Can High Alcohol Wines be Balanced?

You sniff a glass of wine: it has a bouquet of aromas characteristic of its variety, promising an interesting palate. The palate is full of the anticipated flavors, rich and perhaps a touch exuberant, but not yet multi-dimensional as this is a recently released young wine. This is a beautifully crafted wine, representing its region and grape variety, but then a sense of warmth hits you on the finish, sometimes running into an impression of overt heat. The wine would be perfect if only it had a percent or so less alcohol. I have had this experience many times on this visit to Napa.

When asked about alcohol levels, a small minority of winemakers in Napa say it’s a concern, but most say this is what the climate gives you, and the wine is balanced, so there is no problem. Well, my response is yes and no. Generally the wine is balanced, and at a tasting you may not always notice the high alcohol, although it may express itself more forcefully in the course of drinking a bottle with a meal. But even when alcohol is not obvious, I believe the reason is that the balance that is necessary to hide it involves more extraction. It’s the combination of high alcohol and extract that makes the wine fatiguing rather than the alcohol alone—after all, fino Sherry is 15% alcohol and can be delicate and elegant. Indeed, some wines are getting into fortified territory. My companion, the Anima Figure, who is less tolerant of high alcohol than I am, commented on a Chardonnay at dinner, “This winemaker should be working in a distillery,” because the sense of raw spirits entirely hid the fruits.tokalon10

Napa Valley viewed from the To-Kalon vineyard.

Balance is surely a compromise, and the problem, I think, is that achieving phenolic ripeness is regarded as the ne plus ultra, so all other aspects of balance are pushed into the background. Okay, in the old days balance used to be regarded as basically getting enough sugar to achieve 12% or 12.5% alcohol; next a slightly more sophisticated approach was to look at sugar/acid ratios: it was assumed that if the ratio was about right the wine would be good. Those wines would be regarded as seriously unripe by the criterion of phenolic ripeness (although that is not so new: in ancient Rome, Pliny recommended tasting the seeds to judge when grapes were ready for harvest).

But does making phenolic ripeness the single criterion for harvest achieve balance? What if phenolic ripeness is achieved at punishing alcohol levels—Pinot Noir at 15% or more, Cabernet Sauvignon at 15.5% and up, Zinfandel well into the 16%s. Doesn’t “balance” imply making some compromise between sugar, acid, and phenolic ripeness, in which the first two count for something, if perhaps not as much as the last? Is it heretical to ask whether the wine might actually be better if the grapes were picked at slightly lower ripeness, but with better balanced sugar and acidity?

I question whether it’s a true balance if grapes are picked solely for ripeness and then acidity is added, alcohol is adjusted, or water is added to get to more acceptable parameters. (I have not found a single winemaker in Napa who denies needing to use watering back at some point: adding water when the sugar level is too high is now legal, but it seems a dubious means for achieving balance.) Part of the problem is that the current generation of winemakers is not really conscious of the great change in alcohol levels. “This vintage is quite moderate, alcohol is only 14.5%,” one winemaker said, “sometimes we have been pushed up over 15%.” Another said, “As long as I’ve been making wines, I have never seen alcohol below 14%.”

When 14.5% alcohol can be regarded as moderate, we are in big trouble. Even if I enjoy it at a tasting, it is too fatiguing to share a bottle over a meal. My own rebellion against this is not to purchase any wine for my cellar which is over 14% alcohol, and to look at the label before opening a bottle at a restaurant: if it’s over 14% I send it back and make another choice. I recognize that a one man consumer rebellion won’t get very far but you have to start somewhere.

The mantra in Napa Valley is that the Cabernets can be enjoyed more or less on release but will also age well. How soon you can drink them depends largely on your tolerance for tannin in young wine; for my palate most of these wines really need four or five years before the tannins calm down enough to let fruit flavor variety show, but more to the point is that alcohol is likely to become more evident as the tannins and fruits lighten up. With lower alcohol, many of these wines would have great potential for classic longevity; but with alcohol around 15%, I suspect they are Cheshire Cat wines: the grin of the alcohol may be all that is left.

What can be done about this? Part of the problem is that the current combinations of rootstocks and cultivars are generating higher sugar levels in the grapes. One change came when AxR1, widely planted in Napa, had to be replaced because of its sensitivity to phylloxera: the rootstocks that replaced it give higher growth rates. Another is that the ENTAV clones introduced over the past decade or so were selected thirty years ago in a cooler period specifically in order to ripen sooner to avoid past problems with insufficient accumulation of sugar. We need new clones and rootstocks designed for the era of global warming. But that takes time: right now winemakers need to start regarding balance as something where reasonable alcohol and acidity are part of the equation as well as phenolic ripeness, and not ancillary factors that you either live with or adjust artificially when they get completely out of control.

