Walt Whitman, that quintessentially American poet, produced a motherlode of definitive lines about his country. I have a clear favourite. It's from To Foreign Lands in the collection Leaves of Grass, his magnum opus, first published, fittingly, on July 4. He called the United States an "athletic democracy." Brilliant.
The scraggly bearded bard was a Temperance advocate, alas. He turned to wine, notably champagne, only later in life. So I hope he won't roll over in his grave as I mangle his imagery to suit my humble purpose here in this Independence Day column. I think it can be said America tends to produce athletic wines, and by that I mean toned, sculpted and muscular.
Euro-biased critics often complain that U.S. chardonnays, merlots and cabernet sauvignons, sunny California's in particular, assail the drinker with too much body, fruitiness and alcohol. Where's the delicacy, the earthiness, the savoury charm, the poetry? they ask. Like pumped-up football players, California wines can exhibit a certain look-at-me brawn, usually because of too much time spent preening in oak barrels, which can impart a cloyingly smooth vanilla flavour. You almost want to reach for a helmet to drink them.
All's fair in love, war and wine criticism, I suppose. But the slag is a vast overgeneralization, I think. To some degree, it's also outmoded. Over the past two decades, I tasted with excitement - cheered from the sidelines, if you will - as California ditched its shoulder pads. The wines have become more graceful and balanced. The alcohol is still mostly there, an unavoidable byproduct of sunny, grape-ripening weather. But there's more harmony and integration of flavours, even in the big, populist brands.
One good, and well-priced, example, available now only in the West, is Big House Red 2008 ($12.99 in British Columbia at private liquor stores, product No. 740040, $11.99 in Alberta; coming in the fall to Ontario). Even the motley grape blend is un-American: syrah, petite sirah, grenache, montepulciano, mourvèdre, sangiovese, tannat, aglianico, nero d'avola, sagrantino and barbera. Yes, not a drop of merlot or cabernet sauvignon. This cheerful red is very dry, with an herbal essence that tastes, dare I say, European. A core of dark-berry fruit gets a lift from crisp acidity and herbs and a note of licorice. A versatile food wine.
Also well-priced is a white newly released in Ontario, Sea Glass Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($13.95, No. 173575). It comes from Trinchero Family Estates, the people who brought us the original White Zinfandel, Sutter Home. Light-bodied, it's a fruit-first wine, to be sure, with just a hint of sauvignon blanc grassiness. Nice for summer salads.
I like the smart balance of Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay Estate Vineyards Sonoma County 2007 ($19.95 in Ontario, No. 275552). Full-bodied, it shows tropical fruit, butterscotch and even a hint of cola (how American), with nicely integrated - which is to say inconspicuous - oak. Try it with salmon or other rich, oily fish.
Also available in B.C. is Hess Select Chardonnay Monterey 2008 ($20.99, No. 335802). Apple and peach notes form the core of this full-bodied white, rounded out with good acidity and soft oak. Another good candidate for salmon.
Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($32.95 in Ontario, temporarily marked down from $35.95; No. 255513) is the flagship red from a California winery no longer in the hands of its late namesake or his family. Full-bodied and plummy, it's wrapped in considerable tannins that make it a tad astringent and unapproachable now. I'd give it three to five years, but if you're American and want to serve it on July 4, throw a rare steak at it. At 15.5-per-cent alcohol, it's certainly not European, but it hides the heat well.
Also discounted in Ontario is Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($17.95, down from $18.95, No. 738823). A crowd-pleaser, it's brimming with rich blackberry, plum and chocolate flavours that are nicely framed against fine-grained tannins and spice. Steak or lamb would be good matches.
The following wines will be released next Saturday in Ontario, too late for the Fourth of July.
Santa Barbara Winery Chardonnay 2008 ($17.95, No. 989152) is full-bodied, round and silky, with flavours of sweet butter, vanilla, tropical fruit and smoky spice. Lots of oak, but plenty of fruit to match. Try it with lobster.
J. Lohr Los Osos Merlot 2007 ($19.95, No. 27516) is velvety and packed with raspberry, blackberry, dark chocolate and a note of percolated coffee.
Zinfandel, sometimes called America's heritage grape because of its 200-year history in California, gets nice treatment in Rodney Strong Knotty Vines Zinfandel 2007 ($19.95, No. 363358). Very ripe and almost raisiny, it's lifted by spice and firm acidity. It's a muscular wine, to be sure, but more of a nimble running back than a defensive tackle.