Wine writer Craig Camp, in his article "Fear of Wine: 100 Points of Perfection," complains about two problems in the wine business: First, that American wines tend to be heavy, high in alcohol, and intense in flavor, compared to European wines. And second, that American winemakers (and, increasingly, international winemakers looking for export markets) tend to develop their wines over time so that all their wines of a certain type taste like the same wines from all other producers -- so that we wine lovers end up losing out on the variety of styles, and of the different local "terroir" characteristics of the wines.
On the first point -- the tendency of American red wines to be "big" wines -- I think I have figured out why that is. The way we drink wines in the USA is very different from the way they drink wine in Europe, and the style of our wines reflects this perfectly. And not surprisingly.
I noticed this on a recent tour of Europe: The wines served at each dinner were very light, mild, and easy to drink. They weren't intense and strongly flavored. Now, I *like* intense wines; my favorites are big, fat Rosenblum Zinfandels. Yet I really enjoyed these light-styled and inexpensive Italian and French wines.
Why? Because I was drinking them over dinner. Not as a kind of cocktail, but as a *beverage*.
Whereas most commonly I drink wine back home at wine tastings, winery events, or in the evening after dinner.
Now think about this: If you are drinking wine with your dinner, you want a wine that isn't yelling at you while you're trying to eat. You don't want a big, extracted fruit bomb -- it's distracting. Instead, you want something that takes second place to the meal.
On the other hand, we Americans disproportionally drink our wines at tastings and events and wineries, and *there* it's the wine that's big and bold and dramatic that stands out--and that wins ribbons and scores of 94 and that we mention to our friends.
When the wine is the center of attention, it has to stand out. When the food is the center of attention, the wine has to step back.
So the winemakers of Europe play to the way their people drink their wine. And US winemakers do likewise, to the very different way their people drink their wine. Obviously. Well, obvious now that we think about it.
Of course, it helps that the weather in France is cooler (until global warming fully kicks in) than the weather in, say, California; it's hard to produce a big wine with many fewer days of heat and sun, so it's nice to be able to make a virtue of that necessity. Similarly, you'll notice that it's the Oregon and Washington State Pinot Noires that are most like their European counterparts--namely, light and mild and subtle--whereas California Pinots are often more dramatic; it's teh difference in the weather.
So who is right? Which is the better, or more sophisticated, or more refined style of wines? Neither, of course -- and both.
When we stopped by a winery in the Finger Lakes of New York last year, we were surprised at the American-grape varietels: They were very pale red instead of intensely colored, and light-drinking instead of big and fat. And yet they were absolutely delicious in their own way. And I say this as someone whose favorite wine is a Rockpile Road Zin.
All we American wine lovers need to realize is that there are these two styles and usage patterns. Once we grasp that, we can dial our wine style to what we're doing: If the wine is for winner, we can look for European-style food-friendly low-tannin, low-alcohol, mild wines made in the European style (even if they are Oregon or Long Island wines). And when we're having a wine occasion, we serve American-style own-reason-for-existence wines with punch and intense flavors. To each style its best use!