But ours goes to eleven- The tenuous role of alcohol in wine
- Mike Willison
LADY BRACKNELL- "The chin a little higher, dear. Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, at present."
So it is that alcohol in wine is the fashionable thing to be wearing either very high, or just somewhat lower than it is currently. Fashionable wine takes a few seasons to come and go and, just like fashion, can benefit a man to stick with what he knows, provided that what he knows is not parachute pants and Thriller zipper coats. Backlash only happens when someone gets wildly successful doing something that everyone else wishes they had thought of first, or people get genuinely sick of one thing or another. In this case, I believe it to be a combination of both.
Some sommeliers and wine merchants believe that high alcohol wines signify the end of an age of thought provoking, terroir driven wines that were profoundly better matches with food, made only by the most eccentric and affable wine mystics, and consumed in secret dining societies where only the very deserving would be allowed to consume even a drop of the goods. Other sommeliers have no problem lugging a $150, 16.6% alcohol Pinot Noir to the table to be served with your cowboy rib-eye charged ignobly to the corporate card.
What I know is this: delicate varieties become cloying and indistinct when produced in a high alcohol style. Pinot Noir is getting its hand slapped by Syrah for being on its side of the back seat of the car and mom is too busy talking on her mobile to notice so they bicker back and forth until they are all tangled up together and Mom is forced to turn down the radio and pull over. Peppery, inky Pinot Noir? Further, the winemaker that vinifies to high alcohols needs to figure out how to balance the resultant wine now that one of the calipers is in the red. Usually, one will look to longer maceration times, deeper extraction, longer and more aggressive new oak aging and, possibly having to acidify, chaptalize and re-acidify to sort out the mess. Imagine Audrey Hepburn in one of Cyndi Lauper's outfits from the 80's. You’d have to dye her hair, pierce her nose and feed her helium balloons for an hour before she could pull the outfit off. Some varieties just cannot handle the fashion.
- Carrie Kalscheuer
Simply because something has always been a certain way doesn't mean that it should be that way. Philosophers call it the "is/ought distinction," and it is one that trips people up regularly. As the success of California Pinot Noir has shown, big, alcoholic, extracted, peppery, inky Pinot Noir is hot. (Please excuse the pun.) So what if Pinot Noir has always been delicate? That’s not necessarily how it always will be – or should be.
Personally, I agree with you about style. I prefer cool climate (and cool vintage) Pinot Noir. I like the tension, the promise. I like to hold on to my Pinot and feel a sense of accomplishment when I open a great, older bottle and am rewarded with a delicate, earthy, balanced wine. Because I want this, I don’t want a high level of alcohol. However, I am not the norm.
95% of all wine is consumed within 4 months of purchase. In this sense, who cares that the alcohol level will be out of balance in 10 years? It’s in balance now and that is what matters to most… now. If right now I’m craving a bone-in rib-eye, a 16.5% abv, peppery, inky Pinot sounds pretty darn good.