The current outcry against high alcohol wines has, at its center, the notion that these wines are simply not food friendly. Randy Dunn, of Dunn Vineyards, has written “Most wine drinkers do not really appreciate wines that are 15 -16 +% alcohol. They are, in fact, hot and very difficult to enjoy with a meal. About the only dish that seems to put them in their place is a good hot, spicy dish.”
Eric Asimov of The Pour has noted “Many Californians argue that nothing is wrong with high-alcohol wines so long as they are balanced. Nonsense. I like to drink wine with my meal, not sip it, and the more alcohol in the wine, the less I can drink.”.
Dan Berger of Vintage Experiences has penned “Meanwhile, I keep trying the 15% wines and can’t get a single (small) glass down. Too hot. Too heavy. Not a wine to go with food.
And since I consume food with almost all red wines, and have no real desire to make a plate of mature cheeses my main course any time soon, I am left with only one choice: wines with balance.”
Who is responsible for all these food unfriendly, unbalanced monsters? Well according to Randy Dunn (and I’m sure many others) it seems to be critics and reviewers who taste and spit and fail to remember that wine is supposed to accompany food. (Randy Dunn: "Reviewers -please at least include the labeled alcohol percentage in all your reviews, and try to remember that not everyone is spitting.") This criticism is perhaps somewhat unfair given that the most influential wine critics taste thousands of wines each year and organizing appropriate meals to go with the wines would simply be an overwhelming task. Plus food can influence the flavor-profile and taste of wine and let’s face it its hard enough sorting through several wine critics perceptions of a wine without having to figure out how the different meals they paired with the wine influenced their assessment. Plus, when was the last time you visited a cellar door and tasted your way through their range of wines to the accompaniment of separate foods for each wine?
I guess we will all just have to learn to find the food friendly wines ourselves. Either that or bend the knee to the anti-high alcohol hoards and agree that high alcohol wines have to be banned. Not bloody likely! There are always options and alternatives and smart people out there willing to create what must be created. Enter The Sydney International Wine Competition where 2,000 wines are “assessed blind beside appropriate food, by a highly qualified international panel of wine professionals who offer you their personal opinions.”
The SIWC was founded in 1982 , although the archived results for the Top 100 wines only goes back to 1999. Since 2004 the entry numbers for the SIWC has been set at 2,000 wines divided into 13 style categories including lighter, medium or fuller bodied dry white or dry red table, dessert and sparkling wine. The award winning wines have won when tasted with appropriate food in the same style categories.
How do higher alcohol wines fair in this competition? In the 2007 Fuller Bodied Dry Red Wines category the alcohol levels range from 13 to 15%. The winning wine was the 2004 Neagles Rock One Black Dog Reserve Cabernet Shiraz. The Neagles won the trophy for its category plus trophies for “Best Red Table Wine of Competition” and “Best Wine of Competition”.Weighing in at 15% alcohol only one of the six reviewers found the wine “just a little bit hot” Others said “It showed especially well against the beef structurally”, “The palate has nice oak and fruit integration and quite a bit of finesse on the finish. Opening up further with the food.” and “A pleasure to drink. A great match. Well balanced. Delicious flavours. The beef was complemented very nicely with this wine.”
What food was paired with this style category? It was “Marinated “Beef Grand Veneur”, Herbed Crepes, Oyster Mushrooms & Green Peas Puree”, and one of the great attractions of the SIWC is that the recipes for all the meals are available on the site.
A 15.1% wine, the 2003 Bremerton Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, did very well in the Medium Bodied Dry Red Wines category. Two of the seven judges thought it did not pair well with the matched meal of “Lamb & Eggplant Charlottes, Red Wine Reduction Sauce”, with one noting the high alcohol. But the other judges were much more complimentary “With the food, this is an excellent match.”, “A great food wine.”, “It goes very well with the food. It seems to increase its richness and persistence and the flavours go well.”, and “An excellent food match. Did everything you could ask for from a wine. A real work horse of a food wine.”
Now detractors will argue that there are not many wines above 14.5% listed as award winners in 2007, and that this is a competition for Australian wines, so what use is it? But do those concerns carry weight? What is important is that for 26 years there has been a competition that has paired wine with food that is open to all comers. But perhaps the most telling question has to be directed to those who say they have long lamented the rising levels of alcohol in wine and the loss of food friendly wines. To them I say why have you not established a competition like SIWC here in the United States? What holds you back?