As the end of the year approaches, I've been looking through my inbox and at recent Free Range online chats by the Food team to see what's on readers' minds. Along with a few questions, some have offered good advice.
High alcohol levels: The rise continues to concern readers. "Over the past few years the wine alcohol has been going up and up," one lamented. "It used to be 12.5, then 13 now there are some that are 15 percent, bordering on fortified territory. Any inside scoop on this?"
I wrote about this issue a few years ago, when I started listing the alcohol levels on my recommendations. Levels have indeed crept up. It's easy and convenient to blame climate change (warmer weather = riper grapes = more sugar = more alcohol), but it's probably more because of improved viticulture. Vintners have become better at ripening grapes. That's why we rarely have really bad vintages now; even in rough weather years, they know how to make good wine. Not that vintage isn't important, but it is less so than it used to be just a decade or two ago.
About 11 years ago, I asked a Sonoma County vintner why he and his colleagues were making higher-alcohol wines. His reply: "Because we can."
Consumer preference has something to do with it, too. Certain prominent wine critics highly praised opulent wines, and that helped drive the style. Now, you see many writers (myself included) favoring more moderate levels. The market, and the winemakers, are responding. You just have to seek out those more moderate wines among the behemoths. The search, from shopping to drinking, is a lot of fun.
White wines and tannins: One reader wrote about white wines: "My go-tos lately have been from the Cape Town, South Africa, area, and various wines originating from the Marlborough area of New Zealand. Could you recommend something outside of the Sauvignon Blancs I've been drinking lately?" This reader prefers whites, to avoid the tannins in reds, but added: "A quick question on tannins — is it usually attributed to a wine being 'oaked,' or is oaked just a flavor booster?"
Tannin comes from the grape skins, stems and seeds, I explained. One reason we don't usually perceive tannin in white wines is that they are typically destemmed before pressing, and then taken off the skins very quickly. If you try an "orange" or "amber" wine (often from Georgia, but some from Slovenia and trendier wineries everywhere), these are white wines made like reds — i.e., prolonged skin contact. You will feel the tannins.
Tannins do come from oak barrels, especially new ones. If your first impression of a chardonnay or a big red wine is one of getting smacked by a two-by-four, that's probably from oak tannin.
Now for those other white wines: I suggested this reader look for rieslings from New Zealand and Australia. Argentina is making some of the world's best chardonnay right now, but the country is also known for torrontes, a lighter, flowery white wine. From South Africa, look for chenin blanc, sometimes called Steen (a local name). Ken Forrester makes a nice one called Petit Chenin, and you cannot go wrong with wines from A.A. Badenhorst, especially the Secateurs Chenin, which retails at about $20, maybe even less.
Holiday gifts: After I suggested some ideas for the wine lovers on your list, a reader reminded me that local retailers can be our best guides.
"A wine lover can help the person shopping for them by developing a relationship with a local wine store," the reader wrote. "Go there enough, and, I know from experience, they will remember your preferences. When the holidays come around, the shopper needs only say, 'Here's my budget. Pick out one he can enjoy now and one he can put away for later.' The gift that keeps on giving."
This is another reason to strike up a friendship with a local wine merchant. Too many people rely on their phones for advice instead of trusting someone who has probably tasted every wine in the store. A good local retailer can learn your preferences and point you to something new and interesting, or even steer you away from wines you might not like. This is especially true with smaller, independent stores, where you are more likely to get personal attention than at big-box stores. The search, from shopping to drinking, is a lot of fun.