On Big and Scary Wines
Or why 14 percent is considered OK, and 14.1 is the end of the world.
People in the wine world spend an awful lot of time wringing their hands over alcohol content, creating what blogger Alder Yarrow calls “the modern hysteria about rising alcohol levels in wine.”
I did it myself just the other night when my father opened a bottle of 2006 Alto Moncayo Veraton ($25), a Garnacha from Campo de Borja. My father always opens good wines, and he’s been on a Spanish kick for some time, after moving away from California wines, which he’s collected for years. My father is of the opinion that 1) most California wines have gotten too expensive and 2) he feels they’re too high in alcohol. “One glass of a big Cab or Zinfandel and that was it. Your mom and I just couldn’t drink a bottle of it with dinner.”
So it surprised me, as I poured the Alto Moncayo, to look on the bottle and see its alcohol content listed as a whopping 15.5 percent. “My god,” I said, “What is this, a port? There are distilled spirits with less alcohol than this!” Right away, my back went up. How was this going to pair with dinner, our steaks on the grill? At this point I remembered Yarrow’s blog post — “Stop Whining About High Alcohol Wines” — and took a sip.
The wine was big and bold, for sure, but it had enough finesse so that it eluded being the thick-headed kind of monster that some jerk with an expense account in a steakhouse might order. Earthy and spicy on the nose, with layers of deep cherry on top of pepper; just enough tannin to make it all work; and a soft, berry-like finish. The alcohol was a non-issue. In fact, the alcohol is likely what brought all the flavors into tune. It was one of the most enjoyable reds I’ve recently had — which, of course, caused me to reconsider my own previous position on high-alcohol wines. I suddenly realized that I too had been gripped by the hysteria.
It’s been three years since wine legend Darrell Corti famously banned wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol from his family’s venerated gourmet shop, Corti Brothers in Sacramento, California. Though a few notable dissenters piped up — including critic Robert Parker, who called it “appallingly stupid, frighteningly arbitrary, and like some part of a police state’s mentality” — Corti’s crusade was met mostly with applause among the cognoscenti. Decrying high-alcohol wines as “unbalanced” or "fruit bombs" or even "dangerous" became one of the biggest issues in wine. Many sommeliers and shops followed Corti’s lead.
Three years on, the high-alcohol haters haven’t let up a little bit. The “Frankenwine” Zinfandel with 15.5 percent alcohol is still the poster bottle for an industry gone crazy. And yet, I don’t know many wine-drinking friends who wouldn’t enjoy the Amador County Zinfandels I’ve been tasting during the past few weeks — such as the 2006 Renwood Fiddletown ($24) or the 2007 Sobon Estate Fiddletown ($22) that clock in at 15 percent and 15.1 percent, respectively.
“Who is going to come out in defense of ‘monstrous fruit bombs’ anyway?” asked Lettie Teague, a few weeks ago, in an excellent article in The Wall Street Journal. Teague noted that the number 14 (as in percent alcohol) has increasingly become “among certain professionals, a rallying cry.” The high-minded argument against high-alcohol wines is that they pair badly with food, don’t age as well, and are too “hot” and unpleasant on the finish. That argument is usually made by sommeliers and wine writers.
For the other 99 percent of the world, let’s be honest about the reasons dissing high-octane wines caught on. First, people have become terrified of consuming too much alcohol (whether for health or DUI reasons). Second, looking at a number above 14 and saying “pish posh” gives wannabe wine snobs an easy shortcut toward connoisseurship. It’s similar to, when chatting among foodies, stating a preference for Savory or Bitter rather than admitting you prefer hopelessly unsophisticated Sweet. This snobbish stance also conveniently runs counter to the types of big, bold, fruity wines that influential critics like Parker have been championing for decades. The anti-Parker argument goes as follows: Parker gives high scores to high-alcohol wines; winemakers crank up the alcohol level in response; the world goes all to hell in a handbasket.
This is not to say anyone argues with the data. Wine alcohol levels have indeed risen, at least a couple percentage points on average over the past 10 years. Higher alcohol begins in the vineyard, as Teague explains: “As grapes ripen, they accumulate sugar, which is converted to alcohol during the fermentation process. The higher the sugar, the higher the potential alcohol of the wine.” Researchers are seeing significantly higher sugar content in wine grapes. Has it been caused by warmer temperatures due to global warming? Or has it happened because Parker-obsessed winemakers are harvesting their grapes later, and riper.
Unsurprisingly, the rise of these high-alcohol monster wines has been blamed, by and large, on California. Which isn’t totally fair. For instance, I’ve recently rekindled my relationship with Amarone, the muscular red from the Veneto made with grapes that have traditionally been semi-dried before fermentation, raisin-like, concentrating flavors and creating a heavyweight wine. I loved the 2005 Cesari Il Bosco — velvety but robust, intense but balanced, with warm fruit and deep chocolate — that I tasted while stuck in the Veneto last month. My problem with Amarone had always been what food to pair it with — a dilemma with many high-alcohol wines. But my friend Jordan Mackay caused me to think differently. In his article for Chow, Mackay was surprised by producer Romano Dal Forno, who told him to not to eat anything with his wine: “No food. My wine is a vino da meditazione.” A wine to meditate upon. Perhaps food pairings aren't everything?
At a wine writers conference in Napa this past February, I witnessed an interesting j’accuse exchange. Author and winemaker Jeff Morgan told the audience of assembled writers that — due to the current ultra-ripeness of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir grapes — 80 percent of winemakers “water back”, or add water, to lower the alcohol content of their wines. “That’s because of wine writers bashing high-alcohol wines,” Morgan said.
“Well, they should be [bashed]!” shouted Bruce Schoenfeld, the wine editor of Travel + Leisure. “If you have to water back, maybe you should grow your grapes somewhere else.”
“Well, in France, they add sugar to get their alcohol content up,” retorted Morgan, reminding us that chaptalization (adding sugar to unfermented grape must) is legal in France but illegal in California. “So maybe they shouldn’t grow grapes in France if they have to add sugar to make 12 to 13 percent wine?”
Such rancor on both sides! Maybe someday we’ll be able to move on from these silly, arbitrary cut-offs of 14 percent, or 14.5 percent, or whatever. When we draw these lines in the sand, we might be wise to remember this: The 1947 Cheval Blanc, considered by many to be the greatest wine in history, had an alcohol content of 14.4 percent. Uh oh…if you drew your line at 14 percent…you’d be out of luck, my friend. • 18 May 2010
Jason Wilson is editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin) and writes the Spirits column for the Washington Post.