Friday, February 11, 2011

Americans and Their Wine Habits

When I was a kid, adults who wanted to look distinguished drank scotch. Scotch made you look really cool, and if you were a man, you had a cigar with your scotch. Now, I don't want to put a damper on scotch because a good scotch can be very enjoyable, but this post is about wine.

Tastes of Americans gravitated with the generations. Gradually, scotch gave way to vodka, and then to wine. And, that's ok. There are lots of incredible wines out there in all price ranges. So far, I'm pretty agreeable, huh? If you think I'm always this agreeable, then you don't know John.

So, what's the catch? It's what Americans drink. As a group, we drink overly oaked Chardonnay and not great Merlot (read that to mean alcoholic blueberry juice). Chardonnay is a very nice grape. Oh, and we also drink white zinfandel which I refuse to concede is actually a wine (I think it's a poison). The Burgundians have done wonders with it creating such wonders ranging from Pouilly Fuisse to Montrachet. There are some great American chardonnays as well, but most are not cheap. The cheaper ones, as a group, are very mediocre. They are either overly buttery or overly oaked, and it's intentional.

What is the #1 selling wine in the United States? I can't vouch for my research on this one, but it tells me that the best-selling producer in US restaurants is Beringer and the best-selling varietal by a producer is Kendall-Jackson chardonnay.

Most wines are aged in oak -- French oak, American oak, Hungarian oak to name a few. And, among them, there is new oak, used oak (usually being used for a second time), and neutral oak (being used for a third time or more). Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson found a better way to impart that oak flavor -- ok, it's not better, but it sure makes more money -- instead of using oak barrels, he uses oak chips. And, people love it ... and I don't know why.

And, I go back to where I was -- chardonnay and merlot. As I said, great chardonnay is largely the province of the Burgundians, while merlot is one of the five legendary red grapes of Bourdeaux (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec, and petit verdot being the other four). So, some really fantastic things can be done with both of them.

But, too many Americans don't get it yet, and we drink the bottle with the fun name or the cute label. It's time to branch out. Drink the well-made wines, and drink some different varietals or some blends. Drink wines that show off the terroirs from which they come (terroir is a fancy word for the land and terrain).

So, here is my challenge to Americans who are exploring wine. Smell your wines, taste your wines, chew your wines. Try at least two wines made from each of these grapes (by no means an exhaustive list), and make sure they are from different regions so that you get different styles. Then, figure out what you like.

White grapes

  • Riesling
  • Gewurtzraminer
  • Sauvignon blanc
  • Semillon
  • Pinot gris (also known as pinot grigio in Italy)
  • Pinot blanc
  • Albarino (albarinho in Portugal)
  • Roussanne
  • Marsanne
  • Chardonnay (intentionally put in very small font
Red grapes
  • Cabernet sauvignon
  • Cabernet franc
  • Merlot
  • Malbec
  • Petit verdot
  • Pinot noir
  • Syrah (called shiraz in Australia)
  • Petit Syrah
  • Tempranillo (sometimes known as tinto fino)
  • Mourvedre (known as monastrell in Spain)
  • Zinfandel
  • Grenache (known as garnacha in Spain)
  • Sangiovese
  • Barbera
  • Gamay
Ok, get the picture. You're going to be branching out. Don't forget, smell your wines, sip your wines, chew your wines, and above all, enjoy your wines ... and let me know what you think.

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