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Originally published Wednesday, October 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Wine Adviser

The new wine buzz: moderate alcohol levels

Many readers have requested that I include a mention of alcohol levels in my wine reviews. As much as space limitations allow, I try to...

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the Week

Ladoucette 2006 Les Deux Tours Sauvignon Blanc; $15

Ladoucette produces a wide-ranging lineup of sauvignon blancs, with their most prestigious — the Baron de L — commanding a hefty $110 a bottle. Les Deux Tours is no "L," but at one-eighth the price it makes a good introduction. The grapes are from Touraine, and the wine is actually produced at the Marc Brédif winery in Vouvray, which is owned by Ladoucette. It's crystalline and bracing, with citrus and grapefruit at its core — the sort of racy, flinty, spicy and lightly grassy sauv blanc that seems impossible to duplicate outside of the Loire valley. (Distributed by Noble)

Many readers have requested that I include a mention of alcohol levels in my wine reviews. As much as space limitations allow, I try to do so.

More and more of you, it seems, are looking for wines that offer complex flavors at moderate alcohol levels. I've lost count of the number of winemakers who tell me that they are doing everything in their power to make wines that walk the thin line between unripe, vegetal flavors and jammy, alcoholic fruit-bombs.

Federal regulations require that alcohol levels be printed on wine labels, and so they are — often in ridiculously small type. Nonetheless, there is a lot of leeway allowed, and the printed numbers may err significantly and still fall within the letter of the law. But fudge factor aside, alcohol levels in varietal wines have been pushed higher and higher for decades, until consumers have finally begun to say, "Enough!"

So, what's too high? And what's wrong with high-alcohol wines anyway?

When a wine finishes with a burning sensation — that's too high. When the alcohol level is such that it must be masked by winemaking tricks such as massive amounts of new oak, or unwanted residual sugar — that's too high. When a wine loses all traces of varietal character or the more subtle elements that contribute to its aroma, complexity, texture and balance — that's too high.

Worst of all, when a wine reaches such ridiculous levels of alcohol that one glass makes you punch drunk — dry zinfandels pinning the meter at over 17 percent — that's waaay too high.

The marketing "spin" on why such wines are really OK usually involves the argument that they may be high in alcohol, but they are still balanced. This I call the bear-riding-a-unicycle-on-a-high-wire argument. Yup, he's up there, and I guess he's balanced ... but for how long?

Another tactic is to blame the critics. Big, jammy, oaky wines get all the high scores and gold medals, the argument goes, so why shouldn't wineries keep making them? Well, this is one critic who, for the past 15 years or more, has consistently rewarded wines for elegance and complexity, not for sugar and alcohol. Will I ever give a big score to a big wine? Sure, sometimes. But in my experience it is just as difficult, if not more so, to make a high-scoring (let's say 92+ point) wine at 15- or 16-percent levels of alcohol, as to do the same while keeping the alcohol below 14 percent.

When unfortified wines climb above 15.5 percent, they almost always lose subtlety and finesse. Nuances are gone, replaced by the dynamic trio of alcohol, fruit jam and lumber. Apart from the bludgeoning such wines give the palate, they are almost impossible to match with food.

You may have heard that, even in Europe, wines have been "Parkerized" (or modernized or internationalized), and winemaking has followed the California/Australia lead into the alcoholic stratosphere. That is simply not true. Some European wines certainly have crossed the line, but many producers still express their regional mix of flavors, including nuances of leaf, stem, herb, earth, mineral and fruit — flavors that make their wines unique.

Usually these wines have firm natural acids, which add nerve and lift, and contribute to ageability. Often, they steer clear of too much, if any, new oak. The trend in Europe, as elsewhere, is away from new oak barrels and back to aging in more neutral containers.

Your favorite wine seller will be able to guide you in the direction of such wines. Here is a selection of excellent French wines from North Berkeley Imports, distributed locally by Grape Expectations, that are all recommended:

Domaine Marc Portaz 2005 'Apremont' Vin de Savoie; $13. Savoie is a mountainous region on the French/Swiss border, best known for its white wines, made from a local grape called jacquère (zhah-care). This luscious example hints at tart peach and mixed citrus, along with plenty of juicy acid and stone. Listed alcohol is 11.5 percent.

Michel Rey 2006 'La Roche' Mâcon-Vergisson; $20. From vineyards close to the much pricier appellation of Pouilly-Fuissé, this fragrant, lightly honeyed chardonnay fleshes out the fruit with spice, mint, green herb and subtle toast. Rey is a micro-producer that makes fewer than 1,000 cases (total) of wine annually. Listed alcohol is 13 percent.

Domaine Arlaud 2006 Bourgogne 'Roncevie'; $24. Roncevie, I am told, means blackberry patch, and this fragrant and silky pinot noir — think of it as a village Gevrey — seamlessly blends wild berry flavors with hints of Asian spice, sassafras and smoke. Listed alcohol is 12.5 percent.

Michel Sarrazin 2006 'Sous La Roche' Givry; $27. This is Givry (not Gevrey), in the value-oriented Côte Chalonnaise region of Burgundy. It's a bit more muscular and assertive than the Arlaud Roncevie, and ramps up the new oak to 25 percent, wrapping the cranberry and blood orange fruit in spice, while retaining plenty of mouth-refreshing acid. Listed alcohol is 13 percent.

Chateau Pontête-Bellegrave 2005 Graves de Vayres; $25. Here is a soft, forward, fruit-driven, modern Bordeaux that retains its sense of Old World elegance. It's got the smoothness and elegance of a well-made St. Emilion and a similar cuvée: mostly merlot, with some cabernet as well. Fragrant notes of tobacco and licorice enter just ahead of appealing plum and light prune fruit flavors. Listed alcohol is 13.5 percent.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines and Wineries The Essential Guide." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Wine Adviser
My column, Wednesdays in Northwest Life, is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices.
wine@seattletimes.com

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