a mandoline?)  But you cite Super Tuscans as supporting this argument, which I don't understand, since what improved Super Tuscans were non-Italian grapes, mostly.  Another reason not to buy this theory is that folks have tried to grow Italian grapes here, including Antinori's patch of Sangio on Atlas Peak, and they haven't been very successful.  Clendenen has some nebbiolo above the main part of Bien Nacido, but it hasn't made anything that seems to be regarded with the great Baroli and Barbaresci.  I just drank a wine from Mendocino where the nebbiolo was blended into a $12 table wine of "Italian varietals," the likes of which would never have made it into the same bottle in Italy.  (Zin, Sangio, Carignane, Negroamaro, and Nebbiolo--Monte Volpe from Graziano--had to buy it just for the name.)

So why do you think California would have planted Italian?  I'd be more inclined to think Spanish, although Franco was still around and not much of any interest was making it out of the country.  About the biggest impact Spain was having was on Saturday Night Live with its "Franco is still dead jokes," when he finally kicked, but it seems no longer of a shot to have an impact than all that bad Italian-varietal grape wine. 

Also, Italians being practical people?  Hey, I love Italy, and all kinds of things Italian, I'm even a very small part Italian, but let's not kid around.

Finally, straw-covered bottles--a straw bottle would be a disaster.  In fact, it would be a fiasco.  (Pun for all of you who don't know that fiasco is Italian for "bottle" or flask.  Used to be when an Italian glassblower made a mistake, he just turned it into a bottle and wrote it off.  "What's that?"  "Oh, a bottle."  We also get the word "flask" from it. So they did affect our drinking habits, mostly of hard liquor.)

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Reply by gregt, Feb 10, 2013.

I think there were Italian grapes in the 1800s. There was a lot of Barbera, for example. Nebbiolo wasn't all that well-known and Sangiovese was pretty bad, but looking around California, it's more like Italy than Bordeaux. You rarely find old vine Cab or Malbec but you find a lot of old vine Zin and who planted that stuff? The main people growing wine were the Italian immigrants and their descendants. There were Germans, Hungarians, and others, but much of the old CA wine was made by Italians until Prohibition killed the biz.

The reason there's so much of the Bordeaux varieties now is largely because of the Paris tasting and the dominance of France in American culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Remember after WWII that the only country left standing was the US. Yeah we loved England and all that but France had style and was slightly exotic but not too much. Jackie Kennedy enchanted De Gaulle and America fell in love with everything French. They had Chateaus and Bordeaux; Italy had Chico Marx and straw Chianti. Americans being competitive, looked at wine prices and what was considered "fine" wine and it was Bordeaux. So Heitz and Montelena and the others planted Bordeaux grapes.

Remember that in the 1960s there was still apartheid in many places in the country, separate restrooms and doorways, etc. And in the pecking order, Italians were pretty far down. Nobody wanted to emulate them - people complained that they were greasy and stunk of garlic. The transformation to become the most admired ethnic group has been in my lifetime and it's been stunning to see.

Moreover, once again needing rankings, if Bordeaux was the "best", which grape was the "best"? Cab. So Americans planted Cab. Today I have friends who insist that they want only Cab and that mixing it with other things is like making a mutt out of pure-breds, which is ridiculous IMO, since the idea of a pure-bred is asinine and there's nothing inherently better about Cab than any other grape. Regardless, I think a lot of our wine industry is a direct result of the time period in which it was started.

For example, the latitude of Napa is approximately on par with Sicily, not Bordeaux or even Tuscany. It's protected from the sea, unlike Bordeaux. It's sunny and warm and should be perfect for Rhone-type/Spanish-type grapes, but in the 1970s nobody cared about those and who wants to grub up Cab these days?

It's true that the Super Tuscans improved the general wines of Tuscany, but only by giving them something to emulate - today there are pretty good wines made exclusively from the indigenous varieties. Producers started paying more attention to making good Sangiovese in the 1970s, when the US wine industry was nascent. The fact that there hasn't been a lot of "serious" Cal-Ital wine made isn't at all reason to dismiss it. But it's expensive to plant vineyards and if you know you can sell more Cab, even if it's crappier than some Barbera or Sangiovese you might be able to grow, what do you do? You plant Cab. I once asked Paul Draper why he doesn't do more Carignan and he said as a winemaker he'd love to but he has a board to answer to. Who buys Carignan? They're lucky they focused on Zin when they started back in the 1960s because that wouldn't happen today. 

