The issue is high alcohol levels in California wines, a phenomenon increasingly noticeable over the past decade. Winemakers are certainly allowing more hang-time for grapes so they achieve greater ripeness and higher sugar levels, resulting in more alcohol, perhaps in an effort to produce wines that make an immediately super-ripe and powerful impression on critics and impressionable judges. On the other hand, some producers assert that high alcohol levels in California wines are the result of global-warming, hence, there’s nothing they can do but go with the climate.
Routinely now we see alcohol levels of white wines in California reach 15 percent and higher, while the scale for red wines, even pinot noir, can soar to 16 percent and higher. How do those figures compare to ages past?
I happen to have, sitting on my desk, a notebook from 1983 in which I kept labels from the wines I tasted; I had to give that up soon after, of course, because there were too many wines and the whole effort was too much trouble. Look at the alcohol level on some of these wines: Silverado Sauvignon Blanc 1982: 12.8 percent. Acacia Chardonnay 1982: 13 percent. Simi Cabernet Sauvignon 1979: 13 percent (lord have mercy, what a great wine that was!). Simi Pinot Noir 1974:12.5 percent (still one of the best pinots I have ever tasted!). Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 1980: 13.5 percent. Inglenook Cask Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1980: 12.5 percent. Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 1981, Mendocino: 12.9 percent (and it cost $10!).
Perhaps we should mention, briefly, what alcohol does for wine.
Alcohol gives wine its heady, intoxicating (and potentially dangerous) qualities. Alcohol is the flavorless essence and spirit of wine, “the genie in the bottle” (as Hugh Johnson and James Halliday say in the dedication to The Vintner’s Art), the invisible factor. But a high level takes alcohol (in a table wine) out of invisibility and may turn it into an intrusive element, making the wine taste sweeter than it is, making it “hotter” on the finish and, ultimately, clunky and unbalanced.
Notice that I say “may.” I thoroughly sympathize with the backlash that is mounting against high alcohol levels in California, and I agree with the notion that balance is the most important element in the overall character of a wine, but I think we need to be careful not to issue a blanket condemnation; after all, over-oaking wine is at least as serious a problem in the Golden State.
I would encourage an attitude that accepts what seems natural to California, that is, climate and geography, at least in some of the state’s grape-growing regions, that allow slightly higher alcohol levels to occur naturally, without the manipulation of extended hang-times that strive for cloying super-ripeness. There’s nothing wrong with using Bordeaux as the model for cabernet sauvignon and merlot or Burgundy as the example for chardonnay and pinot noir — in fact I would endorse that proposition to a great extent — but there’s also nothing wrong with letting California be what it is. It’s simply untrue, as I read on a response to a blog post last year, that “any high-alcohol wine is unbalanced.” More factors than alcohol are involved, namely fruit and acid, oak and tannin.
And I deplore the idea that sophisticated wine-drinkers insist that they have a “European palate” or a “California palate” and never the twain shall meet. How parochial and provincial can you get? Surely it’s best to develop a palate that appreciates all legitimate types of wine, from a subtle and nuanced Bordeaux from St. Estephe to a full-throttle Dry Creek Valley zinfandel made from 100-year-old vines. That’s called — how shall I put this? — being a grown-up.
Anyway, here are reports on the five bottles I mentioned briefly in a post last week-end about high-alcohol wines.
*Logan Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay 2005, Monterey County. 14.7 percent alcohol. Well, this was just flat-out lovely. Yes, it’s bold and bright, rich and spicy and lush, but these elements are balanced by a flood of crisp acid and undercurrents of limestone and shale. The only oak it sees is neutral — that is, used barrels — so the influence is quite subtle. The wine is so beautifully balanced that if you didn’t look at the label, you would never think, “Whoa, man, this is 14.7!” Logan is the second label of Talbott Vineyards. The suggested retail price is $18; I have seen prices that go up to $25.
*Tablas Creek Grenache Blanc 2004, Paso Robles. 15.3 percent alcohol. Tablas Creek is a collaboration between the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel, in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and the importer Robert Haas of Vineyard Brands. This opens as a perfect California rendition of a southern Rhone white, all roasted lemon and lemon curd, dried spice and camellia, slightly astringent yet generous, but from mid-palate back it feels a little blocky, and the finish is heavy, a bit awkward. One longs to know what the wine would have been like at 13.5 percent alcohol. 560 cases made. About $22 to $28.
*Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Napa Valley. 14.7 percent alcohol. This level of alcohol is scarcely radical for a red wine from California nowadays, but what actually worries me here is the wine’s excessively earthy nature. I opened this and tasted it at 5:30 this morning and, while writing. kept the glass on my desk, working with it for an hour. It never lost that quality of uncouthness. Frankly, I’m worried about this venerable winery. The white wines are glorious; the Fume Blanc 2004 was one of my “50 Best Wines of 2005,” and the Chardonnay 2004 made the list for 2006. But the red wines I have tasted recently, including the Zinfandel 2004 and the Merlot 2003, showed similar signs of excessive earthiness. I don’t know where the problem lies, but it needs to be fixed. About $58.
*St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley. 15.6 percent alcohol. This huge wine is the most syrah-like cabernet I have ever tasted. (The blend has 15 percent merlot.) Or it’s the most zinfandel-like cabernet I have ever tasted. Whatever the case, the towering alcohol content does this wine no good and actually turns it into a parody. About $55.
*Mazzocco Vineyards Stone Ranch Zinfandel 2004, Alexander Valley. 16.9 percent alcohol. Yep, that’s right, 16.9 percent, meaning that it’s about two degrees shy of a fortified Port. This is made in the classic, old-fashioned, Sonoma County fashion, with its incredibly ripe, spicy black fruit flavors and amazingly voluptuous texture balanced by walloping tannins, ringing acid and a backbone of iron. No, darling, it ain’t elegant, but it somehow manages not to be exaggerated. Pure California. On the other hand, what do you do with it? About $24. Read a full review of this wine and three other zinfandels (and a chardonnay) from Mazzocco at http://www.koeppelonwine.com/A_Case_Of_New_Releases.asp