Pax Vinifera, Part II - The Great Alcohol Debate
It is nearly impossible to work anywhere near wine without being dragged into this particular issue. It never fails. . .it will be a pleasant evening among wine friends, professional and casual alike, until someone throws down the gauntlet with a comment something like this: "all these overripe Napa Cabernets taste the same" or "I am sick of these high alcohol wines, they never pair well with anything". . . and so begins The Great Alcohol Debate.
Lets get a few things out in the open before we proceed any further. Yes, alcohol levels in wine have risen in the last generation or so. This is an undisputed fact. Does this mean that 12.5% abv (alcohol by volume) wines are a thing of the past? No. It does indicate, however, a change in the stylistic landscape of the wine world. Wines have become increasingly ripe and, consequently, more alcoholic (with some vitners pushing the boundaries as far as absolutely possible, as someone will surely always tend to do), displaying dense, powerful styles that have proven extremely popular. As the popularity of these wines has risen, so has the outcry from those opposed to high alcohol content in wine. To put this into perspective, the federal government classifies table wine as having an abv percentage under 14. It is important to note that this percentage was created for tax purposes only and is in no way indicative of the style or flavor of a wine, nor was it intended as such. Any wine with an abv higher than 14% is considered a fortified wine whether or not its alcohol content was reached through natural fermentation or actual fortification. I use this as a cut-off, not because I agree with the federal government (about nearly anything), but because this is about the starting point where most people tend to agree alcohol levels become "too high".
Whenever I hear someone argue that a wine's abv is too high, my immediate reaction is to take issue. Here's why: balance is key. I feel that those who take serious offense to alcohol levels are drastically over-simplifying an extremely complicated equation. The amount of variables in wine production is staggering. There are over 1,200 different compounds in wine. When you take into account that our perceptions are often based upon different combinations of these compounds, that number rises dramatically. Also, we must take into account the counteracting effects certain aspects of wine have with one another. For instance, we know that, given enough acidity, a wine that appears dry may have residual sugar present. Alcohol is similarly experienced differently when combined with new oak versus used, sugar content, acidity and even the temperature of the wine, among many other factors. Why then, is there a Great Alcohol Debate at all? One man's opinion: because alcohol content provides an easy target. In order to sell a wine legally in these United States, the alcohol level must be printed somewhere on the label or the bottle itself. This provides people with an easily recognizable scapegoat. Is the wine "hot" or seemingly too ripe? It must be the alcohol content!! See, its right there on the label! Does it not pair well with dinner? It's that darn abv again!
Now, here's the big problem. Actually, problems, if you are a hair-splitter. Firstly, alcohol isn't usually the culprit, folks. It's the balance, or lack thereof. If a wine is too "hot", dense, ripe or lacks any essence of terroir or significant character, it is not a balanced wine. Conversely, if the wine is too tannic, acidic, herbal, green or diluted, it is also unbalanced. If you care to streamline the argument (with one this convoluted, who wouldn't?): a wine that is too anything is not balanced. Pointing at an alcohol level and saying "that is why I don't like this wine" or, worse "that is what is wrong with the wine industry today" is just plain wrong.
Another phenomenon I have encountered is people shopping according to alcohol level. Wow. That doesn't seem right to me for one simple reason: they haven't tried the wine yet. If you agree with the producer, grape, region and vintage, why would anyone exclude a wine based on alcohol level? That is like shopping for a car, finding the make , model, color and option package you like and then walking away for fear the steering may pull to the left. It just doesn't make any sense.
Now, am I making an absolute statement about alcohol level here? Nope. Of course not. Wines in the 15%+ range aren't meant to be consumed the same way as wines with a 12.5% abv. For one, when alcohol levels rise to such heights, inebriation becomes a concern. Obviously, smaller portions or an earlier cut-off are in order. Pairing these wines, however, is no different. It is no more difficult pairing a nicely balanced 15% bottle than it is to pair a nicely balanced 13% bottle. So long as they are balanced, it becomes a matter of flavor (as it should always be).
Now that we have finished with the academic aspects of this argument, it is time to address the moral. Recent history has proven that big, dense, powerful wines garner much critical acclaim and get the ratings that vitners are after. Is this the reason for the change in vinicultural landscape? To be a bit callous, I am not sure that I care. I want to be perfectly clear about this, I am not typically one to be dispassionate about anything ethical, yet I cannot help but feel indifference towards some of these arguments. Is it the ratings that changed the ripeness of wines? Is it the scores? How about the entirety of the scoring system? Maybe its all Robert Parker's fault. If you spend enough time with wine geeks, all these arguments will seem to have merit. Yet I believe them all to be wrong. If you look at the most revered historical vintages of the last century, they have all been unusually ripe for their time. This indicates that people have always valued ripeness. This fact, when combined with scientific advancement, viticultural knowledge, enological education, current vinicultural practices and general concern with quality, the current state of wine appears somewhat inevitable. Are there irresponsible producers who chase ratings at the price of character and distinction of terroir? You bet. Are there winemakers who are so hungry for fame that they choose to impart a signature style on all the wineries they consult for, regardless of varietal and location? Yep. Am I going to invest my hard earned dollars in these endeavors? Of course not. Because at the end of the day, you and I are the gatekeepers. We decide what remains in the market. And what we want is choice.
A final thought: I was tasting some wines with a good friend yesterday and this very topic came up. We were tasting a nice Burgundy (not perfectly balanced, but a refreshing reminder of how beneficial acid can be) when he said, "What I can't understand, is why can't there be room for all styles?"
I couldn't agree more.