SAN FRANCISCO - In the last two decades, certainly since the soft-and-chewy red wine vintages of 1994 and 1997, most California red wines have gotten richer, softer, and fleshier.
This includes such wines as pinot noir, a grape that once regularly produced a lighter-styled red wine. Today many are routinely above 14% alcohol. Some are so dark and brooding they have bodies round enough to elicit thoughts more of a Goya painting than a Modigliani. The big-red trend has also affected most other grape varieties made in California.
Yet there is a counter-trend afoot around the country, fueled mainly by younger consumers. It is an interest in lighter reds. This quiet movement away from oomph and toward delicacy has meant a rebirth of interest in some previously star wines that have always been aimed at the dinner table rather than the tasting bar.
As a result, a number of French and Italian wines that have always been in the background are a lot more visible today, much of them pushed by today's energetic sommeliers who have sensed a growing unease with pricey, ultra-rich, soft, food-unfriendly cabernets, zins and syrahs. This was displayed visibly last week when a Loire Valley promotion group staged a dinner here to display eight Loire Valley red wines, only one of which was barrel-aged and that for only a short time in used barrels.
As a result, wood, weight, concentration and alcohol were afterthoughts. The wines all were relatively crisp, light and aimed at the dinner table. Indeed, before the food arrived, we appreciated the lovely aromas, but the wines weren't fun to consume.
Food, however, transformed them. And a key was that most of them were about 12.5% alcohol, roughly 2-4 points below most New World wines.
Staging such an event in the past would have been a chore. A key reason is that so few of these fascinating wines were imported to the United States.
"If we tried to do a dinner like this 10 years ago," said spokeswoman Jessica Engle, "we would have struggled to find eight of these in the entire country. When we decided to do this event a few months back, this restaurant had eight Loire Valley reds on their wine list!"
The restaurant was the relatively new Caf?des Amis on Union Street, with a French-oriented menu and a terrific wine list that has a load of wines specifically designed to go with food.
Included are wines from the Loire made from pinot noir, cabernet franc and gamay, lovely, attractive food wines that sell for reasonable prices.
Among the wines that I loved at the dinner:
2007 Phillipe Gilbert Menetou-Salon ($18), a light, elegant pinot noir with a fragrance of black pepper, savory and thyme -- kind of like a muscular ros?
2009 Henry Marionett Gamay de Touraine ($20), with a strikingly fruity aroma not unlike an exotic version of Beaujolais.
2008 Pithon-Paille Chinon Vignes Vignes ($20), a rustic, earthy cab franc with dried herbs and fresh cherry fruit.
Caf?des Amis isn't alone. Interest in red Loire wines is growing.
Wine of the Week: 2009 Domaine Roches Nueves Saumur-Champigny ($20) -- This superb Loire Valley Cabernet Franc has bright cherry fruit, a trace of earth in the mid-palate, and a lovely balance between acidity and fruit. Great with lamb.