Don't look now, but California red wine may be returning to its old color. Which is red.
This takes a bit of explaining. About a decade ago, perhaps a bit earlier, most California wineries realized that darker, denser red wines were the way to gain accolades from a few powerful wine publications. As a result, they began to make all their wines with more intensity.
Cabernet sauvignons began to be described as "black" — and this was seen as a plus. Zinfandel lost most of the berry fruit it once had and was being likened to port.
Even that most fragile and persnickety grape, pinot noir, was suddenly being manipulated and turned into a dense wine.
Over the last decade or more, the colors of almost all California red wines began to resemble one another, and that meant most wines were no longer red; they were black.
Limpidity? Forget it, it hasn't existed for years. You could block out a strobe light with most so-called red (but really black) wines.
But does this really matter in terms of wine quality? We don't, after all, drink the color. We want an attractive aroma and nice flavors in our wines, and color is merely a side issue, right?
Well, technically this is correct, but how a red wine is turned into a black wine is the key to this argument, and the techniques that have been used to darken wines usually also changed their flavors, and mostly for the worse.
Pinot noirs and merlots, especially, that were made to be black usually failed to display the aromas unique to their identities.
And cabernet had largely been transmogrified into a red wine with all the delicacy of a linebacker. At one time, it was likened to claret; now it was ink, motor oil, or molasses.
The good news is that red is coming back.
As a judge at three wine competitions in the last few months, I have noted a slight lightening of the colors in many red wines. And the trend appears to be stronger in the wines from the 2010 vintage than from prior years.
The reason may well be due to the very cool temperatures in most of California in 2010, which tied the hands of the dark-color advocates and left them without a major tactic they had used for a long time: leaving grapes on the vine until they turn nearly to raisins.
The long, cool growing season in both 2010 and 2011 gave wineries in California's north coast the chance to make better-balanced red wines, which means wines with a bit less extract and more personality in both aroma and flavor.
For me this is good news. When I buy a red wine, I'd prefer it to be red.
<CF103>Wine of the Week:</CF> 2010 Kendall-Jackson Zinfandel, Mendocino County, Vintners Reserve ($17): What a delightful find: clean, pure zinfandel flavors of berry, spice, a juicy entry and fairly generous finish. Slightly chilled, this medium-weight red wine is superb with lighter meats, and is worth twice the price. And it's often discounted!
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes "Vintage Experiences," a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.