I first posted this piece in 2011 and the problem persists.
The vast majority of the wines I taste each year are tasted blind. I only learn the name of the wine after I’ve made my notes. My ratings are based entirely on taste. I don’t discount a wine’s score if I learn after the fact that the wine has high alcohol, but I will warn the consumer in my notes. Winemakers often take offense at my singling out the alcohol level and defend their wines as being “balanced.” I agree that the taste may be balanced, but the effect is not. I want to enjoy a glass while cooking dinner, a glass with my meal, and a glass after. If I drink three glasses of a wine with 14.5% alcohol, I’ll pay for it the next morning.
Keep in mind that the alcohol listed on the label has a fudge factor: If the wine is under 14%, the wine has a 1.5% fudge factor, meaning that a wine listed as 12.4% alcohol may actually be as high as 13.9% or as low as 10.9%. However, a wine over 14% alcohol is allowed to fudge the figure by only 1%, so a wine with 15% on the label, may be as low as 14% or as high as 16%. Understand that since wines over 14% are taxed at a higher rate, you can be assured that any wine with a listed alcohol of 14% is at least 14%, never lower.
Wines below 14% are taxed as Table Wines. Wine over 14% are taxed as Dessert Wines. It’s my contention that those distinctions are relevant to the consumer.
So in an effort to educate, and win adherents to the cause, I offer this post once again, hoping to keep the debate alive until winemakers come to their senses and return to making “Table Wines” under 14%.
Alcohol, Balance and Style, The Problem with Robert Parker:
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s I tasted 40 wines every Wednesday morning with a group of tasters that were first associated with Vintage magazine and then Bon Appetit magazine. Of course I spit the wines, but if you take five or six sips, swish it around in your mouth and spit, you still ingest a bit of alcohol (either inhaled or absorbed). 40 was about my limit; after that my tasting notes were usually worthless. At a wine competition, where I don’t have the burden of describing the wine, I can taste through 125 with no trouble at all – sniff, swish, spit, rank, rinse.
The wines of that era weighed in at around 12.5% to 13% alcohol. Today it’s rare to find a wine under 14.5% alcohol, and many are over 15%. You might not think a wine with 14.8% alcohol would be very different from a wine with 13%, but the effect is exponential. You could share a bottle of 12% alcohol and feel just fine; with 13% you might feel a buzz; with 14% you’ll probably have a slight hangover; with 14.8% you won’t want to go to work the next morning.
Back in 1982 the New World wine regions were still playing second fiddle to the French, and in 1982 Bordeaux had an unusually warm year. The wines were ripe and full and easy to drink when young. I went to Bordeaux in 1983 and tasted them out of the barrel. My report in Vintage magazine caused little stir, nor did the report of my colleague and tasting companion, Anthony Dias Blue, who was writing for Bon Appetit at the time. However, Robert Parker, a writer of an east coast wine letter The Wine Advocate, was profiled in the New York Times, and his pronouncement of the greatness of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage was given tremendous publicity. Since then, Robert Parker’s reputation and clout has grown to enormous proportions.
Wine critics, like restaurant critics or movie critics, base their ratings on their own informed opinions (I know, I am one myself). Their opinions are as valid as the next person’s. In the case of wine critics, the fact that we’ve critically judged thousands of Chardonnays, for example, means that we should have a better idea of how a particular Chardonnay stacks up against the rest. That does not, however, mean that your taste will necessarily coincide with a particular critic.
I don’t begrudge Parker his success, but I have a huge problem with winemakers trying to make wines to please his palate. Parker likes wines that many of us view as overly ripe and overly oaked. When grapes are picked very ripe (i.e. with high sugar levels) the resulting wines are either higher in alcohol (if fermented to dryness), or left with a degree of residual sugar. There are several advantages to very ripe wines: they are more aromatic, so the first impression is almost always favorable; they give an attractive, if simple, sweet fruit impression; and the tannins are softer, so the young wines are accessible as soon as they’re released. There are also disadvantages: they are heavy, simple, alcoholic and generic.
This trend toward overly ripe grapes also plays into the whole question of terroir, a French term that literally means earth and figuratively means all of the factors that make one vineyard site different from another: soil, microclimate (exposure to the sun, heat range, altitude, proximity to water etc.), rootstock, and tradition as it affects vineyard practices (pruning, irrigation etc.), as well as winemaking style (vinification and ageing methods). When wines are properly balanced they bring out the nuances of a particular terroir, i.e., they reflect a sense of place, which is what makes wine more interesting than beer or Coca-Cola.
Overly ripe wines begin to lose their sense of both place and varietal definition. The best example of this phenomenon is Pinot Noir. Last year I had the occasion to taste through several hundred Pinot Noirs from California and Oregon. The vast majority were over 14% and several were over 15%. When properly balanced with an alcohol of less than 14%, Pinot Noir tends to be a delicate wine with floral and sometimes dead leaf-earthy nuances. I’ve never experienced a Pinot with an alcohol of 14.5% that exhibited these characteristics; in fact the wines become heavy and uniform (blocky rather than nuanced). Pinot Noir is one of the easiest wines to distinguish in a double blind tasting (a tasting where you know neither the producer nor the variety). However, when Pinot Noir becomes overly ripe the resulting wine could just as well be an Australian Shiraz. It will be full of fruit and easy to drink, but it will have become generic, a big red wine with little character (a wine that is sometimes disparagingly referred to as a “fruit bomb”). If you are looking for such a quaff, you’d be better off buying a bottle of inexpensive but serviceable Gallo Hearty Burgundy, the grandfather of all fruit bombs.
Now (referring back to the first paragraph) I find it impossible to comfortably taste 40 wines of 14.5% to 15% alcohol, even when spitting. A recent Zinfandel tasting left me with a splitting headache. I now find myself approaching these so-called table wines as though they were ports — after dinner drinks to be sipped with extreme moderation.
For the consumer it’s a bigger problem. When you order a port at a restaurant, you know what you’re getting; when you order a table wine, you don’t. Worse, the alcohol content is printed in such a tiny font that you may have trouble finding it. Unfortunately, these wines often taste balanced; the body and acidity may be correct, lulling you into a sense that the alcohol will be proportionate.
My colleagues, wine writers and wine buyers, have been complaining for years. Now, finally, the public seems to be getting fed up as well. In a conversation I had recently, our local wine shop owner said that five years ago her customers were looking for wines with higher alcohol. Now the tide has turned. She finds the higher alcohol wines are sitting on the shelf, and customers are looking carefully for the alcohol content to find lighter, more balanced styles of wines. This has brought many of them back to the old world, back to the Loire, Alsace, and Germany.
Which brings me back to the problem of winemakers trying to please Mr. Parker’s palate. I have repeatedly asked winemakers, whose wines I have previously enjoyed, why their latest offerings are so much higher in alcohol. This usually sparks a conversation that can be boiled down to this: “I know it’s a little out of balance, but that’s what the public wants now. These wines get better reviews.” One is tempted to ask, “Better reviews from whom?” The answer is unequivocally Parker. I’ve heard winemakers baldly admit it. Winemakers who in one breath decry the trend toward overly ripe, generic, “International Style” wines, in the next are pleased as Punch to receive a 90 rating from Parker. Afterall, they reason, a high rating from Parker means the wines will sell well. If they sell out a month earlier than usual, they can raise the price next year. Never mind that those wines will lose their identity, nor that they will eventually fall out of favor as the next fad rolls into town. In the end, winemakers who chase the market will be left wondering which way to turn. They will have lost their reputation for creating consistent, well-balanced wines. They will find they’ve lost everything that made their products distinctive, individual and worthy.