Judgment of Paris Wines: Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap

It seems ironic that on the day of the referendum in Britain, the Judgment of Paris tasting should be revisited in London. To celebrate the famous tasting of 1976—it doesn’t seem like 40 years ago—Chateau Montelena (which won the Chardonnay tasting with its 1973) and Stag’s Leap Winery (which won the red tasting) presented current and older vintages in London.

Today’s Chardonnay from Montelena comes from the Oak Knoll vineyard near the winery, but current winemaker, Matt Crafton revealed that the winning 1973 “was not at all a terroir wine. It came from grapes that were purchased to fit Montelena’s stylistic objectives, sources were all over the place.” Half of the grapes came from Russian River in Sonoma Valley, some came from Calistoga (the hot end of Napa valley), and a small proportion from Oak Knoll. What price terroir if this could beat Meursaults and Puligny Montrachets?

The question in my mind going through the 2001 and 2009 vintages of Montelena’s Chardonnay, three Cabernet Sauvignons from 2013 to 2005, and five vintages of Stag’s Leap SLV vineyard from 2013 to 1983, was whether their origins would be any more obvious in a blind tasting today than they were at the 1976 tasting in Paris. It has always seemed to me that the importance of the Judgment of Paris isn’t at all who “won,” but rather that the French judges were completely unable to distinguish whether the wines were Cabernet-based blends from Bordeaux compared with varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from California, or Chardonnays from Napa compared with Burgundy. That speaks to the success of the winemakers of the time in emulating French style.

SLVToday wines are richer all round, California has found its own style, and often enough the winemakers of Europe are trying to emulate New World richness. I think it’s fair to say that both Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Winery have relatively restrained styles for California: there is not much New World exuberance here. The Montelena Chardonnays remind me a bit of Meursault, but show more body and alcohol. I’m not sure I really see enough interesting development with age–but then with premox cutting off the lifespan of white Burgundy, I don’t very often see it there either. The Cabernets seem to get leaner as they age.

The Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon tasted in Paris in 1976 was the forerunner of today’s single vineyard bottlings. The two famous vineyards are adjacent but different in character. “Fay’s vineyard is softer and more perfumed, more elegant,” says current winemaker Marcus Notaro, “SLV is a bigger wine.” In another era, I might have said that Fay is more feminine and SLV more masculine. Spanning thirty years, the SLV vintages at this week’s tasting showed a common stylistic thread, with slightly spicy, slightly herbal overtones to the fruits. I would say they’re as much in the European tradition as in the New World mold, except that alcohol is higher and there’s a sense of warmth, for me showing as almost exotic fruit flavors, which suggests they don’t come from France. Would I confidently distinguish Fay Vineyard and SLV in a blind tasting with, say, Margaux and Pauillac? I’m not so sure.

Have Mondavi and Opus One Lost their Way?

It may be unfair to link Mondavi and Opus One together at this point, since although Opus One started as a joint operation between Robert Mondavi and Philippe de Rothschild, they went separate ways after Constellation purchased Mondavi, but I was struck at a dinner with wines from both producers by the similarity in their development. Current vintages of Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc and Reserve Chardonnay were followed by three vintages of Opus One, and it would be fait to say that power is triumphing over elegance all along the line.

In the early years of Napa Valley’s development, Mondavi was a benchmark for Cabernet Sauvignon (the 1974 Reserve was a defining wine for the vintage), the Chardonnay was one of the more French-oriented, and the Fumé Blanc was a master stroke that tamed Sauvignon Blanc with subtle oak impressions. But today the 2012 Fumé Blanc gives an impression of sharp acidity with indistinct fruit impressions, while the 2013 Reserve Chardonnay gives an impression of raw oak in front of fruits. In fact, you might say that the Fumé Blanc is too much Sauvignon and not enough Fumé, while the Chardonnay is too much oak and not enough fruit.

I can’t trace the change in character of the whites historically, but a change in the reds goes back to the early 2000s. There was a long-running difference of opinion between Mondavi and the Wine Spectator over style. The Spectator’s lead critic on California, James Laube, commented in July 2001, “At a time when California’s best winemakers are aiming for ripe, richer, more expressive wines, