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High alcohol in Pinot Noir? Maybe not so bad!

22 comments

As I continue to read and enjoy Benjamin Lewin’s In Search of Pinot Noir, I remembered the fuss last March at the World of Pinot Noir when Adam Lee slipped Raj Parr a 15% Siduri Pinot Noir in a doctored bottle and Raj liked it, even though he [Raj] had earlier declared he would never buy a Pinot above 14% for RN74.

That memory was triggered by this passage, on page 371 (of 424 pages. I hate coming to the end of a good book!):

I do not believe that Pinot Noir is a variety that tolerates too much extraction, and especially too much alcohol. I become concerned about preservation of varietal typicity once alcohol goes into the high thirteen percents, and I’m reluctant to give much leeway to wines over 14% (admittedly with some notable exceptions, and it’s true I’ve been forced to move my limit up).

Interesting remarks, no? Benjamin’s rigid rule about Pinot Noir above 14% has some notable exceptions. Might that Siduri wine, at 15%, be one of them? We can’t know, of course, but for such a bright man as Benjamin, who is a Master of Wine, to admit that there are notable exceptions to his views on alcohol is really–when you think about it–to throw the whole notion of objectionable alcohol levels out the window.

I mean, a rule is a rule only if there are no exceptions. Two plus two equals four does not allow for the existence of two plus two equals five. Therefore, any critique of high alcohol in Pinot Noir must be seen for what it really is: not a criticism of alcohol levels per se, but a criticism of imbalance. And cannot any wine be unbalanced, at any alcohol level? Obviously the answer is yes. So we have to dispose of the notion that a high alcohol Pinot Noir cannot dazzle even such sophisticated palates as Raj Parr’s and Benjamin Lewin’s.

Let’s consider varietal typicity. This is a fairy dust concept that’s always lurking in the background of any high level discussion of wine. Its thrust is that every great wine (we’re not talking about bag-in-a-box stuff) is a truthful expression of its varietal type (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel), as filtered through the lens of terroir (however you define it). However, you are not likely to hear the phrase “varietal typicity” from anyone under the age of 45. This is because it’s really an antiquated concept, left over from the days of English dons who knew Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne and perhaps a little Sherry, Madeira and Port, but little else. After all, what else was there for them to know? Those wines defined the landscape.

We are no longer in the eighteenth or even the nineteenth centuries, of course (good lord, it just occurred to me that we’re not even in the twentieth century anymore, which is where I spent the greater part of my existence). The concept of “varietal typicity” has much less meaning than it used to. Maybe it has none. Have you ever heard a young blogger use the term? When you taste a lot of wines from all over the place, you soon realize that “varietal typicity” in, say, Pinot Noir is as elusive as human typicity in the population of Oakland, which is one of the most ethnically diverse cities on Earth. It would be as improper to claim that Burgundy represents “varietal typicity” in Pinot Noir as to claim that true “human typicity” is found only in the white population of Oakland!

I don’t suppose anyone would mistake a Williams Selyem Russian River Valley Pinot Noir for Burgundy (all the newly released 2009s are officially around 14%, although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn the alcohol had been lowered by Bob Cabral). Such is their “extraction” (to use Benjamin Lewin’s word) that Burgundy would need a year like 2003 to approach those fruit levels (Jancis Robinson called it “a rum vintage”). Therefore, from a classical point of view, Williams Selyem’s Pinot Noirs lack varietal typicity. Yet they are indisputably very great wines. There are, of course, California Pinot Noirs that are too extracted and hot–Benziger’s 2008 San Remo Vineyard is one such, and if I had unlimited time I would go through my database and undoubtedly find many others. These wines are the poster children for Benjamin’s criticism.

But surely it is wrong to tar an entire region on the basis of irregular wines. If that were a valid criterion, we would write off Burgundy and Bordeaux in a single stroke, since there are unbalanced wines flowing from both. I therefore return to Benjamin’s spectacular dual confession: (…some notable exceptions, and it’s true I’ve been forced to move my limit up) to point out that rigid expressions of alcohol level in wine are more akin to ideology than to objectively experiencing reality and judging it fairly. And I thank Benjamin for being so candid about his evolving views.

