A Rich Pour - No. 14: The Dark Side of Red
September 10th, 2008
These are heady days for lovers of big, bold, red table wines. No matter if you have fifteen, fifty or a few hundred dollars to spare on your next bottle - you're sure to encounter countless offerings that will fit the bill. Just be prepared to share, or to feel the alcoholic impact should you decide to go it alone.
There are no hard and fast rules regarding the relationship between alcohol in red wine and its potency. One day, you can happily imbibe a 15-percent powerhouse and barely notice any alcoholic punch. The next day, a 13-percenter might hit you like a flurry of Mohammed Ali uppercuts. Individual tolerance levels and sensitivities to numerous chemical compounds play into the equation, as do circumstantial variables. But by and large, the more alcoholic the pour the more palpable the after-effect.
A pair of 'modest' 14-percenters from the Mendoza region of Argentina
Once upon a time, and not so very long ago at that, one rarely came face to face with a red table wine nudging, let alone exceeding, the 14-percent alcohol by volume barrier. Yes, the occasional Cabernet, Merlot, Shiraz or Zinfandel might tip the scales above that threshold. Barolo or Brunello, especially of the Riserva variety, also upped the alcohol ante moderately. And unique wines, such as the fabled Amarone of Veneto (produced from partially dried grapes), could easily escalate into the 14 to 18-percent range. Yet the majority of meal-friendly fare did well to hover around the 11 to 12½-percent mark. What happened to change all of this?
The central valley of Chile and the Navarra region of Spain weigh in.
Maybe the transition to greater grape sugar extraction and higher alcohol in wine took firm root at the famous Paris wine tasting of 1976, where many a renowned French cuvée found itself unceremoniously sideswiped by California Cabernet. Maybe it established a stronger foothold due to the efforts of the late Emile Peynaud, who urged Bordeaux proprietors to utilize fully ripened grapes, and of his contemporary, globe-trotting disciple, Michel Rolland. Undoubtedly, the movement gained momentum when the noted American wine critic Robert Parker cast his analytic prowess upon the scene, and as consumers began to value high numerical ratings, sweetness and richness of texture over varietal character, terroir, complexity and restraint.
Three more from Spain and Chile, as the alcohol edges toward 14.5-percent
Cynics may decry how such factors, and the emergence of a younger, more alcohol-tolerant audience, have influenced the marketplace and cemented the legitimacy of an 'International' style of wine. Yet no one can deny that this overall trend toward the big and the bold has forced winemakers to shed complacency and to aim squarely for quality - never mind whether or not one agrees with the nature of that quality. Why, then, do I remain less than an out and out enthusiast for these changes?
Let's backtrack to another era, when a winemaker's after-the-harvest 'arsenal' encompassed little more than adding sugar to grape must and deciding upon the kind of wood in which to mellow the make - and for how long. These methods, widely employed (they still are), helped to bring better balance to numerous wines and to tame sometimes harsh tannins. Nevertheless, many a Bordeaux, Barolo or Brunello proved a palate bruiser if broached in its youth. Even an inexpensive, recent vintage Côte du Rhône or Chianti - remember those squat, straw-covered Tuscan fiascos turned candle holders many of us accumulated? - could make for a bit of a rough ride right off the store shelf, and softened appreciably with six months to a year of rest. Impatience practically guaranteed a bitterly disappointing taste experience, and more time in the bottle often represented the only remedy. Some wines, of course, never did come around, while others, such as the legendary Château Latour 1961 from Pauillac, grew to be treasured almost as much for their longevity as for their excellence. Back in those 'good old days', wines and people didn't seem to be in much of a rush.
The Toro region of Spain and the south of France offer a pair of very rich 14.5-percenters
Then, in a grape-focused re-enactment of the discovery of the New World, wines from California, south-eastern Australia and Chile burst into consumer consciousness in rapid succession. Things would never be the same again.
Not only did many of these New World reds benefit from more benign growing conditions. They also had the advantage of being produced by winemakers in tune with the very latest techniques. And it was the increasing number and sophistication of these techniques that would launch a whole new era of high extract, high alcohol wines.
An exclusive 14.5-percent cuvée from a well-known Minervois estate
Methods and modern equipment such as leaf stripping (permitting a higher transfer of soil-based nutrients to and more exposure to sunlight of the grapes), bunch thinning (resulting in better quality of those grapes remaining on the vines), delayed harvesting (that lowers acidity levels), de-stemming prior to pressing (lessening any astringency), cryo-extraction (short-term freezing of the grapes, leading to concentration of the non-water-based grape compounds), supra-extraction (cyclical cooling and warming of the grape must that facilitates juice flow and sugar extraction), longer maceration times (that raise the levels of grape solids), roto-fermenters (that draw more colour from the grape skins), robotic fermentation vats (or lagares, which, being fitted with temperature-controlled, mechanical 'feet', mimic traditional foot treading in open lagares), post-fermentation maceration (that allows the alcohol of the freshly fermented wine to release even more tannins) and reverse osmosis (utilizing specialized, pressure-activated filter devices to marginally dehydrate the wine and thereby increase relative richness) have, in the case of many an enterprise, become standard tools of the trade. Not exactly such a pastoral picture of the art of winemaking, is it?
Even more sobering is the rise of consulting firms dedicated to helping vintners tailor their techniques in the quest for something superior - a phenomenon that can easily ensure a more attractive wine at the cost of a loss of identifiable individuality based on locale. Perhaps sommelier and wine critic Bill Zacharkiw stated it best when he wrote, "The real enemy is perhaps not the technology itself, but those winemakers who are simply not good grape growers or skilled enough winemakers, and are thus forced to use extreme measures to finish their wines."
And now we find ourselves in 15 to 15.5-percent territory... "Practically Port," I'd say.
Now, whenever you open a 'massive fruit bomb' that overpowers everything it's served with, or you feel afterward as though you have indeed been 'bombed' by the contents of the bottle, take a moment to ponder why. Those winemaking magicians may indeed have many tricks up their sleeves, but there's no guarantee they'll strike the right balance between richness, alcohol and a food-friendly style. Of course, you could always simply barbecue a pepper-encrusted 30-ounce rib steak to pair with that next 'extreme' bottle you broach.
Chapa, Rebecca. "Extraction", Wine Business Monthly, Volume IX Number 9, September 10, 2002
Zacharkiw, Bill. "The Wine Industry's Little Secret", Weekend Life Section, The Gazette, Montreal, Saturday September 8, 2007, Pages H1, H3
Doug Kuebler (Jazznut) is an inveterate aficionado and collector
of wines and whiskies from around the world. Doug has organized
wine and food seminars, written extensively on wines and liquors,
and also gained something of a reputation for his detailed analyses
of cigars. His latest book set, The Tumbler's Guide to Single Malt
Scotch Whisky: Desk Reference and Field Guide, is available from
Topeda Hill Publishing.