30 Second Wine Advisor: 15% alcohol: How much is too much?

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15% alcohol: How much is too much?

Unless we suffer a mighty cold December, scientists says, the year 2010 is on track to tie or break the record as hottest year worldwide since precise records have been kept.

Without trying to set off a debate about global warming (I'd really rather drink wine), this is a fact: The past decade, 2000-2009, was the warmest on record, and the previous record-hot years, 1998 and 2005, both had us simmering within recent memory.

And while we've been simmering, the world's grapevines have been baking. For two or three decades, long, hot summers have fostered ripe, juicy grapes, full of natural sugar that converts into powerful alcohol content when the grapes are fermented into wine.

As I've pointed out repeatedly (here and here and here, for instance), the combination of abnormal heat; applause from wine critics who seem to prefer "blockbuster" wines; and vineyard and winery efforts to make wines that satisfy those power-hungry palates, has bequeathed us a new wave of 14, 15 and even 16-percent alcohol wines.

Wines so strong rarely please my palate, which grew up attuned to balanced, elegant drinks that find their natural place alongside food on the dinner table. "Table" wines with 15 percent alcohol seldom give that kind of pleasure, as the extra octane often communicates itself as a rough, harsh, even hot flavor component that's far from food-friendly.

It has come to the point that - particularly when I'm shopping for wines from California, Australia or even warmer parts of Europe like Spain and the southern reaches of Italy and France - I'll check the tiny print that reveals the alcohol content, and if it's too high to suit me, put it back on the shelf.

It's a workable general policy, but I can't recommend it as a firm, inviolable rule. I've recorded too many impressive exceptions to recommend rejecting a wine on the basis of its alcohol content alone. If I did that, I would have missed the pleasure of a pretty good Spanish red the other night.

Frankly, if I had noticed at the store that Juan Gil 2007 Jumilla claimed 15 percent alcohol, I might have passed. But when lamb shanks were on the table, an earthy, intense Monastrell (Mourvèdre) from Spain's southern Jumilla region looked like just the ticket.

And sure enough, as I acknowledged in a WineLovers Discussion Group conversation, Insane high-alcohol arms race, "It tastes good, though." The wine was strong enough to give me pause, but to my pleased surprise proved to be flavorful, balanced and an excellent match to the robust flavors of locavore lamb. You'll find my tasting notes below.

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Today's Tasting Report

Juan Gil 2007 Jumilla ($16.99)

Juan Gil

Very dark garnet, dark purple at the center. Dark red fruits, cherries and plums, on a backdrop of sweet smoky oak with an earthy back note reminiscent of tree bark. Ripe and fresh plums on the palate, a fruity impression that almost seems sweet at first, shaped by good acidity and soft tannins that finish dry. The stunning 15% alcohol, to its credit, is not obvious in the flavor, but watch that second glass! Made entirely from Monastrell grapes, said to be the Spanish equivalent of Mourvèdre. U.S. importer: Cutting Edge Selections Inc., Mariemont, Ohio; Jorge Ordoñez Selections. (Nov. 19, 2010)

FOOD MATCH: Its full flavor and forward alcohol really wants red meat; even venison should work well. It was fine with lamb shanks braised with fresh herbs and white beans.

VALUE: A fair buy at this mid-teens price, but shopping around may pay dividends, as my local toll is at the high end of the range. The 2008 vintage is already in distribution. It should be similar, and I wouldn't hesitate to pick it up instead.

Jumilla = "Hoo-MEE-yah"

WEB LINK: The Bodegas Hijos de Juan Gil Website is published in Spanish and English. Click here for the English language start page.

You'll find plenty of vendors for this widely distributed wine on Wine-Searcher.com.

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