At first, when word started getting around about a year or two ago, it was easy to dismiss: the notion that wines over 14% alcohol, or else picked “overripe,” are somehow inferior, or less “balanced,” than wines closer to 12% or 13% alcohol, leaner in fruitiness and higher in acidity.
Wine, after all, has always been an aesthetic choice, like any other we make in our lives. You might yearn for a man with a body like Arnold and a Denzel face, but no doubt the Laurels and Hardys of the world get a lot of votes, too. So you prefer curling up to The Hunger Games rather than James Joyce’s Ulysses (which most do), or contemplating a pulpy Franzetta rather than Manet or Monet. I suppose the Stones vs. Beatles argument still goes on today, albeit in other manifestations (Bieber vs. Jackson?).
In matters of taste, who really cares?
The whole point of systems like France’s AOC is to recognize diverse winegrowing regions, which is why it is no more valid to say Cornas is superior to Côte-Rôtie than it is to say Côte-Rôtie is better than a Mollydooker South Australia Shiraz, or that a Mollydooker out-dukes a Stolpman Santa Barbara Syrah. It’s a silly argument because these are all red wines with a grape in common but coming from different regions; and different regions produce wines of different terroir related distinctions, often at extraordinary levels of quality that transcend arbitrary conceptions like alcohol, perception of “ripeness,” or even sense of “balance.”
One man’s Bieber wine may be another man’s Jackson, although I would prefer neither (give me Chrissie Hynde instead!).
Yet despite the illogic, the debate persists. Charles Olken, who has been publishing Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine since the days when French judges regularly mistook wines like Chateau Montelena Chardonnay for Montrachet – thus, inadverdently making a case for California style fruitiness (how were the French to know they actually preferred fruitier wine?) – recently put things in perspective by saying: “every new generation of wine commentators suddenly discovers that California wines are a little bit riper than their European counterparts. A few of them genuinely like the pert, tighter, high acids they find in Europe, but others simply adopt Europe as a ‘classic’ and thus dismiss all that is different.”
It’s reached a point, Olken opines, where “if someone points out that balanced wines do, in fact, exist at levels above 14%, that person is branded as a ‘high alcohol apologist’ by people who should know better, and who themselves often recommend wines as high as 15% based upon their own blind tastings.”
Ofttimes, it needn’t be blind. There is one Bay Area sommelier who has been visibly leading the charge for wines of more “balance,” yet I distinctly remember, just a few years back, being served in one of his past restaurants, where he proudly brought me a Priorat to enjoy with my entrée – a stunning wine, even if it did top 15% alcohol.
During a recent sommelier tour of Sonoma Coast in May 2011, our group was treated to a seminar showcasing eight “Cold Climate Syrahs,” and the wines were wonderful. Just about everyone was blown away by the taut balance and expressions of violet, cassis, sandalwoodish spice and wild, meaty/game-like qualities of wines like the ’08 Wind Gap and ’08 Arnot-Roberts, weighing in at 12.1% and 11.8% respectively. Yet, I don’t think there was a sommelier in the room who didn’t find the ’08 Baker Lane, grown in the midst of Sebastopol/Sonoma Coast’s Pinot Noir country, just as focused and finesseful, if not even more complex, flowery, meaty, crisp and savory – even at 14.5%.
But all this is geekspeak, and getting embarrassingly self-indulgent. No wonder so many folks wince at the sight of sommeliers. Especially since where things really matter is on tables, with food. After all, that’s the real job of sommeliers – suggesting and serving wines at tables. There’s nothing like, for instance, classic Hermitage, Cornas or Côte-Rôtie with grilled meats; or, as Richard Olney once famously prescribed, braises of stuffed lamb shoulder.
But take those same grills or braises and finish them with reductions of fruit or in a Port infused demi-glaze, plus beds of onion marmalade or caramelized root vegetables, and I’d wager that a humongous, fatly fruited Mollydooker or Torbreck might actually fare better than earthy wines of France. Incorporate exotic ingredients like star anise, hoisin, black beans or chocolate mole, and lavish, sweet toned, decidedly warmer climate California Syrahs by the likes of Stolpman, Jaffurs or Justin might make even more sense.
If many dishes prefer a fruitier, higher alcohol, lower acid Syrah, we should, too!
There’s too much good winegrowing going on out there to dismiss any because of a little thing like alcohol content or varietal fruit profiling. It’s not even a question of balance, it’s a matter of appreciating the diversity wrought by terroir and enjoying its optimal usage.