  1. Always a concerning and interesting topic, especially amongst the recent drama and excitement that has been created among wine fans.(ie. Adam Lee switch-a-roo). To rephrase Lewin, the “..preservation of varietal typicity” is of great concern and shouldnt be overlooked. Pinot Noir, and all wine for that matter, has a framework that has been tried and tested over the past centuries’`and winemakers have found what works for each. Pinot loses its varietal expression, ie subtlety, elegance, finesse, once it reaches a certain octane level. Is there such a definitve alcohol level, No!, but we all have tasted overt and unstructured Pinot that was well over 14. But the problem is not just in the alcohol but in the overripeness of the skins and color and muted nose and so on and so forth. So although abv% is just a number it is a good tool to be able to associate styles of pinot and relate them to other “types” that are being made.
    Oh, typicity, what a great word, is something that should not be forgotten, and is a term that extends into the realm of location and terroir. The William Seylems shows the ‘typicity’ of RRV Pinots, not Burgundy.

  2. Steve, one of my favorite posts in a while and a very balanced (pun intended) point of view.

    Varietal typicity: True, I don’t use the word, but I do from time to time think of wine that way (does this wine fall in a range that I expect for the varietal?). It is used in misleading ways I think, as in, a Syrah is only a Syrah if it has a ___ character. The only true Varietal typicity would have to encompasses all the possibilities for that varietal (location, age of vines, soils, weather, viticulture, winemaking). They all have an effect on the wine and if one set of circumstances causes a wine to have white pepper and another set does not, it doesn’t make one more accurate than other. Your analogy to Humans is spot on for this reason. A quest for Human typicity has led to some terrible things. Embrace diversity!

    On alcohols, it is a bore when people dewll on it, such as the examples you point out. Any winemaker, critic, or blogger, who dismisses any wine above or below some arbitrary level, is not to be trusted too far. While I seem to like a range of 12′s to low 14′s on whites and high 13′s to mid 15′s on reds, I know that doesn’t mean much. I have had great wines above and below those marks. Besides, who is to say my 14.2 is not 15.2?

    I appreciate your even approach to this topic that gets way over blown by certain voices. It remains about balance as most things in life do.

    P.S. I had Raj’s new Chablis style Chardonnay from the SRH under his new Sandhi label and while it was a very sound wine and paired great with some spicy food, if you took it on its own, it was missing a balance of fruit.

  3. A trademark of Burgundy and New World Pinot Noir has always been its alcohol level. It’s the combo of low tannin and generous alcohol that creates that silky taste sensation. In Burgundy chaptalization has always been a tool, usually a necessity. The nice thing about adding sugar is that you can pick the grape when it has bright color, lively acidity, and distinct varietal character, instead of waiting for sugar and getting color and aroma more akin to prune. You can pick the grapes at 22 or 23, boost them with a sack or two of sugar and get the best of both worlds.

    Time we gave this tool to California winemakers. We might see winemaking expand into new areas now considered marginal due to climate. And we might see more balance and the return of typicity in established regions where overripeness and clumsiness have become more prevalent.

  4. Discussions of the importance of varietal typicity always make me wonder if it requires some kind of cognitive dissonance to evaluate Bordeaux.

  5. From time to time I have downgraded wines for lacking “typicity”, meaning that I can’t tell exactly what I am drinking. And I think that’s a legitimate thing to do if the winemaker is striving to achieve typicity. I see it like genres in painting: you don’t expect a still life to take up the same issues as a history or a landscape painting, because working in a genre channels the artist’s vision. A grape variety can likewise channel a winemaker’s vision. And then, of course, there are wines (and works of art) that challenge the boundaries; this is when both become quite interesting.

  6. IMO, typicity is worth its own post. Typicity is fascinating! Is typicity in Burgundy wines that were yields 1/2 of what todays yields were, pre-phyloxera and sugars (and potential alcohols) were higher? Or is it post-phyloxera, where, according to Harry Karris, more than 1/2 of the Grenache in Chateauneuf was sold to Burgundian producers. Or is it the 1970s where Burgundy wasn’t in a qualitative quagmire? Or current days, where the quality of wines from Burgundy has never been higher (with the notable exception of White Burgundy where pre-mox is a major problem)?

    And lest someone think I am picking on France, the same type of criteria apply to CA, where wine styles have changed over an even more limited period of time.