In Italy, they already had some history with their various grapes so they had to focus on improving, not discovering. However, that's NOT true in Bolgheri, where they tried something new and hit home runs. So the Super Tuscans do support the idea of trying something that has not been done earlier. The whole concept of "indigenous" grapes is flawed, IMO. In some cases we can say a particular grape looks like it may have emerged from a specific area. But as a general rule, that's meaningless. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Huns, Celts, Serbs, pilgrims and traders carried grapes all over the place. If we're really going to limit ourselves to what's indigenous, we can't have marinera sauce from Italy, or risotto, or pommes dauphineoise from France, as those tomatoes and potatoes are from the Americas and rice came from Asia and was only used for medicinal purposes by the Romans until sometime around the late 1400s, when the Italians apparently enjoyed a huge expansion of choices for starchy foods.

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Feb 10, 2013.

Seems to me that Super Tuscans kind of prove that Cab grows really well at latitudes south of Bordeaux.  The fact that the grapes have trouble ripening in Bordeaux in many years, or did before global warming, suggests that the French should have grubbed up their Cab and grown something else.  Only reason IMO Bord succeeded as it did was because it was on the sea, but not because that improved the wines. Rather, it made it possible to send the grapes to England, which had lots of pretensions about wine but no really ability to grow it.  Remember, they IMPROVED the Bords in the old days with those "rustic" Rhone grapes from inland. 

Most winemakers in California do blend a little something into their Cab for a lot of reasons.  Anthony Bell actually uses a little Syrah (he's from South Africa, FWIW, although that's more of an Aussie thing)--anyone who is rigid about 100% cab is kind of a dope.  Whatever.

Gotta call you on this point about Napa, although it's perhaps a question of interpretation: "It's protected from the sea."  Well, in the sense that it's not subject to waves, yes, but the Napa Valley ends at the San Francisco Bay.  The Napa River ends at Vallejo, just past the end of the official valley, in an intertidal zone.  The moderate temperatures compared to, say, the Central Valley or Tuscany during the growing season are a product of the marine climate.  It's far more of a marine climate than central Tuscany.  The advantage it has over virtually every place in Europe is that there is much less chance of rot or failure to ripen because Napa (and Sonoma and the rest of California) get virtually no rain after fruit sets or before harvest--sometimes it's a close call on harvest, but our rain gets crammed into a very few months.  I'd say the best growing conditions in Napa combine the advantages of mountainous terrain (2000+ feet in many places, most vines planted below that, however) with marine influence and, finally, low rainfall.  Hate to sound like a homer, but Napa and Sonoma might be the most ideal climates anywhere for wine grape growing of most sorts.  The Central Coast can struggle more with fog some years, but I think a blind tasting of the best PN from Santa Lucia Highlands has a good chance of trouncing Burgundy if you actually like good tasting wine with fruit and not a ton of oak.  If, on the other hand, your ideal is "austere" wines from underripe grapes tricked up with oak (and then denial about the oak), you will always like Burgundy.  But that's far afield:  Napa ain't a swamp (Vallejo is a wetland, however), but the sea comes right up to it and even wraps around Carneros a bit.

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Reply by gregt, Feb 10, 2013.

Fox - Napa may be by the sea but isn't Sonoma Valley between it and the ocean? As I remember, driving north from San Francisco, if you turn left (west) you end up in Sonoma. So that's several mountain ranges that make these north-south valleys and the Pacific breezes that come in don't usually go over the hills. They find the east-west passages, places like Carneros, no? Moreover, while the geographic valley may go down to the Bay, are the wine grapes mostly planted down there or farther up north?

And while Bordeaux is roughly the same latitude as Tuscany, i.e. roughly 44 degrees, Napa is quite a bit farther south at something like 38. When people talk about climates, they refer to a Mediterranean climate, which includes the South Rhone and Languedoc regions, most Italian regions including Tuscany, and Napa and in fact, most CA wine regions. That's as opposed to a Maritime climate, which would include the Loire, much of Galicia in Spain,  Bordeaux, much of Chile, and even the Willamette Valley, or a Continental climate, which seems to more or less suck for making red wines but includes places like Austria and Hungary. I never heard anyone talk about Napa having a mountainous terrain and a marine influence. It's a valley right?

So I was going to look for some citations and I looked at the Napa Valley Vinters site and came across the Guild of Sommeliers Staff Training Guide and here's what they have to say: "Napa’s climate is classified as Mediterranean. . . Overall, Napa's climate is not dissimilar from that of Tuscany, Sicily, or parts of Southern Spain."

http://www.napavintners.com/trade/Napa_Valley_Staff_Training_Guide.pdf

Damn, son!! Whatcha got now???

Anyhow, this is spot on: "Only reason IMO Bord succeeded as it did was because it was on the sea, but not because that improved the wines. Rather, it made it possible to send the grapes to England. . ."

That's a whole book right there - the fact that the Brits essentially created the wine business as we know it. They didn't even make all that much wine in Bordeaux until the very late 1600s/1700s - prior to that it was a swamp and port used to ship wine from the Rhone and the interior of the country. But the Romans had used the ports in Bordeaux to send wine over to Britannia and that never ceased.

