Wine Blogging Wednesday 55: North vs South, just across the Loire

The North vs South theme I proposed for Wine Blogging Wednesday provides bloggers with certain guidelines (use the same grapes, so you can compare), but also with a lot of leeway. Thousands of miles of leeway, really.

If you wanted, you could pick similar wines from the other side of the world. The antipodes, really. Spanish vs New Zealand pinot noir. Or Finger Lakes vs Australian riesling. That’s as far apart as it gets.

I wanted to raise the challenge for myself (more…)

Pulling back just a touch – take two

The LA Times story about Adam Tolmach, from Ojai Vineyards, saying that he would reduce the alcohol content in his wines to move away from the world of Parkerized wines, which I had mentioned in my previous post, has been gathering a fair bit of steam. The original story was picked up by many on the blogosphere and in the media, including Decanter and The Telegraph in the United Kingdom, often with a sort of glee from people who obviously think that the higher-alcohol trend is just plain wrong.

Yet the shocker comes from Eric Asimov, of the New York Times, who found the characterization of Ojai vineyards’ wines as “over the top” rather strange, since he (and others, like Allen Meadows of Burghound, who is a harsh critic of high-alcohol wines) tends to find Tolmach’s wines rather balanced and elegant. Asimov called Tolmach, who told him he was misquoted, and that his reference to his own, over the top wines pointed to a particular series of pinots he produced from 1992 to 2001.

Still, even though he disagrees with the particulars of the article (more…)

Pulling back just a touch

Are California wines over the top?. That’s the title of an interesting article published earlier this week in the Los Angeles Times, which I picked up on through the web site of A Donkey and Goat Winery. (Reading it requires a free registration)

The answer to the question? Yes, quite obviously. And it’s not me saying that. In the article, the main character is one Adam Tolmach, of Ojai Vineyard, on the Central Coast:

After 25 years, Santa Barbara’s original cult winemaker has had a crisis of conscience. “We got the scores we wanted, but we went away from what I personally like,” Tolmach says. “We lost our rudder when we went for ever bolder, riper flavors.” Specifically, he says, the alcohol levels of his wines, at 15% and higher, are too high.

(…) As he steps out into the sun, signaling to his crew to follow him up the stone steps to his house, where he’ll make them a lunch of grilled cheese and onion sandwiches, he says, “We have to do the right thing. I’d stopped drinking my own wines.”

That’s exactly the point, isn’t it? Tolmach is aiming to pull back (more…)

How much alc./vol. is too much alc./vol.?

With better viticultural techniques and riper fruit comes, in an almost inescapable logic, wines with higher alcohol content. With big New World syrahs, grenaches and zinfandels reaching towards 16% alcohol by volume, and chardonnays and viogniers going for broke at 15%, a question almost inescapably comes to mind: how much is too much?

My definite, absolute answer on the subject? It depends.

I had an awful time, a few days ago, with a Domaine de la Solitude Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2003. The nose was dominated by alcohol, as well as the mouth feel, and though there was a bit of jammy fruit and a touch of tannin in there, it was quickly rounded off by, well, more alcohol. I remember tasting a fantastic 1995 from that Domaine, several years ago, and it was quite full of character. A 1996 vintage, also quite well-built, even felt a little austere, compared to a Cigare Volant 1996 from Randall Grahm, tasted side-by-side over a lovely leg of lamb.

Of course, 2003 was the year of the mother of all heat waves in France, which threw a lot of winemakers off their game. In this particular case, you get the feeling that the winemaker was caught off guard by grapes that had ripened too quickly, and probably stalled under the August heat. Ripening too quickly raises the sugars but does nothing for tannins and phenolics – in other words for what gives the wine structure, complexity, etc. Clearly, here, a 15% alcohol level was an indication that things went just too quickly and got out of hand.

Yet just around the same time I faced this Solitude disappointment, I also tasted a big syrah from Barrel 27, whose wines  I actually collaborate on importing into Quebec through Insolite Importation. The alcohol level on the beast of a wine called the Head Honcho, their top cuvée, is well over 15%, yet it’s nowhere near disappointing. It’s quite a mouthful, with loads of jammy fruit, generous tannins, lots of substance. Same grape, lots of heat, just like the Domaine de la Solitude, but yet, the alcohol is balanced out by the fleshy, generous fruit of long-ripened grapes. Barrel 27 favors long hang times on the grape, often harvesting very late in the fall, and it does seem to give the grapes time to round themselves out.

Believe it or not, I also had a similar experience with an Oregon pinot noir from La Bête, which was well over 15% alcohol but didn’t feel like that at all. Somehow, there was enough flesh there too, even with the much more delicate pinot noir, to round things out and make the wines very pleasant. La Bête pinot noirs always feel balanced and complex, with very typical aromas of cherries and good acidity. They are sometimes unusual, but they never feel over the top.

Zinfandel is also another example, with vines often reaching over 16% alcohol, yet never feeling thin or being dominated by the alcohol in the wine. There’s just a lot of everything going on.

The one things the high alcohol wines will not provide, however, is freshness. Balance is possible, obviously, but not freshness. High alcohol means very ripe grapes, which can very rarely correspond to good acidity levels. And even if there is a decent level of acidity, it gets covered up by the alcohol. And without acidity, there can be no refreshing feeling to any wine.

Often, I do find the big wines pleasant and fun, even serious and complex in certain cases. But in the end, they’re just not quite as fun to drink as the lighter styles (and I’m not even getting into the problem of brettanomyces that high alcohol favors in wines). A single glass of a big syrah or a big cab will make you feel full rather quickly. As a general rule, comparatively lighter, fresher wines leave you wanting more. And I’d rather finish a bottle feeling thirsty than put the cork back on because I just can’t take any more.