This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, Dec. 24, 2007 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20071224.php.
The 15 percent solution
Looking back over the past 12 months as the year 2007 nears its end, it seems that one of the most visible issues in the world of wine this year has been a rising mutter of wine-geek crankiness over increasing levels of alcohol in wine.
I touched on this most recently in an August article, Recent Rants, inspired by a California wine merchant's decision to remove from his shelves any table wines claiming 14.5% alcohol or more.
For any wine enthusiast who remembers the days when most table wines hovered around 11 to 12.5 percent alcohol - and it hasn't been all that long since more powerful wines started to dominate the market - it's easy to sign on to a crusade against over-ripe grapes and the potent wines they make.
Quite a few of the more powerful modern wines seem to be made with an eye to pleasing the big-name critics with blockbuster "fruit bombs" that seem to have lost any connection with subtlety, elegance or the soil from which they grew, making these new wines veritable icons for a wine trend that more than a few of us decry. Many observers also see a link between increasing alcohol and global climate change, another issue that adds a distinct political note to the discussion.
But the problem here is that, as with all generalizations, one size doesn't fit all. Grape growing and wine making are complex pursuits, subject to many variables that range from the soil to the weather to the wine-maker's hand.
As the British wine writer Jamie Goode recently pointed out with his usual scientific rigor on his Wine Anorak Website ("Rising alcohol levels in wine: Are they a problem, and what can be done about them?"), over-ripeness is a more complicated matter than it seems. Simply declaring that grapes should be picked earlier as the climate grows hotter overlooks the reality that there is more than one kind of ripeness in wine grapes.
"Sugar ripeness," the traditional measure, is simply concerned with fruit reaching a level of sweetness that will produce the desired level of alcohol. But "physiological ripeness" or "flavor ripeness" is a more complicated process that may not occur at the same rate as sugar ripeness. If searing heat raises sugar levels beyond normal before physiological ripeness is achieved, the wine maker faces a dilemma: Pick early to hold alcohol in line, or delay picking to achieve better flavor at the risk of blockbuster-level alcohol? Neither option, frankly, is ideal.
Adding to the confusion is an emerging reality: As more wine makers learn to deal with high sugar levels and ripeness in the vineyard, we're starting to see some wines that carry their high alcohol with style and grace. When alcohol levels don't dominate the wine with a hot flavor or harsh "afterburn," and the overall flavor profile of the wine appeals, I'm more likely to overlook the frightening numbers on the label ... but it's still sensible to be aware of what you're drinking when you make that decision whether to have a second glass.
Today's featured wines - one from the Old World, one from the New - both come in at alcohol levels that would bar them from Mr. Corti's store. Nevertheless, both show excellent balance and complexity, and the alcohol doesn't make itself obnoxious. Demonstrating that blockbuster alcohol doesn't necessarily render a wine impossible to match with food, either would make a splendid match with a Christmas rib roast.
Perrin & Fils 2005 Vacqueyras "Les Christins" ($20.99)
Inky dark garnet, almost black. Still youthful, a bit tight and closed at first; benefits from swirling and time in the glass; if you're considering serving it with beef for Christmas dinner, I suggest using a decanter and pouring it, with aeration, three or four hours in advance. A blend of 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah, it offers good if rather restrained Rhone aromas, blackberry corial and a touch of anise; fragrant black pepper is much more evident in the mouth than on the nose. Good body and structure, mouth-watering acidity shapes the wine, with rather mellow tannins becoming more evident in a long finish. Body and structure render a startling 14.5% alcohol entirely acceptable; it doesn't come across as alcoholically hot or harsh at all. U.S. importer: Vineyard Brands Inc., Birmingham, Ala. (Dec. 23, 2007)
FOOD MATCH: While it would be an outstanding choice with prime rib or rare steaks, it went well, too, with natural, locally raised pork chops sauteed with garlic and a rich cream sauce to bring them up to meet this hearty red.
Unfortunately, it's only in French, but even if your command of the language is limited to a few wine words, it's worth a peek at the winery's blog-style page about its Vacqueyras "Les Christins":
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Rocca Family Vineyards 2003 Yountville Napa Valley Syrah ($42)
Clear but very dark garnet. Attractive and complex dark fruit aromas, cherries and berries, subtle smoke and "meat," a definite touch of the Northern Rhone. Flavors consistent, ripe Syrah fruit and firm acidity in balance. Again, 14.8% alcohol fits in and does not intrude.
FOOD MATCH: Beef is its natural partner; it blossomed even in a rather offbeat pairing with Italian-style meatballs in "gravy."
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Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
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