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Top 10 wines of the week


The interesting thing about this week’s list is that all six Pinot Noirs are under 14% alcohol. I think we can safely say that the worm has turned: vintners are restoring balance to this variety, which ought to be delicate, not heavy. The days of 15% Pinot Noir are numbered. Why this is so is hard to say. It’s probably a number of factors: cooler vintages (just wait until the 2010s come out!), winemaker sensitivity to the bashing they’ve taken for years from critics for Rhône-style Pinot, and–often overlooked–the maturing of the grapevines. Older vines with deeper roots make more balanced and complex wines. At the same time, I see no evidence that California’s other great red wine, Cabernet Sauvignon, is lightening up. Many of the best still hover at 15% or higher, as witness the Meander Morisoli on the list. I think the critics of high alcohol are going to have to accept a split decision: they won with Pinot Noir and lost with Cabernet.

Copain 2009 Wentzel Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley). 13.7%, $50. Also their  ‘09 Monument Tree Pinot Noir, 13.7%.

Tyler 2008 Bien Nacido Vineyard N Block Pinot Noir (Santa  Maria Valley); 13.9%, $65. Also their ‘08 Clos Pepe, 13.5%, and ‘08 La Encantada, 13.7%.

Littorai 2008 The Pivot Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); 13.9%, $65.

Meander 2008 Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford); 15.2%, $120.

Yates Family 2006 Flower Red Blend (Mount Veeder); 14.5%, $50.

Volker Eisele 2009 Gemini Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley); 14.5%, $25.

Morgan 2008 Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands); 13.8%, $48.

Trefethen 2009 Dry Riesling (Oak Knoll); 12.5%, $22.

Tyler 2008 Presidio Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Barbara County); 13.9%, $52.

Dutton-Goldfield 2009 Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); 13.5%, $38.

  1. Steve–

    I’ll know that the alc-bashers have won when I see Merry Edwards, Williams-Selyem and Dehlinger Pinots all coming in under 14% alcohol. I suspect those folks do not really give a fig’s worth of worry about the differencce between 14.2 and 13.8.

    Funny thing is that 14% is such an artificial number whose use is engendered by the way our wine laws are written. If the legal break were at 14.5 or 13.5, we would be using those numbers as the “judgment” point of the bashers.

    The same crowd that gave us too many green, underripe “food wines” a generation ago is going to do it again. I already see it in Chardonnay. Acidity is great; it is a boon to CA wines to have the winemakers worrying about acidity, pH (often a better determinant of balance) and overall balance itself, but green, underripe wines will bring about their own group of bashers and the worm will turn again. Those who forget history are bound to repeat it.

  2. Steve

    You say wait until the 2010s come out. Did you take note of the Grape Crush Report? Average harvest brix for Pinot Noir in Sonoma, Monterey, and Santa Barbara was higher in 2010 than in 2009 and 2007.

    Perhaps the wines will be lower in alcohol but it isn’t because fruit was picked less ripe on average. So then is alcohol or ripeness what is important?

    Adam Lee

  3. That 08 Littorai Pivot is pretty stuff.

    Balance is driving me nuts- I think it is what polite people say when the really want to say “less ripe”.

  4. Hardy–

    It may be what some people say, but not me. Balance is balance. Wines do not need to be under 14%, and I know you know this, to be in balance otherwise folks would not go gaga over Dehlinger or Williams Selyem or Kosta Browne or Merry Edwards Pinots let alone a whole host of firm, tight Cabs from the Napa Valleys.

    The people who use balance as a polite, or impolite as the case may be, way of saying “under 14% or else” simply miss the point that balance is not determined by what is on the label.

  5. Charlie, the latest ’08 Williams Selyems are not high in alcohol. The Hirsch is 13.8, Allen is 14.1, Litton is 14.2, Precious Mtn. 14.1, Bucher 13.7, etc. In fact I went back over many years of my reviews and the alc levels have been in that range. True, Merry Edwards tends more toward mid-14s, but those are awfully good wines.

  6. Steve, I think you are making my point, when you list all the alcs for W-S. There is no functional difference between 13.8 and 14.1. And if Merry Edwards wines are 14.2 to 14.4 or whatever they are, there is essentially no functional difference.

    Wine does not need to be under 14% to be in balance. Indeed, it can be considerably higher. Have a look at Robin Garrs’ (Wine Lovers Discussion Group) comments about a southern Rhone that he bought without exercising “due diligence” (i. e., buying by label, not by palate) which turned out to be 15.5% alcohol. He describes open it with a cranky attitude–and then finding it balanced both with burgers and after dinner by itself.

