This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, Jul. 30, 2007 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20070730.php.
For most of us who prize elegance and balance in our wine, there's no news, and certainly no good news, in the recent trend toward higher and higher levels of alcohol in table wines. Some big reds are getting up over 15 percent alcohol and almost approaching the strength of fortified wine ... or Night Train Express.
I've written about this repeatedly over the past decade, and I know I'm not alone: A large proportion of wine lovers who prefer our wines food-friendly and balanced have been yelling for years about "alcohol creep" and the big-name wine critics who seem to encourage it by awarding high points ratings to monolithic, mouth-searing high-alcohol blockbusters.
There's been no shortage of critical disdain for these wines among European wine enthusiasts and writers and New World wine lovers who don't care for a kerosene character in our wines. But it's been a particular pleasure in recent weeks to see some respected voices in California starting to say "Enough!"
Quickly told, Darrell Corti, a long-time Sacramento wine-shop owner who's never been shy about expressing his opinions, recently declared that he won't even allow table wines over 14.5 percent alcohol by volume on his shelves. Although Corti acknowledged that he might make exceptions, this decision (according to the Sacramento Bee newspaper) drew anguished screams from critic Robert M. Parker Jr. himself, a response that seemingly left Corti unmoved.
Last week, I got an E-mail (as, apparently, did hundreds of other wine writers and wine-industry people) from wine maker Randy Dunn, singing in harmony to Corti's refrain: "It is time for the average wine consumers, as opposed to tasters, to speak up," Dunn wrote. "The current fad of higher and higher alcohol wines should stop."
Dunn, once wine maker at Caymus and now owner of his own Dunn Vineyards, went on: "I don’t believe the average person is so insensitive to flavors and aromas that they must have a 15% Cabernet, Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir to get the aromas and flavors. Influential members of the wine press have led the score-chasing winemakers/owners up the alcohol curve and now I hope that it soon will lead them down."
It should be noted that critical points-chasing alone is not entirely responsible for alcohol creep. A tendency toward warmer temperatures in world wine-growing regions in recent decades has increased ripeness and thus potential alcohol; modern yeast strains also have increased the amount of alcohol that producers can squeeze out of a grape. Indeed, there's a cottage consulting industry using high-tech techniques in the winery to keep wine alcohol from going even higher. But critical acclaim for BIG wines certainly hasn't slowed the trend, and as Dunn points out, it would be a fine thing to see critical voices start to slow it down.
(This week's online poll seeks your opinion about upward alcohol "creep" in wines. Click here for the link.)
While I'm still in rant mode, a word about the Disney studio's recently announced decisions to market - and then not to market - a modest brand of French Chardonnay as a product tie-in with its recently released (and excellent) animated movie, Ratatouille. Disney's quick capitulation to anti-alcohol forces didn't really surprise me, but I'm a more irritated about the California Wine Institute's pathetic eagerness not to offend the "neo-Prohibitionists."
As I wrote in our WineLovers Discussion Group, I'd have a lot more respect for the industry if it would take a tough position and say, "Look, if you want to be a teetotaler, fine, but we will not cooperate in your efforts to impose your Puritanical morality on the rest of us. If you don't want your children drinking alcohol, then make your children your business. Frankly, wine in moderation is beneficial to adults, and it's actually not the end of the world if a youngster takes a taste."
Rant over. For this week's tasting, enjoy with us a delicious Chianti marked at just 12.5% alcohol. As Hamlet said, "'tis enough. 'twill serve." My notes are below.
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Castello di Farnetella 2004 Chianti Colli Senesi ($11.99)
Very dark reddish-purple with ruby glints. Good, benchmark Chianti aromas and flavors: Black cherries are up first on the nose and palate, with an overtone of leather and a back note of subtle spice. Fresh and bright, mouth-watering acidity and soft, barely perceptible tannins. A fine wine, and it doesn't require excessive alcohol to please. Tart black-cherry fruit in a long, appetizing finish. U.S. importer: Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, N.Y. (July 27, 2007)
FOOD MATCH: A natural with pan-seared natural lamb chops; it wasn't bad, either, with the accompanying flavors of fresh heirloom tomatoes and spaghetti with butter and sage.
VALUE: Not only is the 12.5% alcohol moderate, but so is the price: A buy-it-by-the-case choice in the low teens.
WHEN TO DRINK: A couple of years in the cellar won't hurt it, but it's drinking beautifully now and probably won't ever get any better than this.
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