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Californian Wine: Linda Murphy Column

Sorry limeys, but we’re not all so simplistic. Linda Murphy looks at the Californian wine palate.

As Stateside enjoys a more prominent position within the magazine for one month only, what could be juicier than a debate over the Californian wine palate, which craves ripe, concentrated, high-alcohol wines, and the European palate, which favours less potent, more structured and ageworthy wines?

UK writers are titillated by talk of this supposed continental divide in taste, suggesting that one palate is obviously superior to the other. They joke about fainting from the fumes of a California Cabernet Sauvignon, and wonder what those crazy Americans think about this skewed difference in style preference.

Well, that sound you hear in London is the yawn of the Average Joe wine drinker in the US. Joe loves Californian wine, without guilt, and doesn’t feel the need to talk about it the next morning. He likes his wine rich, luscious and lip-smacking, isn’t concerned about alcohol, acidity or food-friendliness, and buys a bottle today to down tonight. Joe drinks what he knows, and that’s sun-ripened California fruit in a bottle. Joe don’t ‘do’ debate.

Of course, I have oversimplified the profile of the US wine drinker and surely insulted the small (yet growing) number of Americans who investigate wine from all over the world, who enjoy crackling acidity, firm structure and underlying complexity, who choose wine to complement a meal, and who aren’t guided solely by the 90-point scores of critics.

But the only substantial discussion being held in the US today about Californian wine vs European wine tastes is by palate-fatigued wine writers, savvy sommeliers, some speciality retailers and the all-too-few consumers who have travelled abroad, sipped from the global wine fountain and returned refreshed.

Most Americans drink wine not because of tradition, but because they know it as a cocktail, or consume it by cardiologists’ orders. They couldn’t care less about what the rest of the world thinks, or drinks, and that’s okay by me. Just drink the wine now, and figure out why later.

Still, I’m unsettled by this notion of labelling palates as Californian, European or otherwise. Doing so suggests that place of residence tells us to drink wines from one region but not another. It ignores the fact that wine preferences are formed by exposure and experience, not DNA. It reduces the fascinatingly complex subject of sensory perception to an either-or, apples-oranges, black-white dilemma.

As the planet gets warmer and winemaking and viticulture technology improve, wines from all over the globe become more alike. Some of my more critical colleagues dispute this, but in my tastings, California wines are beginning to show more freshness and acidity. Minerality is a mantra. Mitigating high alcohol is a mission of the most creditable winemakers. Excessive oak is falling out of favour. Vines are being planted in cooler climates to preserve acidity and structure.

In Europe, Bordeaux is gaining opulence, even in difficult vintages. For better or worse, Grüner Veltliners are edging past 14% alcohol. Rioja’s old-fashioned taste is becoming more modern. Hot years like 2003 leave red Burgundy tasting very like California Pinot Noir in a cool year.

There is no arguing that California turns out far too many liquid-velvet, sweet and alcoholic (15% or more) wines that have no backbone, overwhelm food and fall apart with age. Equally egregious are the angular, tart wines from France that find their way to the US, vapid ambassadors to a country still politically resistant to anything French except fries. Yet in between these poles is a wealth of wines from both continents that are worthy of anyone’s attention, no matter which side of the Atlantic one’s palate is formed.

If you think elegant, cellarworthy California Cabernet begins and ends with Ridge Monte Bello and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, try Cathy Corison’s Napa Cabernet Sauvignons – bright and crisp, with tannins to age and a subtly pleasant herbal complexity, at 13.5% alcohol.

The Chardonnays of David Ramey from the Hyde and Hudson vineyards in Napa Carneros and the Ritchie Vineyard in Russian River Valley are above 14% alcohol, deeply fruited and dense, yet also have sparkling minerality, crisp acidity and a sublime balance to rival Burgundy’s best.


Corison and Ramey aren’t alone in producing California wines that offer the best of both worlds, attractive to my UK friends and to Average Joe alike. Drinking wine means celebrating differences; let’s not label those differences as being from one continent or another, good or bad.

What Linda’s Been Drinking This Month.


For smoky, grilled meats, pizzas and veggies, I love the spicy richness of the Annie’s Lane McLaren Vale Shiraz from Australia, the juicy yet structured Altos Las Hormigas Malbec from Argentina, and the briary, balanced Murphy-Goode Liar’s Dice Zinfandel from Sonoma County. At less than $20 a bottle, they’re perfect for a barbecue crowd.

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