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On palates, high alcohol and the critics

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My buddy Paul Gregutt is The Man when it comes to the wines of the Pacific Northwest. He’s not only Wine Enthusiast’s regional editor up in that beautiful but damp part of the country, he’s the wine columnist for The Seattle Times and author of the best-selling Washington Wines and Wineries.

In The Times he recently had a column that attracted a lot of attention. In it, Paul criticized, once again, high alcohol in wine, something he detests. How high is too high?  “When a wine finishes with a burning sensation — that’s too high,” Paul writes. “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.”

On the matter of alcohol, I have less of a problem with high levels than he does, which may be a function of where we both live. He’s in Seattle, more or less the same latitude as Bordeaux. I’m here in California, where it’s a lot sunnier and warmer (thank goodness) and the grapes get riper. So I guess I have a California palate.

What does a California palate mean? Well, take, for example, the wines of Saxum, a little winery up in the southern Santa Lucia Mountains, at the western edge of Paso Robles. Justin Smith, the owner/winemaker, makes gigantic Rhône-style reds that approach 16 percent of alcohol and occasionally exceed it. (Give Justin credit for at least being honest on the label. Lots of people aren’t.) Yet a wine like his 2005 James Berry Vineyard Bone Rock, a blend of Syrah and Grenache, is a sensation. I believe Saxum’s wines are the most coveted and expensive in Paso Robles.

(Incidentally, I profiled Justin in my book, New Classic Winemakers of California.)

There’s a fine line between having a California (or anything else) palate, and having a “cellar palate.” The latter is considered a bad thing. Jancis Robinson defines it this way:

‘Cellar palate’ is the common phrase for what happens when a wine producer becomes too acclimatised to their [sic] own wines or those of their neighbours.

It’s a negative because it presumes that the producer (or critic) cannot discern what’s good about wines made in different places and styles.

But we all have “palates” that incline this way or that, don’t we? You like your white table wines a little sweet; I don’t. You don’t like noticeable oak; sometimes, I do. I might adore a 30-year old Champagne that you find lifeless and dull.

One thicket Paul waded into was on the question of whether or not “the critics” are to blame for high alcohol wines. Paul says he’s certainly not to blame, since he generally doesn’t give them high scores. For my part, I think there are multiple reasons why alcohol levels the world over have crept upward, and critics are one of them. It doesn’t matter if Parker started it, the fact is that critics (including me) have rewarded wines like Saxum’s with high scores, and that drives the copycat factor. So I’ll take some of the rap.

  1. Steve,

    Skewed and biased palates are hallmarks of approaching wine assessment from an enjoyment-based perspective.

    We have to get past relativist thinking of “quality is subjective” etc. Enjoyment and preference are subjective without question. Alcohol levels, varietal and regional typicity, complexity and longevity are not.

  2. Very commendable of you to acknowledge that critics have some responsibility here. High-alcohol reds have been clearly established in all the wine-ratings magazines as the highest-scoring genre. What I still do not understand is why any publication that reviews wines does not include the alcohol levels. How would that hurt anyone? One common rationale — the alcohol by volume levels are not precise — is poppycock; they are legal designations and they are all we have in terms of a concrete clue. I think it has more to do with magazines not wanting readers to see the correlation between high alcohol and high scores. Personally, I find that Australian wines tend to show their high alcohol more than California wines; yes it’s a generalization and based on my own subjective palate. But the point is, if I am reading reviews of several wines and I can also see the alcohol levels, I can then make a more informed choice based on my own preferences.

  3. Tish, as I’ve written many times before, official alcohol levels are listed in Wine Enthusiast’s database, which is free and accessible to the public.

  4. “In the matter of alcohol, I have less of a problem with high levels than he does, which may be a function of where we both live.” I score you 5 ridiculous points. (You are probably today’s Winner!)

    Location, smocation. It’s that everyone is different. Some have a tolerance for higher alc. wines than others. It has nothing to do with where you live. (And you almost come around to this in your second to last paragraph.)

