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Tuesday Tributes
In The Vinous Twilight Zone, The 2011 Wines Have Become Superstars

By Charles Olken

If you think you have grown tired of the “alcohol” debates, just you wait. These three cooler vintages are plunging us into the Twilight Zone of this endless debate.

I don’t want to belabor the point because there is nothing inherently right or wrong with any alcohol level in my way of thinking. It is not the label statement or even the scientific measurement that determines if a wine tastes good. It is the wine itself. But sometimes the purveyors of the “low is best” argument seem to be living on another planet.

Yesterday in San Francisco, a bunch of wineries got together to pat themselves on the back about their balanced wines. One maker, whose wines have generally done well in CGCW ratings, was bragging that some of his 2011 Chardonnays were as low in alcohol as 13.1%. Now, I have two problems with that proposition on its face. The first is that he was not showing those wines so there is no way to judge how they taste. We can take his word for that, but (and I do not mean this unkindly) winemakers love their children and they seem to love their latest children best of all. That is why we have independent critics in the wine business instead of simply having the winemakers tell us how many stars or points their latest creations should get.

But even more bothersome than that, because what would one expect a winery to do, is the notion that somehow a bizarre vintage like 2011 is proof of anything except being unrepeatable. There are going to be good, low alcohol wines from the vintage, especially in the early ripening varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but there are going to be some absolute dogs.

No one is against the notion of restrained alcohol, but, folks, unless you want to return to the days of thin, anemic Cabernets in most vintages and Zinfandels with as many green berries in the hopper as red, you are going to have to accept that making the greater majority of the later-ripening varieties is simply not in the cards.

And for me personally, it would be a shame and a mistake for everyone to try to make Chardonnays that bristle with acidity and not make wines with richness and depth. The most expensive White Burgundies, the Le Montrachets, did not get their reputations or their pricing by the restraint. And unless we try to make California into something that it is not, we will not make nearly so much great wine if we try to make everything at 13%. The 2011 vintage, with Sonoma Coast Chards as low as 13.1%, is an aberration. But beware, because in the vinous Twilight Zone, folks will tell you that they have discovered the way to greatness when all they have discovered is the results of one unique vintage, and then only as those results apply to early ripening varieties.


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Alcohol levels
by Mark J. Frost
Posted on:3/20/2012 8:45:00 PM

Thank you for bringing some reason to this discussion. Our 20 year Pinot Posse in Seattle is in the middle of this "fight". The francophiles are all in the Michael Mina camp of under 14% alcohol. I'm arguing the alcohol is irrelevant if the wine is balanced. We're now recording alcohol in our notes so I've asked that we record brix, barrel composition, full or partial malo, spring bud break and basket types to pick the grapes. Needless to say, I'm not the popular one :)

Please keep up the fight of balance first, individual components later.


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