- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2007

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The hot issue in wine circles these days is just that — heat. Specifically, it’s the heat generated by alcohol.

Over the past two decades or so, alcohol levels in many wines have crept higher. Whereas a solid red table wine, say a Bordeaux or California cabernet, used to come in at 12 percent or 13 percent alcohol, many of today’s renditions routinely top 14 percent, 15 percent, even 16 percent. These wines usually taste richer than their predecessors, but they also can be hotter and harsher.

One influential merchant recently took a public stand against high-alcohol wines. Darrell Corti, co-owner of Corti Brothers in Sacramento, Calif., and one of this country’s most esteemed wine professionals, said in April that his store would no longer carry table wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol.

The turning point for Mr. Corti apparently came when he tasted a set of California zinfandels that suppliers wanted his store to stock. Those wines, many with more than 16 percent alcohol, all seemed hot and unbalanced, he says. “This is stupid,” he remembers thinking.

Only fortified wines such as sherry or port used to have alcohol levels that high. “I would rather drink real port,” he says, adding cryptically, “or real zinfandel.”

Mr. Corti’s decision to no longer sell high-alcohol table wines has unleashed a torrent of sometimes vitriolic rant on various blogs and Web sites during the past couple of months. Much of it is insider opinion, of interest only to obsessive wine geeks. Clearly, though, the issue has touched a common nerve. How much is too much? And why have so many wines become so alcoholic?

The increase in alcohol comes from vintners picking riper grapes. The riper the fruit, the more sugar in the juice, and with more sugar comes more alcohol. The trend has been especially noticeable with California wines, but French, Italian and other European wines are far from immune.

So why are vintners all across the globe picking riper fruit? The answer is in part a function of nature but even more a function of fashion.

As a long-term phenomenon, global warming still may be a matter of some debate, but in the short term, at least for grape growers, the evidence seems clear. Whether in Burgundy or Bordeaux, Sonoma or Stellenbosch, vintners consistently report that their grapes are getting ripe ever earlier in the season. In Proseco in Northern Italy, for example, harvest used to take place in late September or early October. Now it comes in early September or even late August.

The problem with earlier harvests is that sugar represents only one aspect of ripeness, although it surely is the most important. If a grape matures too quickly, it will have plenty of sugar, but the skin will be tough rather than tender, the seeds will be green and hard rather than brown and soft, and the acids will be shrill.

In order to attain full maturity, what some vintners call “physiological ripeness,” those grapes need to be left longer on the vine. The inevitable result is even more sugar and then even more alcohol.

The warmer growing conditions are only part of the story. The rest involves human choice and the current vogue for drinking extremely ripe, rich wines. Put another way, it involves demand more than supply. In this regard, fashion has driven alcohol percentages to today’s high levels.

As with clothing, wine fashion proves notoriously difficult to pinpoint. Everyone knows that hemlines go up and down, but exactly when and why they do so remains something of a mystery. Yes, the designers bear some responsibility, but because fashion runways are littered with thousands of styles that never became popular, designers cannot be said to have ultimate power.

So, too, with wine. Although many people — not only winemakers but also wine critics and restaurant wine buyers — try to influence consumer demand, that demand has a habit of going its own, often unpredictable, way. These days, it heads most often toward wines with whopping alcohol levels.

One factor that has led to the dominance of high-alcohol wines, at least here in America, has been the rise of new wine consumers. More Americans are drinking more wine than ever before, and new enthusiasts tend to embrace the rich, ripe style because it seems easy to enjoy. They often shy away from high acids in whites and astringent tannins in reds and, often having come to wine from spirits, are not all that bothered by alcoholic heat.

Another factor is the increasing popularity of wine, red as well as white, as a cocktail beverage. Traditionally, wine was served with food, while other drinks (often spirit-based) were enjoyed before meals. Today, however, more people drink wine on its own. Just as they have no objection to high-alcohol cocktails, they are happy sipping high-alcohol wines.

Yet another factor is the sensory profile of the style itself. High-alcohol wines invariably seem somewhat sweet. Even if technically dry, their fruit is so ripe that one senses sweetness when drinking them. Not surprisingly, that style has proved especially popular in the country that invented Coca-Cola.

To my personal palate, however, there are two big problems with many (certainly not all) of these wines. The first is that they sacrifice finesse for power. Admittedly tasty on their own as cocktails, they tend not to pair very well with food because, lacking subtlety, they overpower the nuances that make many dishes special and many evenings worth lingering at the table.

This problem seems especially exacerbated with certain grape varieties — pinot noir, for instance. Far too many contemporary pinots taste sugary and jammy. They lack delicacy, something that always has been a hallmark of the finest wines made with this fickle grape. Invariably, too, they have alcohol levels of 14 percent, 15 percent or 16 percent.

The second problem follows from the first. Many of these heady, ultrarich wines taste neither like a particular grape variety nor like any particular terroir. Regardless of where they come from or which grapes were used to make them, they seem what is called “international” in taste, meaning ripe, jammy and alcoholic. Even if you like this style, and I sometimes do, the difficulty comes when too many wines end up tasting too similar.

The great joy of wine comes in its diversity. Put another way, different wines coming from different places and made with different grape varieties should taste — well, different.

A Sonoma pinot noir may have plenty of flavor, but it will lack personality when it tastes like an Australian shiraz, just as a Tuscan chardonnay will lose individuality if it seems indistinguishable from one from Napa. Sadly, more wines today, including many that are very expensive, lack distinction. One tastes just like the next and then the next after that.

Some of the bloggers and writers who have criticized Darrell Corti over the past few months have accused him of being too narrow-minded. (Interestingly, the influential critic Robert Parker, who often rates high-alcohol wines favorably, was one of the most acerbic commentators, calling Mr. Corti’s position “appallingly stupid, frighteningly arbitrary, and like some part of a police state’s mentality.”)

It seems to me that in taking a stand against what has become an oppressively monolithic fashion, Mr. Corti paradoxically was advocating diversity and multiplicity in the world of wine. Three cheers to him for that.

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