Should we taste wines based on alcohol level?
Jon Bonné wrote a very balanced article on Randy Dunn and his Dunn Vineyards in Sunday’s S.F. Chronicle, pointing out some of the practices that Dunn feels have “penalized” [Jon’s word] his wines’ reviews and scores. I personally have found Dunn’s Cabernets hard and tannic on those occasions when I’ve tasted them–Jon alluded to the same qualities–but that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, it’s Dunn’s idea [again in Jon’s words] that wines of similar variety or type be tasted in “separate sittings for…different alcohol levels.”
The suggestion that modestly-alced Cabs [say, 13.5% or less] don’t show as well as Cabs that are 1%, 2% or even higher in alcohol is an old one. It’s been around about as long as I’ve been writing about wine, which is more than 20 years now. The idea is that a big, alcoholic, fruitily-extracted wine will dwarf another wine of the same variety if they’re tasted together.
This is a compelling concept, which is why it has always had its adherents. If it was a dumb idea, support for it would have withered away a long time ago. But it’s not a dumb idea. As first glance, it has merit. The bigger, flashier wine steals all the thunder from the modest, “elegant” wine. [This is why some people refer to such competitions as beauty contests.] Why wouldn’t we even the field by tasting them separately?
I’m not opposed in principle to tasting Cabernets based on alcoholic content. But why stop there? If we did, shouldn’t we taste Pinots based on alcoholic content? After all, alcohol in a California Pinot Noir can vary by almost as much as it does in Cabernet or a Bordeaux blend. But alcohol also varies in Chardonnay, and Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel, and so on. So if we’re going to have separate sittings for one variety based on different alcohol levels, we’d have to have them for all varieties.
But why stop at alcohol levels? Wines are differently oaked, too. One Cabernet or Pinot or Chardonnay might have 100% new oak. Another might have 60%, or 30%, or no new oak, just one or two year old neutral. And, in the case of certain Chardonnays, there’s no oak at all, new or old. So why wouldn’t we taste flights of varietals based on the amount of oak?
I suppose Randy Dunn is saying we shouldn’t compare apples and oranges, but only apples to apples and oranges to oranges. I see his point; I really do, but I’m pointing out the logistical difficulties, and also a certain illogic that permeates the argument. I’ve thought about different ways of setting up flights for many years, and come to the conclusion that no one way is perfect. Name a flight methodology, and I’ll tell you its strengths and weaknesses.
Back to the more compelling argument, that Cabernets of lesser alcohol don’t show well when tasted against riper, richer Cabs. Like I said, you can make a strong case here, but I’m not sure it holds water in the long run. Here’s the reason: a good taster isn’t looking merely for richness and alcoholic fatness. No, he’s looking for balance. That word is hard to define, and I don’t intend to try and define it now, but it’s just not true, at least in my case, that all I’m looking for is big, rich, fat, glyceriney wines, warm in alcohol and sweet in fruit. I taste a lot of wines that qualify for all those descriptors, but I don’t give them good scores, because they’re lacking balance. And balance is something you can perceive in any flight of wine, at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end.
I do think that a good California Cabernet needs a certain amount of alcohol in order to achieve balance, though. I wouldn’t say that 13.5 is necessarily an unbalanced Cabernet, but I think it is difficult to achieve the kind of depth a California Cabernet needs at that level. Not saying it can’t be done. Just saying it’s hard.
I also think that this anti-high alcohol sentiment can be and often is taken to extremes. I’ve written about this a lot. Critics of high alcohol–let’s say in excess of 15%–sometimes get positively Talibanesque in their intolerance. Randy Dunn is not alone in this critique; an army of others marches alongside him. It’s one thing to have a philosophy of winemaking and stick to it, and it may be admirable from the point of view of consistency. But it’s another thing to refuse to change or adapt to circumstances. Sometimes, to change is to grow, not to sell out. If Randy Dunn really feels strongly that his Cabernets are misunderstood by so many people that they should be tasted under entirely different circumstances than wines are normally and routinely tasted under–handicapped, as it were–then he might want to reconsider his position.