Alcohol Ascendency

By Dan Berger

During a recent class I teach at a local junior college, I began to talk about the major changes in wine styles in California over the last 25 years.

And the most major change of all, I said — one that has hurt wine consumers more than any other — is the increase in alcohol brought on by wine makers who believe they have to offer consumers more.

     Ironically, what we’re getting is less.

     Indeed, the phrase “more is less” comes to mind here, since giving us more alcohol delivers less wine flavor.

     Proof of this is simple. Take some of the cheapest grain alcohol you can find. Place it in a glass and sniff. The aroma is the smell of alcohol, which covers up other elements that might be there.

Alcohol Ascendency     High alcohol masks flavors in wine. Sensitive tasters know that the delicate aroma of the Chardonnay grape can be blunted by allowing its alcohol to rise to 14.5% or higher.

     These days, wine makers often try to gain flavor by leaving grapes on the vine longer. And it’s true that later picking of any grape will give you “more,” but the sort of “more” you get is usually over-ripeness, with less varietal identity.

     For most wines 12% alcohol is adequate. Great German Rieslings can be as low as 8%, or even lower 7%, and still be perfectly balanced.

     I know that some Zinfandels need about 14% alcohol to deliver the sorts of flavors people like. Yet I’ve had splendid Bordeaux that never topped 12% alcohol and which delivered fine flavor. And yes, I have had some splendid Burgundies that were higher than 14% alcohol, and I did enjoy them in spite of a bit of excessive heat.

But my favorite wines are those that walk the fine line between rich fruit and opulence on one hand and the delicacy and balance of wines made to go with food on the other.

     When heat begins to intrude on the palate and obliterate the lovely delicacy and nuance I seek in a fine wine, it is then that I curse the gods who have allowed this abomination to occur.

But not all wines are like this. A few courageous wine makers pursue a sense of style and harmony rare in California.

     Not long ago, I met with a man who makes great Pinot Noir. For various reasons, I will not identify him, but I can say I like his wine-making style. It is to craft wines with lower alcohols levels than almost anyone else.

     You would think that with all the 95+ scores being given out to wines described as powerful, unctuous, rich, explosive, and opulent that a low-alcohol wine maker would have a hard time in this world that seems to demand bigness.

     Fortunately, a number of us exist who support a more refined style of wine, and who prove it to ourselves regularly  by hauling out mature bottles and seeing why balance is worthy of a trophy, not ridicule.

     Sampling through some of this man’s wines, I mused over why I loved them as much as I do. It was his demands on the growers from whom he buys that the grapes be harvested earlier than almost all of those who also get the “same” grapes.

His alcohols are typically in the 12% to $13% range and only one or two of the wines rose above that.

Moreover, the acid levels carried the wines — if the wines were properly served with food.

“My wines sell better on the East Coast,” he said, “where people seem more geared toward European styles.”

We need more such wine makers, not less.

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