Margaret Pearman is a certified sommelier under the Court of Master Sommeliers and is responsible for curating the award-winning wine list at Charlie’s L’Etoile Verte. Here are her sipping suggestions for April:
How America’s wine icons were born
Winemaking is an ancient practice tracing back to the Chinese, Greek, and Roman empires starting in 7000 B.C. Wine, as we know it today, is markedly different from the wine of old that had to be preserved with resin or honey. Modern winemaking started in the 15th Century in Europe with France as the benchmark. If you think about it, no other country has such diverse growing regions: crisp sparkling Champagne, spicy Rhone reds, silky Burgundian Pinot Noir, and unctuous sweet Sauternes. Early on, the French understood the importance of distinct terroirs, and which varietals thrived in them. Several key events in the last two hundred-plus years have brought us to where we are today and allowed for American winemaking to make a place for itself on the world stage.
For the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Bordeaux, wine brokers were tasked with making a list of the finest whites and reds. Even though the list was merely based on price, it would forever become engrained as the who’s who of wine. It came to be known as the Classification of 1855. The list included four red Premier Cru Superior: Lafite, Margaux, Latour, and Haut Brion; and one white wine: Yquem. Since 1855, only one chateau has been elevated: Mouton Rothschild in 1973.
Not long after, phylloxera hit Europe. A tiny grape louse that attacks the root of the vine decimated nearly sixty percent of vineyards. It is believed the invention of the steamship sped up travel across the Atlantic and allowed the foreign invader to survive the trek. Scientists figured out that American rootstock, Vitus Americanus and Riparius (six species and hundreds of varietals) were resistant to phylloxera. Europe had cultivated wine on the Vitus Vinifera rootstock (Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc.) originating from the ancient Georgian region. The idea of grafting French vineyards to American rootstock did not go over well at first, but it was the only way the French wine industry could survive.
Thus it had been established that the great wines of Europe could be produced on American rootstock. It took one illustrious Hungarian immigrant by the name of Haraszthy to figure out that Vitus Vinifera could be grafted on American rootstock. Through a calamity of events, Count Haraszthy settled in California and established the Buena Vista winery. His wines won awards and attracted publicity. In 1861, the governor asked him to travel around Europe to record vineyard practices, winemaking techniques, and collect rootstock. He returned with over 100,000 cuttings and a wealth of knowledge.
As are many things American, winemaking was dominated by the idea of “bigger is better.” Quality was thrown by the wayside for ambitions of bulk production. Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s American wine consumption dramatically increased. Then in the 1970s, a new breed of American winemaking was born: one that sought to emulate the greats of Europe. American wines started drawing attention from across the pond. A British wine merchant and writer, Steven Spurrier, organized a two-part blind tasting made up of American and French white and red wines. In a huge upset, the American wines won: Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar Cabernet. The tasting would be called the Judgment of Paris, and America would become a player among the world’s wine greats.
Iconic American Wines Worth Seeking Out
Ridge Montebello Cabernet
Heitz Wine Cellar “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet
Chappellet “Pritchard Hill” Cabernet
Clos du Val Cabernet
Beaulieu Vineyards Tapestry Red Blend
Buena Vista Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay
Chalone Vineyards Chardonnay
Eyrie Vineyards Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (Oregon pioneer winery)