Bucking the trend of high-alcohol wines

June 14, 2011

‘Someone is trying to kill California wine,” the authoritative Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine wailed this month. Publisher Charles Olken warned in the magazine’s blog of a sweeping plague of “food wines,” as if it were a travesty that people might actually consume wine with dinner. “Those who argue that California wine is overripe, over-oaked, too high in alcohol have failed to realize that the alternative is worse,” he wrote.

Now, overripe, over-oaked, high-alcohol wines are not exclusive to California. But the Golden State has become the poster child for that style of wine. Olken was reacting to a very real trend against the style — especially against rising alcohol levels. It’s not a new temperance movement, with Carrie Nation wielding her ax and Bible. Yet the anti-alcohol sentiment is real. It is changing the way we think about wine and the way wine is made.

If you’ve been a wine drinker long enough, you’ve probably noticed wines breaking the 14, 15, even 16 percent level of alcohol, when just two decades ago the average was more like 13 percent. That has some wine lovers complaining that these bodybuilder wines are clumsy and unbalanced, difficult to drink with dinner and incapable of aging well in the cellar.

Famed sommelier Rajat Parr, wine director for the Michael Mina restaurant group, refuses to buy chardonnay or pinot noir over 14 percent alcohol for his RN74 restaurant, claiming those wines don’t match the restaurant’s cuisine. (The restriction does not apply to other Mina restaurants, including Washington’s Bourbon Steak.) In May, the San Francisco Chronicle and the British magazine Decanter began noting alcohol levels in their wine reviews. Both publications cited reader interest in having that extra detail of information when deciding what wines to buy.

This month, film director and vintner Francis Ford Coppola told Decanter.com that he will scale back the alcohol on his wines as he transitions his Niebaum-Coppola line back to the winery’s original name of Inglenook.


Sommelier Rajat Parr of the Michael Mina restaurant group. (Christina Koci Hernandez)

“I want to return to elegance,” he said. “Elegance” is a code word for “low alcohol.”

Many explanations are given for rising alcohol levels, including global warming, vineyard practices that ripen grapes more evenly, and new yeast strains that are more efficient at turning grape sugar into alcohol. But there’s also more sugar to ferment in those grapes because of winemakers’ choices. Grapes are left on the vine longer to achieve “phenolic ripeness” and eliminate “green” flavors. Extra sugar means extra alcohol, which contributes body and power to a wine, plus often a good initial impression. But the trade-off is raisiny, pruney flavors and low acidity, yielding a flabby, boring quaff.

Not always, though. The super-ripe, syrupy, high-alcohol style can be delicious if the wine has been made with exacting care in the vineyard and the winery. That means low yields, berry selection at harvest and super-concentrated juice. These wines stand out from the crowd because of their power and price, and when they get high point scores from the winestream media, two things happen: They become trophy wines, and other wineries want to imitate them. The alcohol is easy to imitate; the fruit to balance is not.

Collectors who can afford trophy wines love to pour tastes for other wine lovers in an oenophiliac geekfest. Everyone gets a taste, and no one has to drink through to the end of a bottle. First impressions are everything with this style of wine. There is no need for the wine to develop flavors as it breathes, and if it falls apart after a few minutes, who cares? Everyone has already given it 95 points and praised the expertise of the generous person who shared it. On to the next behemoth.

Most people don’t drink wine that way. As Bob Lindquist, owner-winemaker of Qupe winery in Santa Barbara County, told me, “These wines are interesting sometimes. But try to sit down with your wife and finish a bottle . . . .” He couldn’t even finish that sentence.

Some California wineries have consistently bucked the super-ripe, high-alcohol trend. Au Bon Climat, Arcadian, Alma Rosa, Copain, Clos du Val, Qupe and Frog’s Leap, among others, have favored the more “elegant” European style. They’re not “killing” California wine. In fact, they might be saving it. The more wineries, like Inglenook, that join them, the better.

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com.
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