    My point to Hardy and to you is simple enough. This “railing” about high alcohol is a fool’s errand. Wines at 13.5% can be hot and out of balance. Wines at 15% can be hot and out of balance. But no wine is out of balance until it is tasted.

  7. Adam, I did not know that! I was going by everything I’d been told by winemakers. I don’t know if alcohol or ripeness is more important, I just know that when I score a wine blind, I’m looking for excellence, classicism, deliciousness, richness, vibrancy, all those good things. Which I so often find in Siduri wines! Although I do wish you’d hold them back a little longer : >

  8. Charlie-
    I’m with you. Balance can be achieved at almost any alc%. But I think most people want to talk about flavor profile but get caught up on a alc % and “balance” instead.

  9. Steve,

    Average Pinot sugars (and that would include grapes harvested for sparkling wines) were:

    Sonoma 24.5 in 2010 (24.1 in 2009)
    Monterey 25.5 in 2010 (24.8 in 2009)
    SBarb/SLO 25.8 in 2010 (24.9 in 2009)

    Since all of those sugars would be 15+ alcohol without adjustment, I’d say that if the days of 15% alcohol Pinot Noir are dead, then its only because of winemaker adjustments, not because of vine age, picking earlier, etc.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  10. Adam – seriously – do you think the wines I mentioned were “adjusted” and if they were, what’s the problem? You can private email me if you want.

  11. Steve,

    I really don’t know what wines were and weren’t adjusted….and personally I don’t have a problem if they were (unless the adjustment stands out — then that’s a problem). —

    But I think you have to be very careful in your terminology. In one sentence you remark that the wines are less than 14% alcohol — and in the next you say that Pinot should be delicate not heavy. Those two are not necessarily synonymous. Wines that are picked overripe and adjusted to a lower alcohol may still be heavy. And wines that are picked underripe in Burgundy and chaptalized to a higher alcohol level may still taste underripe.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  12. Adam,
    I’ve always enjoyed drinking your wines and now I’ve enjoyed your comments on various Blogs. Keep it coming.

    I’d love for you to detail what “Classicism” when talking about the various Pinot Noir regions of California (and Oregon.) Maybe an idea for another post? Hmmm?

  13. Austin, maybe. Off the top of my head, “classic” means in terms of variety and region. We have certain expectations of, say, far Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir or Oakville Cabernet or, for that matter, Paso Robles Zinfandel. It’s not a matter of taste. It’s about how closely the wine comes to defining the historical benchmarks of its type and location.

  14. I always enjoy reading these arguments in the comment section. It’s an interesting look into wine and wine making that you don’t normally see.

  15. Brian, that’s for sure! I like the comments too. I always learn.

  16. I am glad to see the pendulum swing. However, I do see a trend in the “marketing” of the “13.5” Pinot Noir. I purchased and sent a 93 point Burghound rated Pinot Noir labeled 13.5% alc. to two labs for analysis. The results were 14.2% alc. Integrity issue.

  17. Since the label can have a 1% to 1.5% variation from the actual wine, the taste reality does lie in the balance.

    When I stand in front of the supermarket shelf, there are three basic signals: label (does it have an animal LOL), price and alcohol.

    Any exporter to South Korea and the EU have to define the ABV to within 0.5% (as I understand it – there may be trade derogations; I may be wrong). Is it possible that US export labels are closer to actual ABV than the domestic label ABV?
    Or… is it possible that wines for export to 0.5% countries actually use the 0.5% range on the domestic label, too?

  18. Kathy, I don’t know about U.S. export laws re: ABV. But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for U.S. wineries to list ABV within 0.5%. They will resist it with every ounce of strength and there’s no government authority that will ever make them do it. Maybe wineries that report the actual truth can form a sort of Consortium and have a symbolic icon somewhere on the label guaranteeing that the listed ABV is accurate.

  19. Toby: That’s interesting but not surprising.

  20. Toby,

    Couple of things to consider when comparing alcohol %s. There is a difference (sometimes significant — up to .4%) in alcohol levels depending on whether you calculate the number using gas chromotography or ebulliometer. The winery may have a number that is accurate using one method and the lab may have given you a different number that is accurate using the other method. Also, there is a difference in alcohol, using the same method, at different temperatures. So ETS Labs (the company we use for our testing) gives you numbers at 20c and 60c. The numbers rarely differ by more than .1% but they do differ.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  21. Pinot! Pinot! Pinot! and Cab

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