at last! the solution to the high alcohol conundrum

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Many in “The Press” (myself included) have lobbied/ ranted/ complained against the relentless rise in alcohol levels of finished wines, notably west coast reds. As long ago as 2005, when I was researching the first edition of my book, I spoke with a number of well-regarded, experienced Washington winemakers, who assured me that they were doing all kinds of experimental work, in both vineyard and winery, to find ways to ripen grapes physiologically at lower sugar (hence alcohol) levels.

As far as my own reviewing practices are concerned, I have made a concerted effort to thwart any (potential) prejudice against high alcohol wines, and I believe that if you look through the scores, you will see that I do not, have not, and will not penalize wines simply for being 15, 16, or 17+ percent finished alcohol (well 17+ is pushing it). What I do downgrade are wines whose high alcohol is palpable. If I can smell it, and feel it (a burning sensation in the throat after the flavors fade); if the alcohol and barrel regimen together obliterate all other flavors and scents; yes, then the score comes down.

But how are we doing with all the experimentation? Well, I’m delighted to report that new releases from 2010 seem to indicate that alcohol levels are coming down! And better yet, flavors and elegance are on the rise. And I’m pretty sure I know why.

Mother Nature cooperated. Not only in 2010, but also in 2011. As Oregon winemaker Ken Wright explained, in a recent e-mail, “The 2010, like 2011, was a late cool year. In both cases we had quite a bit of hang time though, which provided ample aroma and flavor development. You will notice that alcohol levels are modest which for me is refreshing after some of the more heavy handed vintages of the last decade. Those very warm years provide wine that is immediately lush and large framed, but perhaps with less elegance and finesse, particularly over time.”

As Jon Stewart might say... WHAM!!!!

Exactly my point. Exactly why I gave relatively high scores and praise to the much-maligned 2007 vintage pinots from Oregon. Elegance, finesse... these are words that warm my cold, cold heart. But the 2010 vintage easily surpasses 2007, a marginal year for many in Oregon, because, as Wright rightly observes, the hang time was there.

His 2010 pinots sport alcohol levels of 12 to 13 percent – and yet these wines are flavorful, graceful, complex, occasionally profound. I have not gone back and looked, but I believe that when my reviews are published they will be my highest-scoring Ken Wright wines ever.

I cannot publish details but I can offer a heads up, as far as my favorites. Out of the 9 single vineyard bottlings tasted, only one failed to top 90 points. My five favorites, in order, were the 2010 Freedom Hill, Savoya, Abbott Claim, Guadalupe and Canary Hill. Bravo Mr. Wright, and take an extra curtain call Mother Nature.


HDChappy said...

Thanks for the heads up Paul. I love Ken's Pinot and I am now eagerly anticipated his 2010's

Anonymous said...

Aha, I also believe it is possible to make really good wines in the US and keep a lower alc level. It just takes a little work.

from gdfo

Jeff said...

I'm so glad we are finally coming back to lower alcohols. When I first starting getting involved in wine professionally in the early seventies, 12.5% was the norm. 13% seemed excessive, save for a few "late harvest" Zinfandels that might have actually reached 14.5%. IMHO, high alcohol wines may have a lot of extract, but they tend to be much more one dimensional over time, and fail to develop the nuances that only a lower alcohol wine can produce ten years out.

I hope we see winemakers be much more lauded for bringing in lower sugar grapes that can still develop good flavors - and not have to use a spinning cone.

My two cents.

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with a spinning cone?

Art said...

There may also be a winning formula here for restaurants: lower alcohol wines + lower prices for glass-pours and per bottle = more wine sales and higher net profits!

David Larsen said...

The average brix (sugar) of our red grapes in 2010 and 2011 was approx. 24%, about 2% lower than recent years. This will translate into about 1% less alcohol. The grapes were also higher in acid with no reduction in color or flavors. So the wines will be naturally better balanced and more "Old World" in style. We prefer this style and are hoping for continued cooler weather in the vineyards.

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