    I think “Cellar Palate” is a big, understated problem for many wineries of the world. The difference in the US, is you can easily get the whole gamut of the world’s wines here, but in, say, France, you can’t. So, California winemakers get the least slack here.

  5. “Tish, as I’ve written many times before, official alcohol levels are listed in Wine Enthusiast’s database, which is free and accessible to the public.”

    I just looked up several Saxum’s Bone Rock Syrahs in addition to several other wines and alcohol % aren’t listed. Not to be a nit-picker, but this is important info to some of us.

  6. Steve, am I missing it somewhere? I just checked did a search in the WE ratings dbase and saw no reference at all to alcohol levels.

  7. Jon, Tish: I’ll take the rap on this one. Believe it or not I never went into the WE database as a regular member of the public, as opposed to my password-protected editor’s status. I actually never knew (after all these years!) that the database does NOT list alcohol levels. In all honesty, I thought it did. (It does on the password-protected end.) I agree that knowledge of alcohol levels is important for people to know, and I’m going to see if it can be incorporated into the public’s entry. It’s not entirely my decision. Thanks to both of you for letting me know.

  8. I hope that you know that the grapes in Washington grow on the eastern side of the state, which is really hot, dry and the days are much longer (therefore more sun) than CA. We actually can have longer hangtime and more daylight than you down there.

    It’s only rainy and dreary on the western side of the Cascades.

  9. Daniel, thanks for your comment. I do know that. I’ve traveled through the austere, beautiful eastern part of the state. I framed my remarks in the context of the long-running conversation I’ve had with Paul that California wines are too high in alcohol and too ripely sweet. I’ve not done a study of alcohol levels in Washington State. Presumably they tend to be lower than California. I’d appreciate any information you can provide.

  10. I definitely agree with Paul and Steve. Though, having had a 15.5% Pinot gris from a famous producer in OR at the Alsace festival in Anderson Valley, I really question if OR’s real alcohol levels are all that low relative to CA.

    Customers and winemakers are other important reasons for high alcohol wines. Customers love high alcohol wines as long as there’s no burn. They just go “that’s so smooth” on our Syrah, which is higher in alcohol than all of the rest of our wines. Winemakers, at least the ones I know, are striving to make better wines. The higher alcohol style is a result of those efforts.

    Personally, I think the higher alcohol style is just as legitimate as other “new” styles, such as New Zealand Sauvignon blanc. NZ Sb always gets a pass as new and cool while higher alcohol wines are always reviled. It’s silly. That said, hot, sugary, raisiny wines suck.

  11. Sadly, there are many over extracted, high alcohol wines up in the NW, though nothing quite like the excess of some CA zins and Aussie “goo-balls” (as I like to call them). I also am not a fan of NZ Sauv Blancs, as while they have “lots of flavor and extraction” they often don’t reflect any sense of place, and, as with the other high alcohol (hence extraction, texture and mouthfeel) they just don’t go with food. They dominate the palate, overpower your meal. They are like the guy in the car with the tinted windows and the thumping bass. Sure the stereo system is great, but it sure can ruin a meal!
    Alcohol can not only give heat, it gives texture, and sometimes I just want to drink wine, not eat it.
    That, plus they always give me headaches, as I drink the same amount no matter the % (my fault!).

  12. I like what Brad said, that hot sugary raisin wines suck. So right on. The bottom line for me is to make the wines in the vineyard..another words, produce a low yielding crop from balanced vines, and in a normal year (weather wise), we will produce a full flavored, elegant, rich balanced wine that will, in fact, age a long time! Forget the push for the late pick (raisins) just to get the big score from RP or WS. My guess is that RP is not enjoying one of those sweet, high alcohol thunder puppies for dinner tonight because he’d be passed out before he got to the creme’ brule. Too many young winemakers are unduly pressured to produce wine with Big Scores. How about just tasting the wine, talking about how good (or bad) it is, and then recommending it (or not?). Do we need scores? Can scores protect us from stumbling on to raisin wine? Probably not. It’s probably just the opposite. Take back the Cab, baby.

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