2007 is going to be a very important vintage for U.S. wines in the international marketplace. This very well might be the year with the most significance on that front since the famed 1973 vintage, one in which California gained credibility across the globe as Chateau Montelena (Chardonnay) and Stag’s Leap (Cabernet Sauvignon) out-dueled the French in the famed 1976 ‘Judgment of Paris’ tasting.
Without a doubt, California has been a source of consistent high quality offerings over the past twenty something years, with some truly great vintages like 1994 and 2001. But during that time, the European market was holding its own in terms of quality and developing a bias against “California style” wines, which has become a descriptive term for high alcohol content, heavy-handed wines without the complexity or structure of their French and Italian cousins.
This sentiment was something of a double standard. While criticizing the new “American” style, many Italian and French winemakers were bending their own harvest times and techniques to meet the U.S. demand for a more fruit forward style, as well as to cater to rating publication preferences. Italians increased their supply of Super Tuscans and fuller bodied single varietals to satisfy American import demand, while some French winemakers reportedly went so far as to kick their wines up a notch with unlabeled varietals, for example by adding a touch of syrah to a Burgundy (pinot).
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Americans have started to push back on the over-loaded alcohol fruit bombs, looking for a happy medium with more judicious use of oak. So the time is perfect for a transitional period where California and European tastes may very well meet somewhere in the middle.
Of course, if this leads to all things being equal, the French will still drink French, Italians prefer Italian and the U.S. will continue to divide its consumption equally between domestic and imports.
But things are not “equal.”
While most of California enjoyed an almost perfect growing season leading to an on schedule harvest, in several French appellations, the season has been one of utter chaos. Harvests have been reduced by extremely rainy weather all summer, along with some last minute unwanted moisture just prior to picking of early harvest varietals, which has begun for some whites. Projections of impact to volume range wildly; the word on the street is dire while the Ministry of Agriculture projects a more reasonable 17% drop in average yields for Bordeaux. But it is important to keep in mind that their figure is strictly a harvest volume projection. Several vineyards failed to take effective action to counter mildew problems encountered because of the constant rains, and the resulting yields may also be impacted in terms of quality of fruit. This would manifest itself through grape rejection at sort, making the total impact potentially greater than the Ministry’s projections.
This could drastically impair France’s ability to meet international and even domestic demand for Bordeaux, while Champagne, the Loire valley and Beaujolais were also impacted in terms of volume and/or quality concerns by the sketchy weather. And while the quality may be lower than usual, prices are unlikely to fall, because they will have to recover their volume loss with high per bottle prices.
What does all this mean in terms of California? Its hard to say, but when its all said and done, if someone from France wants to buy a great Cab or Merlot from the 2007 vintage for a less than exorbitant price, their only viable option may be outside of their borders, and the best of the best available may well hail from California.
And with the stylistic compromise that seems to be in play between the early 2000’s “California” style and a more refined, structured approach, 2007 may become another 1973 for the U.S.