Is U.S. wine too bland?

That's the conclusion of Dan Berger, the pre-eminent wine critic and author. U.S. producers, particularly in California and particularly with red wine, are dumbing down the way their wine tastes. "Will you find varietal character in most wines? No, not any more," he wrote in his weekly newspaper column. Instead, "The result, over the past 20 years or so, has been a lot blander wine than I have ever seen, not to mention more alcoholic and less likely to go with food."

This is the same conclusion the Wine Curmudgeon reached when putting together the 2011 Hall of Fame. Too many wines, particularly if they were from California and particularly if they were red, were flabby and dull. So I called Berger (tasting, right), told him what I had found, and asked him what was going on.

"The joke used to be, among people who didn't like red wine, is that they didn't like red wine because it all tasted the same," says Berger. "Now, it's not a joke. They're right."

After the jump, why this is happening and what consumers can do about it:

Berger's point about varietal character is well taken, and it's something that I've noticed over the last several years. Varietal character means that cabernet sauvignon tastes like cabernet sauvingon, merlot tastes like merlot, and so forth. In this, there are standards for varietal character, in much the same way ketchup is supposed to taste like ketchup. Cabernet should have dark berry flavors and manly tannins. Merlot should have softer flavors and tannins than cabernet, although it should still be reasonably substantial. New World pinot noir should have almost raspberry flavors with no tannins; Old World pinot should be much less fruity than its New World cousin, and with more earthiness.

In fact, says Berger, those standards are becoming less relevant to producers, and it's becoming more difficult to recognize wines by these flavors. Instead, there is almost a one-size fits all approach — jammy, over the top fruit, and big tannins.

"It's about playing it safe," he says. "There are wholesalers and retailers and they need to sell wine. It's about getting an that 85 as a score, which is like manna from heaven."

So what's a consumer to do who wants wine to taste like it's supposed to taste? Berger has these suggestions:

? Try unfamiliar brands or wines sold at closeout (though don't buy anything much past three or four years old at closeout). "They may not necessarily be good," he says, "but they might be interesting."

? Look for less alcoholic wines. "Wines with lower alcohol," he says, "tend to be better balanced and have more varietal character." If a red wine has more than 14 1/2 percent alcohol, it's more likely to have that one-size-fits-all character.

? Look for regions that are less common, like California's Central Coast and Santa Barbara or the Yakima Valley in Washington.

?  Decant the wine. Yes, I know this is something that I don't usually recommend, but who am I to argue with Berger? The theory is that the more air the wine gets, the more it will show whatever varietal character it has.

Finally, if you buy a wine and like it, and it doesn't taste like merlot (or pinot), then just accept the fact that the world has changed, "and think of it as good red table wine, and be done with it," says Berger.

4 thoughts on “Is U.S. wine too bland?

  • By Patrick -

    Funny, my wife just bought Cupcake Malbec and didn’t much like it. Not sure why, as I tasted it and it tastes like all the Cupcake wines she buys. Really is indistinguishable from all their other reds.

  • By Daniel Schoenfeld -

    Yup, a lot of red wines are similar. Many are made with added tannins, oak alternatives, and acid adjustment.
    Makes them taste the same.
    I disagree about the alcohol levels though. You can make a great red wine with higher alcohol if you have the quality fruit to balance the alcohol. It’s about ripe fruit. Some people have an European palate, nothing wrong, but often they cannot get their fruit ripe, thus the lower alcohols. We, in California can and often do chose riper fruit. Not right or wrong, just different. Each can be done well. Personally i like riper fruit for my wines most of the time.

  • By Jeff Siegel -

    Not to single out Cupcake, but as long as Patrick brought it up… That brand is a good example of the trend. The wine is sold its their label, and not necessarily what it tastes like.
    And Daniel’s point about high alcohol is well taken. I just don’t see enough high alcohol wines that are balanced, and I certainly don’t see them for less than $20.

  • By brian -

    Yeah, I agree with the story, it is sometimes the “red” varietal, or “white” varietal. You can tell by the color.
    Well, isn’t this what this column is all about? Finding the wines that break the trend of tasting the same. For years, I bought wines for various restaurant wine list, and I would tell my purveyors, it is easy to bring me delicious $180 a case wines, it is difficult to find the great $60 a case wines.

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