Friday, July 13, 2007

Help, there is alcohol in my wine

The discussion of alcohol levels in wine rages on. It would be nice if there was unimpeachable evidence that high alcohol wines fail to please the drinking public, but I don’t see substantiation of that. If anything the reverse is true. What I do see are individuals trying to impose their personal preference on others. Darrell Corti is a good example with his statement that he will no longer sell wine with more than 14.5% alcohol. But Corti has been inconsistent, and his statement that "I made the rule, I can break it." highlights that inconsistency.

Elin McCoy, the writer of Robert Parker’s biography, has now stepped into the same fold with a piece in Bloomberg. She calls her dumping of a 15% alcohol Merlot down the drain a “personal rebellion against the latest wine-fashion craze”. I’m not sure I’d call increasing alcohol levels in wine the latest wine craze; its probably been going on for at least the last few decades. McCoy quotes the numbers herself, “In the Napa Valley, the average climbed to 14.8 percent in 2001 from 12.5 percent in 1971.” And I’ve noted a similar trend in the flagship Aussie Shiraz Penfold’s Grange over its 50+ year history.

Unlike Corti, McCoy does add to the argument in a constructive way by tasting a 2005 Amador County Syrah that Clark Smith had subjected to reverse osmosis to change the alcohol content. The resulting wines had alcohol levels of 15.4 percent (“seemed hot and super- rich”), 14.2 percent wine (“jammy, with a fresher nose and brighter flavors”), and 13.75 percent (“spicier, with fruit and leather notes, more Rhone in style”). Subjecting these wines to personal sensory evaluation is a worthwhile endeavor, and it’s a pity this was not done with a larger audience in a blinded fashion. The results would have been certain to be interesting.

There are no prizes for guessing that McCoy’s favorite alcohol modified Syrah was the 13.75% wine. But was she looking for the wine that gave her the most pleasure, or one that reminded her of a Rhone? Help me a little here, as an Australian who has lived in California for 20+ years I’m confused. Amador County is in California, right? That is part of the USA, correct? I thought the Rhone Valley was in France? Should Amador County Syrah be Rhonish in style? Amador County is divided into two appellations, Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown. Amador County is Zinfandel territory, but it has been having success with Syrah. Shouldn’t they be allowed to develop their own style of Syrah?

The alcohol argument is unlikely to go away soon. We have all tasted low alcohol wines that have survived decades beautifully. But it’s a little early to be passing judgment on the longevity of high alcohol wines. I’ve got a bunch of Shiraz/Syrah from Australia and California sitting in my cellar waiting patiently for a decade or so to pass before I see if they have fallen to pieces. And therein lies the problem, I have to let them lie there rather then drink them sooner, like tonight! After all as one of the exponents of high alcohol wines Sparky Marquis of MollyDooker (and Shirvington, Parson's Flat, Henry's Drive, Marquis-Philips) says “People are always asking me, When should I drink this wine? How long should I cellar it?" "And you know what I say to them? I'm making another one next year! When should you drink it? How long will it take you to find a corkscrew?!! Or now that we're going screwcaps, How long will it take you to get a glass?!!"


Salil said...

Alcohol levels are a red herring. The issue is balance.
I've tasted some gorgeous Cabs, Shirazes and even one Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris VT with significant alcohol levels (think the Z-H was breaking the 15% mark) - and most of those (particularly the Z-H) had wonderful structure and balance, not to mention ageability (it was 8 years old, and felt like it could go on for another 30 at least).

The feeling of high alcohol in a wine comes when it's out of balance, and IMO that's more to do with the winemaking and approach to (over)ripening than with the quality.

Michael Pollard said...


Agree completely. Balance is key in any wine. I had a Viognier from Lodi last week that was very attractive drinking on a hot afternoon, and it had 15% alcohol. I had to look at the label to learn that, you couldn't tell from the wine.