This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, Aug. 6, 2007 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20070806.php.
It's about balance
Without rendering an absolute judgment over whether this is the result of advancing yeast technology, changing climate or pressure to win ratings points from critics who like blockbuster wines (actually, I think it's a combination), I took a fairly strong stand against it.
Today, writing from the Orlando airport as we return home from a short visit with family, let's revisit the topic briefly for a quick look at a couple of exceptions to the general rule.
First, a point that I could have made more clearly last week: I find the overall trend toward higher alcohol levels objectionable when the octane boost changes the character of traditional wine styles that I love. No 15 percent Pinot Noir or 16.5 percent Chianti, please!
But this should not be interpreted as saying that I don't enjoy high-alcohol wines when it's appropriate. Port is splendid at 20 percent. Sherry and Madeira and other fortified dessert wines can be excellent in the 18 to 20 percent range. And I wouldn't even turn down a well-made 15 percent Turley Zinfandel. Indeed, I've frequently praised many of California's top-tier wines even with alcohol at levels that once seemed stunning.
But there are two keys to success in this risky realm: First, these potent potations aren't trying to represent traditional styles; they're new-wave wines that set their own paradigms rather than brusquely shifting old ones. More important still, they are well-made, balanced wines that play their alcohol (and, often, their oak) as part of a harmonious chorus, not merely loud voices trying to out-shout the rest.
That's key No. 1. Here's No. 2: Rational alcohol levels aren't sufficient in and of themselves to yield a wine of excellence. I submit today's tasting (notes below) in evidence of this hypothesis.
An Oregon Pinot Noir with an unfamiliar label (it's a "negociant-style" wine made of purchased grapes or wine by a distributor), it caught my attention on the retail shelf because its alcohol content appeared rational at 13.5 percent, so it seemed worth a try.
Indeed, it's not a bad wine. But it's not particularly long on varietal character and doesn't ring my chimes in any compelling way in spite of its admirably appropriate alcohol. Considering its price in the low teens, I don't feel ripped off in any way. But I'd be more forgiving of its generic style and rustic edges if I'd paid well under $10 for it.
Moral of today's story: Reasonable alcohol is usually a good thing. But it's not the only thing.
Soirée "Vintage Duet" Oregon Pinot Noir ($13.99)
Clear dark ruby. Spicy red fruit, a whiff of "tomato skin" and perhaps just a subliminal touch of volatile acidity. Fresh and crisp, juicy red fruit and tart acidity, decent food wine if a bit on the rustic side for Pinot Noir, nicely balanced at 13.5% alcohol. (Aug. 2, 2007)
FOOD MATCH: Even a low-end Pinot Noir is a versatile and food-friendly wine capable of matching with a broad range of fare from red meat to cheese to poultry, pork or fatty fish ... particularly salmon. We went the classic route with fresh local beef (grass-fed rib eyes from Fiedler Farm in Indiana), pepper-crusted and pan-seared medium-rare.
VALUE: I'd call it a fine bargain as an under-$10 dinner wine, and realistically it's not out of line with the competition for New World Pinot at this price point, where, sadly, you can expect something more suited for burgers than steak. That's not a criticism of this wine, just a statement of modern economic reality.
WHEN TO DRINK: Even modest Pinot can generally support a little age, but this one's really intended to enjoy in the short term.
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