But going back a bit, I think there were once a lot more wine grapes planted farther south than Napa including in what's now mostly Los Angeles. Don't forget, there was a wine industry in Texas long before there was one in California, which only had around 14,000 Europeans in the early 1800s.

The Spaniards brought the culture of winemaking with them, so grapes were planted around the missions all the way from Mexico up into north California. But there was no reason to settle in the SF area, which was foggy and unpleasant. The first big push into wine in CA was around LA and the key player there was some guy called Vignes of all things, who was born in a place called Cadillac near Bordeaux. His dad was a cooper and he came over in the early 1800s. He figured out that the mission grape sucked, so he got some stuff from home. Nobody knows exactly what - don't forget that what they were growing in Bordeaux at the time was probably mostly Malbec - Cab didn't come in until after phylloxera. So he brought something over and also brought in some grapes from the east coast like Catawba.

After him, there were more wine grapes planted, mostly by Scots and Irish and Russians and Germans and other settlers. But those were business ventures more than cultural expressions - the Scots don't really make wine at home.  Then the 1849 Gold Rush came and the population grew about 20 times bigger in three years. That also basically created San Francisco, which was more or less a mission before then. Those new guys also planted whatever they could grow. Some like Haraszthzy supposedly brought back hundreds of European varieties, but nobody really knows how true his stories are. Then in the late 1800s, the big Italian immigration to the US came and their descendants are the Mondavis, Sebastianis, Gallos, etc. Since Haraszthy had lived in Sonoma and had written the first treatise on growing wine grapes, that had become the center of the business. But it was kind of random - if Sutter's Mill had been in San Diego or in some tiny place farther north, the business probably would have taken root there.

You're right about the dry conditions, but don't forget that those conditions exist in many places in Europe - south France and most of Spain. When you talk to the winemakers in Spain and France who've worked in California, they frequently talk about the similarities.

This, my friend, is priceless: " I think a blind tasting of the best PN from Santa Lucia Highlands has a good chance of trouncing Burgundy if you actually like good tasting wine with fruit and not a ton of oak.  If, on the other hand, your ideal is "austere" wines from underripe grapes tricked up with oak (and then denial about the oak), you will always like Burgundy."

I've done that tasting so many times and am supposed to be doing one at some point in the near future and the result is always the same. I may need to reach out to you for some suggestions in the next month or so.

BTW - I'll give red Burgundy this much - if you get a good one and it's aged nicely, it can be a wonderful bottle of wine. I've only had a very few from CA that are over 15 years old, so have very little to go on, although a few Williams Selyem wines seemed to be on point.

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Feb 10, 2013.

Sonoma is closer to the ocean, but the Bay comes right up to the mouth of the Napa Valley.  There's a little pinch in the valley at Yountville that traps cool bay air and fog and actually makes it good for Chardonnay, according to Anthony Bell.  I've had his stuff and it's fantastic, if only he could sell it unoaked.

Sonoma is closer to the ocean, but DCV is, for the most part, hotter and drier than Napa because the coastal range blocks the fog and wind except in a few places. Most of Napa is closer to the water than all but the "true" Sonoma coast because the SF Bay is HUGE. But unlike Seattle, or the "Entre Deux Mers area, it produces fog that lifts, not humidity that rots or rain that spoils.  RRV, closer to the mouth of the river than DCV, and following a cleft in the coastal range, stays cooler.  It's all about the microclimates, but the convection effects cause cool Bay fog to come up the Napa Valley in the summer--with a big assist from the Central Valley's convection, which has steered a much bigger volume of fog into position for the Napa Valley to capture.  Similar to Tuscany, in some ways, but then much closer to the water.  Not damp and rot-producing like Rias Baixas or Bordeaux (botrytis, anyone?).  I have to point out that the Mediterranean is a sea, so the climate around the Mediterranean is, if you ask me, maritime.  Unlike, say, the Rhone Valley or the Mosel.  Or Burgundy. Or the mountains of Tuscany, which are far inland. Just warmer than, say, Bordeaux,and not prone to rain during the growing season.

Yes, wine grape growing followed the missions,  They were making horrible sacramental wine, not anything you would want to drink unless you were promised eternal salvation for doing so.  Why didn't LA develop good wineries?  Way too hot--it's a bowl, no natural harbor. And, until the movie business and subdivisions, a relative backwater.  (Well, no, because there was no water or harbor, but uncivilized, in any case.)  What made great ancient cities was reversed by the car--LA is ideal for driving, uninterrupted by harbors, rivers of any size (the LA river is a man-made creation), relatively flat but ringed by high mountains.  Not a place to live until you can pipe in water and get from one place to another at high speed.  Then it becomes ideal.  Until it gets so overcrowded with cars you can't go anywhere fast.  And still useless for making good wine.


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