    Even worse, typicity has been used to de-certify certain wines over the generations….Thevenet in Macon being a prime example. The wines were (are) extraordinary but not viewed as typical largely because they don’t fit the typical model of mediocrity.

    This doesn’t tie into alcohol (thankfully) but is worth pursuing as its own topic for it effects us all.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  7. The problem with typicity as Lewin uses the term is his basis for judgment. If one defines typicity as what one gets in Burgundy, and I don’t care which era one chooses, then there is no typicity anywhere else in the world.

    I note, Steve, that you have used the word “classical” in describing what Lewin and others choose as their models of typicity. I don’t mind that model if one defines it for what it is.

    Limited, old-fashioned, biased, backward looking, narrow, snobbish, arrogant.

    Other than that, using France as the only acceptable model is just fine.

  8. Matt Mauldin says:

    Enjoyable post Steve… however I don’t think you’re giving enough thought to younger demographics and their thoughts on varietal typicity. I sell wine to restaurant buyers, most of them are under 40, and almost all of them place a very high emphasis on varietal typicity and terroir. Maybe it’s just my narrow view of the wine world and those around it, but I find the younger set to be very traditional in this way.

  9. Steve, another well written essay demanding a “thinking cap”.
    I have to agree with Matt Mauldin’s varietal typicity and the under 45 comment; in July I was listening to this under 45 sommelier on a most popular video-blog fuming over a Fume Blanc with a bit of oak being out of varietal character, and I was thinking he was just trying to make a “varietal typicity” point, because I liked the wine and in no way thought it as disgusting as he implied.
    Also, my guess is that there are some wines that amp the alcohol levels as a marketing ploy.
    Not an intended pun I take it: “wrong to tar”?

  10. raley roger says:

    Totally agree with Matt.

  11. I dunno, I’ve got a 17% Sonoma Mtn Pinot sitting in barrel right now that tastes amazing and perfect just the way it is, and I’m trying to get up the nerve to leave it alone and release it as it is.

  12. “Time we gave this tool to California winemakers. We might see winemaking expand into new areas now considered marginal due to climate. And we might see more balance and the return of typicity in established regions where overripeness and clumsiness have become more prevalent”.
    This is perhaps the best assessment on California Pinot Noir I’ve ever read on this blog. Kudos to you, Morton!
    Steve wrote:
    “[A] rule is a rule only if there are no exceptions”
    A “rule” is not a “law of physics”. It should be viewed merely as: “a basic generalization that is accepted as true and that can be used as a basis for reasoning or conduct”; “something regarded as a normative example”; or “a principle or condition that customarily governs behavior”. And yes, there can be exceptions to the rule.
    PS: If “typicity” is a defunct, meaningless, term, why should (CA) growers/producers even bother to buy Burgundian clones, or to stamp “Pinot Noir” on their labels?

  13. Peter: “why should (CA) growers/producers even bother to buy Burgundian clones, or to stamp ‘Pinot Noir’ on their labels?” Because (a) they have to get rootstock from someplace, so why not clones? Besides, I hear that some of the older California selections are increasingly popular over the clones. And (b) they call it “Pinot Noir” because the market likes varietal names, and the U.S. government encourages varietal labeling through its regulations enforced by TTB.

  14. Steve, I just tasted a Pinot last night with an alcohol level of 14.3, which we all know can have a margin, and this one was well over 14.3.

    I’m tasting Pinots for holidays birds… With this high of an alcohol, the birds have better not be overcooked and the dark meat had better be pretty juicy; otherwise,what a disaster it would be.

    I also suppose it could do well with cheeses before the meal. Honestly, most wine is consumed to go with food, and high alcohol is so limiting, at least in my kitchen. I won’t sit around in the late afternoon enjoying a high alcohol wine (regardless of the variety), but I will enjoy ones that are low alcohol without food. (I one who loves lower alcohol wines, because they seem so much more versatile. I’ve also got one of those super palates with a billion taste buds… That, too, may play into it.)

