A friend alerted me to this blog post by the excellent Ray Isle, which contains an open letter by Californian winemaker Sean Thackrey on alcohol levels and wine. Thackrey is an eloquent and thoughtful voice in the wine world and his letter is worth a read.
While you are at it, you should probably also read Isle’s excellent article from last year – wine’s nastiest feud – which is on the same topic.
Thackrey’s point? He thinks the move to picking earlier – thus producing wines with lower alcohol levels – is a fad. He thinks it is all a bit silly: wine is just a branch of the fashion world, and low alcohol happens to be in fashion at the moment. That’s all.
‘In fact, good wine is always made from ripe fruit, which means fruit ripe for the wine-maker’s particular purpose,’ says Thackrey. ‘So what’s the point of dogma in all this? Since no one disputes that excellent wine can be made from grapes comparatively lower in sugar, what is the point of arguing that this is so, when no one argues the contrary?’
He also suggests that those who claim that wine made with higher alcohol levels is undrinkable are merely making a noise for marketing reasons. I am not so sure.
I think Thackrey is railing against a straw man. Those of us who have a problem with overly alcoholic wines aren’t just being dogmatic or reactionary. Most 15.5% alcohol Cabernets taste disgusting, because they are picked too late. There may well be exceptions, but as a general rule of thumb, once you see a red table wine soar past 15% (and remember that label disclosure of alcohol can have quite a legal margin of error) it’s a good indicator – all other things being equal – that this wine won’t be very nice.
The problem isn’t the alcohol. It’s a style choice to pick late, and there are quite a few of us who don’t enjoy wines made from super-ripe fruit. I actually think that super-ripe fruit in red wines is a childish, beginners taste in wine. If you love those super-ripe red wines, that’s fine, but you will probably not like the sort of wines I recommend here. Besides, picking late results in wines that lose any sense of place. They also usually require interventionist winemaking to rescue them: addition of tartaric acid, addition of water, addition of yeast nutrients, and plenty of new oak to provide structure to bolster the soft tannins.
Thackrey may be right that the fashion is changing, moving away from these big, alcoholic wines. [In truth, they still have plenty of fans, although almost all my colleagues and most of the sommeliers and wine merchants I know don’t like them at all.] But he’s wrong to dismiss it as a fad.
Yes, we should avoid dogma, and despite what I have said here, I’m open minded and I hate dogma – and I’m well aware of the blinkering effect of confirmation bias. But I really think this shift to more appropriate ripeness that is taking place across the wine world is a significant and much needed change. And wine is getting better and more interesting because of it.
There’s a place for ripe wines. After all, I love Vintage Port, with 20% alcohol and intense, rich fruit. But what we are seeing now is a shift back to the norm from a temporary collective insanity in the world of wine, and there’s still some more shifting to be done.