Lettie Teague, in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal, wrote a column that addresses one of those wine issues that always seems to get discussed but that, despite all the hot and bothered rhetoric on both sides, never really gets resolved: The amount of alcohol in wine.
It all began when the more-or-less standard 11% - 13% began creeping up, first to 14%, then to 15% and beyond. And now, as a result, the wine world seems to be divided into several camps: Those who rally against such richness and the those who look at a wine and judge it on its individual merits, regardless of its listed abv.
I’ve written about this here before, but like so much with wine, it’s a subject that warrants occasional revisits. And Teague’s column is certainly the kind of thought-provoker that can spur on conversation.
High-alcohol wines, she writes, “are what some sommeliers are calling ‘unbalanced,’ claiming the heightened alcohol exaggerates everything, turning the wine into some sort of terrible caricature of itself. Actually their phraseology can be much less kind: Words like ‘monstrous’ and ‘fruit bombs’ are regularly bandied about, as well as, inevitably, ‘Frankenwine.’”
So the question is this: Are these claims accurate? And, perhaps even more central to the discussion, are these claims universal? I would tend to answer in the negative to both, since balance in wine isn’t just about the alcohol but, rather, all the different aspects of the wine that lead to the taster’s perception of it. It also has to do with what the grape variety and the place in which the grapes are grown will sustain. So while high-alcohol Sonoma Pinot Noir is more likely to be balanced than, say, a high-alcohol German one, I tend to shy away from judging a wine before I get it in the glass, no matter what variety it’s made from or where it was produced, just because of its abv: I’ve simply had too many great bottles in any number of styles to cheat myself out of the potential pleasure that a “fatter” wine might bring.
In the end, my job is to consider every wine on its own merits, regardless of what the numbers might imply, and regardless of my own personal preferences. I’m always 100% open to the possibility that any bottle, on any given day, will be the next best one I’ve tasted--regardless of price, region, grape variety, and, yes, alcohol level. There’s just too much good juice out there to make judgments without tasting.