    Thought I’d throw in a female palate and perspective…

  15. Jo,

    Interesting comments. Do you consume Pets on their own? Or with food? CA made Pets are usually way higher in alc than Pinots are, but you seem to be picking on Pinots and say nothing about Pets. Had you been hired to promote Pinot, as opposed to Pets, would your comments be different? I love and make both varietals and find that it is way easier to pair Pinot with food than it is with Pets, seems our experiences with both are very different.
    .
    .
    .
    .
    I find it strange that some comments directly contradict the premise they are trying to prove. As for that arbitrary “40 year” limit, or is it “45″, I’d like to ask same question I have been asking for some time now: How is it that most ITB wine buyers, and bloggers as well, have no ability to distinguish Pinot from, say, Cab or Zin? Just by nosing? In many years of sampling and tasting Pinot I only came across a few bottles of Pinot that smelled and tasted unlike Pinot, all from same winery BTW, so in my experience it seems an easy task to tell Pinot apart from other reds. How is it that ITB people fail to do so?

    To the post above saying that Burgs have “softer” tannins than their CA couterparts, would someone please explain it to me how is it that Burgs REQUIRE time to “soften” these “softer” tannins to be drinkable? Just one contradiction, of many more aboe, and I find it strange that no one else is picking up on these easy “gotchas” from a supposedly wine savvy crowd.

  16. Steve,
    Nice post, particularly because your post and the subsequent discussion shows that we are thankfully moving past judgement based on alcohol and on to judgement based on balance.

    Good call Matt, as I am one of those under 45 buyers who looks for, and also uses the actual words “varietal” and “typicity” (sometimes even in the same day). For me though, typicity and varietal specificity don’t equate to region. If I was looking for Burgundy, why wouldn’t I just buy Burgundy. This does not mean however, that I think Russian River Pinot (regardless of clone or maceration technique) should look, smell, and taste like it is 50% syrah ( “Syranot Noir” anyone?). Penner Ashe produces a fun and enjoyable Pinot/Syrah Blend that they are not ashamed to label honestly.

    For better or worse, California producers are legally allowed to blend in any other grape they want to their 75% Pinot Noir and label it simply Pinot Noir. This is only problematic in that consumers may then be dissapointed in Pinot Noir that doesn’t taste of blueberry, bacon fat and blackberry pie.

    To the larger question of alcohol and typicity; It isn’t the alcohol level that takes away varietal character in my experience, as it is that high alcohol levels in a varietal wine more often signify the producers focus on things other than representing the grape and the growing site. Alcohol levels are only important when they dominate the nose and palate, not the discussion.

    Just as alcohol should not be the central focus of a wine, nor should either Burgundy or Sonoma Coast Pinot be considered more “typical and correct” than the other. Of course this assumes that neither one would be mistaken for Cotes du Rhone.

  17. Just taste the wine. If you enjoy it, then finish it. Who cares what the numbers say. My question is, what is typicity of the blood alc. for a wine critic or blogger, and is their work is better if its under .14%?

  18. Hi Jake, I don’t know what my blood alcohol is, but it’s never very high. I spit when I taste.

  19. Steve
    First of all, great post from a marketing Steve point of view. Second- table wine should be below 14. Period. I don’t care if someone likes it and can’t tell it’s 15. The only exception is CA Zin. That shit is weird- can be balanced at almost 16. Yes, it’s all about balance- but also about health and being drunk. People who rely on high alcohol and super concentration (and RS) to make their wines appealing are weak-minded sheep. Parker started this shit- who knows where it will end. I just hope it ends soon. Signs are that it has run its course. Thank God. Mark

  20. Jason Brumley says:

    Steve,

    I have had problems with you, your pomposity, and your purple langue. However, I was astounded at the poor grammar and spelling with which Jo Diaz wrote her response. For once, I have no qualms with you.

    Jo, I was sickened by, not only the inadequacies of your handling of the English language, but the audacity with which you give your palate credence…

    “I’ve also got one of those super palates with a billion taste buds…”

    You wine writers really need to get over yourselves.

    Sincerely,
    Jason Brumley

  21. Jason Brumley: a little harsh, no? Mind your manners.

  22. Hi,

    I must agree on bejamin comments ( the red part ) but i would replace the imho badly chosen ‘varietal typicity’ by terroir. Yes, higher alcohol levels combined with sufficient acid will make a good wine only if the intensity and complexity ( not only extraction ) follows-up. Grand cru burgundy also has higher alc levels, this is not an exception. Terroir is decissive.

    Greetings from belgium

    Wim

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