30 Second Wine Advisor: More alcohol, less pleasure?

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More alcohol, less pleasure?

Do you like heavy metal or acoustic folk? Lush symphonies or austere sonatas? Swashbuckling fiction or poetry? Wall-size battle scenes in oils or delicate watercolors? As it is in the arts, so it may be in wine: Some like it bold and brash; others prefer it subtle and intriguing.

Modern wine trends to some extent sort wine lovers into contending camps: Those who love the powerful, fruit-forward and oaky big guys with stunning alcohol (often categorized as "New World" in style); versus those who prefer the more subtle, complex "Old World" or "European" style with its intriguing blend of fruit, earth, acidity, and moderate alcohol in balance.

As I've observed before, a combination of warm climate trends and pressure from big-name critics seems to have prompted a broad move toward bigger, fatter wines lush with fruit and oak. It's getting harder to find old-style wines of subtlety.

As a result, I find that more and more I look first for the tiny type that displays the alcohol when I'm shopping for wine. Given a choice between a traditionally made 12.5% bottle and a blockbuster that pushes or even passes 15%, I'm increasingly likely to let the lower alcohol tilt the balance.

No, Im not worried about impairment from what is, after all, a minor statistical difference. But I'm learning from experience that the higher-alcohol wines generally don't appeal to me much; not because of the alcohol itself but because high alcohol is usually part of a syndrome that also includes one-dimensional, blowsy fruit, often stewed and pruney; limited in any sense of terroir; with a touch of heat that's not friendly with food, and, curiously, often high ratings from Robert M. Parker Jr.'s Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator.

For me, high alcohol and a 90-plus rating are usually sufficient to turn me away from a wine in question to look for something more balanced.

So it was with today's two featured wines, both on recent display at my local Whole Foods Wine Market.

Both wines were of the same vintage and appellation, 2009 Côtes du Rhône. But Domaine d'Andezon ($14.99) boasted a numbing 14.5% alcohol content (and a purported Parker rating of 92), while Famille Jaume "Vinéa Natura" showed a modest 13% and made no claims of critical hoopla.

The Jaume Rhône, indeed, proved classic in structure and style, an intriguing mix of cherry-berry aromas with freshly ground black pepper, good balance of alcohol and heat and fine at the dinner table.

The Andezon was a good slurp of red wine, but its cooked-fruit flavors and warm alcohol made it something more appropriate as a standalone cocktail than an amiable companion with food. To be quite frank, I don't understand the high Parker rating. But this may help explain why I usually use those ratings in reverse: if it's over 90, chances are I'll choose to steer clear.

You'll find my tasting notes below.

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Today's Tasting Report

Domaine d'Andezon 2009 Côtes du Rhône ($14.99)

Domaine d'Andezon

Dark purple, hazy unfiltered garnet at the edge. Cooked fruit, stewed plums, a touch of prunes and an herbal back note. Full and tart, plums and cranberries, mouth-watering acidity, no obvious tannins, and a soft hit of 14.5% alcoholic warmth. U.S. importer: European Cellars LLC, Charlotte, N.C., An Eric Solomon Selection. (May 27, 2011)

FOOD MATCH: Pepper crusted bone-in rib eye, medium rare from the charcoal grill.

VALUE: Although $15 does not seem out of line for Côtes du Rhône in today's market, Wine-Searcher.com hints that my bottle was overpriced at Louisville's Whole Foods. It should be widely available in the $10 range.

Here's a link to the U.S. importer's Website.

Compare prices and find vendors for Andezon Côtes du Rhône on Wine-Searcher.com

Famille Jaume 2009 "Vinéa Natura" Côtes du Rhône ($11.99)

Vinea Natura

Clear dark reddish-purple with a bright garnet edge. Black cherry-berry aromas and a subtle whiff of black pepper, seems varietally correct for its 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah. Flavors follow the nose, nicely structured black fruit, food-friendly acidity and soft tannins in balance, the kind of amiable table wine that I look for in Côtes du Rhône. U.S. importer: Fruit of the Vines Inc., Long Island City, N.Y.; selected by Terrisson-wines.com. (May 28, 2011)

FOOD MATCH: Good with red meats and spicy fare. It was great with grilled free-range turkey thighs with a chipotle en adobo glaze.

VALUE: Great buy at this price.

Click here for a discussion of Jaume's Vinéa Natura in English on the producer's Website.

Here's a fact sheet on Vinéa Natura on the British distributor's Website.

I bought this wine at a Whole Foods Wine Market, where it was featured because of its sustainable, natural production. Whole Foods may have exclusive distribution in the U.S., as I'm unable to find other vendors. However, you can use this link to find other bottlings by Famille Jaume on Wine-Searcher.com.

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