On palates, high alcohol and the critics
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.