High alcohol in Pinot Noir? Maybe not so bad!
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.