Are High-Octane Wines Good or Bad? Vote Here!

Arnie_winesAre you drinking more wines with lower alcohol levels, say 14.5% or less? I’m beginning to wonder if the pendulum is beginning to swing away from high alcohol wines.  Consider these stories from just the last two weeks.

First, there is this week’s news story about a third-generation Sacramento wine retailer refusing to sell wines with alcohol levels above 14.5%.  Corti Brothers are respected experts on the foods and wines of Italy, and it’s curious to see this move from a major local retailer.  I’m interested to see if this becomes a permanent policy.

Labelzin2005cropThen there’s last week’s news that Toucan Wines’ 2005 Zinfandel, one of the most elegant Zins at this year’s ZAP tasting, has taken Gold Medals at three of the industry’s significant events:

  1. The L.A. International Wine Competition,
  2. The Orange County Fair, and
  3. The Dallas Morning News wine Competition.

Toucan’s alcohol level? About 14.5%!  One of the lowest levels in the Zin category. (Buy it here, $34)…

High alcohol wines (over 14.5%) have grown in popularity for 15 years. New genetic break-throughs have resulted in yeasts that can withstand high alcohol levels in order to complete the fermentation of very ripe fruit with high sugar levels. Used to be, un-manipulated yeast strains would die once alcohol exceeded much more than 14%.  And very ripe grapes produce massive wines with gobs of fruit and alcohol that require lots of new oak to balance the fruit flavors.

Such "Schwarzennegger" wines easily elbow their way past more elegant wines if tasted one-after-another without the benefit of food or contemplation!  Detractors will say they taste amazingly similar, whether produced in Chile, Spain, France or California. That is, they lose their sense of place. And that is something a lot of wine drinkers seem to be coming back to.

But fans of the massive wines say this is a new area of winemaking that must be explored.  They point out that wine critics give such wines their highest ratings (see tasting process described above).  And they argue that these muscle-bound wines have a hugely loyal (and largely young) fan base, and are the the wines we’re likely to see on the shelves of the future.

Your Input Needed!
What do you think about this possible trend toward lower alcohol wines with a distinct sense of their place of origin?  Does the thought maky you happy?  Dissapointed? 

Swclogogs3x3 Cheers!
Dave Chambers, Wine Merchant

Today’s Quote:
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye."
  – Miss Piggy


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6 Replies to “Are High-Octane Wines Good or Bad? Vote Here!”

  1. Dave,
    I don’t like the statement “What do you think about this possible trend toward lower alcohol wines with a distinct sense of their place of origin?” It suggests that higher alcohol wines cannot show “a distinct sense of their place of origin”, which I don’t agree with.
    The survey didn’t have an answer I could use. Yes, I watch alcohol levels, but I don’t immediately assume a higher alcohol wine won’t be interesting. Other considerations, such as the varietal, the region, the winemaker, the vintage, and the occasion (with or without food, and what kind) – to mention a few – come into play when I purchase a wine, decide to cellar it or not, when I choose to drink it, and what my expectations are when I drink it.
    Certainly Corti can decide what he wants to carry, but I think he’s being a little arrogant when he decides to sell only what he likes. The open marketplace will effectively determine if a style sustains. I doubt that wine drinkers have been duped by the critics and I think higher alcohol wines have their place among the vast array of interesting and high quality wines produced throughout the world. I salute winemakers who push the envelope, try new things, and create new options for wine lovers to try. Diversity and choice is great!
    Ken Dunkley
    La Jolla, CA

  2. Ken,
    You raise a number of intersting points, which I hope will encourage further comment from others.
    The most intersting to me was the notion that one CAN taste terroir in a wine with high phenolic ripeness (i.e., high alcohol.) This goes against my experience, but I’m open to an experiment.
    I would like to encourage readers to gather some friends and hold a blind tasting of 5+ wines in excess of 15% alcohol. Each wine should be the same varietal but from a different AVA. Ideally, they would have identical oak treatment (same % new, same cooper, same toast level) but I realize that’s unrealistic. However, doing so would prove MOST interesting, and I am doubtful the wines wish such high phenolic ripeness would reflect much of the vineyard nuance. It simply can’t. It CAN reflect winemaker nuance, but then we’re tasting differences implicit in the “chef”, not the “ingredients”.
    Thoughts from others?
    (Oh, and I agree with Ken, my first survey was rather pathetic! Sorry, I was scurrying to get the technology working and shortchanged the process.)
    Dave Chambers, Wine Merchant

  3. Oh man, where to begin…
    First, stated alcohol labels are pretty much meaningless. About all they tell you is what excise tax was paid, and even then it’s not always indicative of that! How do you know the alcohol on the Toucan is really 14.5%? Would certainly be interesting to get a bottle and test. Over 14%, you can deviate as much as 1% on the label as long as you don’t cross under the 14% boundary. So a wine that says 14.5% could really be 15.5%. That’s what makes Darrell Corti’s decision so silly. Is he going to test every wine for true alcohol. No. I admire his intentions but not the way he is going about it. He should state, “I will carry no wine that I deem to be hot and unbalanced.” Bravo! But to pick an arbitrary number when the number is so inaccurate on the label, makes no sense.
    As for “genetic breakthoughs” in yeast, no genetically altered yeast has been on the market until this year. I believe it’s called ML01 or something like that. And it certainly isn’t a alcohol tolerant strain! All other yeast, even those that can ferment to 18% under ideal conditions, have been isolated from the wild, essentially from prior fermentations that showed desireable organoleptic and fermentation qualities. The strain “Williams-Selyem” that ferments to 18% (but certainly not always) was isolated from the Jackass Hill Vineyard. Another powerful strain, Uverferm 43, is an isolate from the Rhone.

  4. Thanks Mike, and let me include a link to your site so people know your cred where (and I take this from the home page) “While we like our wines to be bold, rich, and intensely flavored, each reflecting a sense of place, its origins in the vineyard, we also strive to create wines of balance, complexity, and perhaps most importantly, pleasure.”
    I hope you come back and see my request. Because while you provided some great technical detail, I would also be interested in whether you believe the pendulum IS swinging back towards lower alcohol wines, with less phenolic ripeness.
    Are such wines more drinkable with today’s lighter way of eating? As the wine-drinking portion of the nation moves towards less fatty foods, are tannic fruit bombs becoming Dodo wines?
    Dave Chambers, Wine Merchant

  5. Dave – Thanks for using us as an example, this discussion seems to have landed on the right track. Wine making is all about the mindful balance of fruit, acid, oak and alcohol and as Mike points out – that’s what is important. At Toucan Wines, we try hard to produce the best tasting Zinfandel possible from our tiny vineyard – in some years the alc. is 13.9% and in others 14.7% and more, and in some years I use more new oak than others. I hope Mike finds the opportunity to try and enjoy our wine for what it is – a nice balanced Zin – and if Mike can’t resist the urge to pour it into an ebulliometer he will find our 05’ Zin is 14.7% as labeled. Peace

  6. Winemaking, for me, is an art, and is also intended to be part of meals. Therefore wine must be taken without the worries of being light-headed after consuming a few gulps.

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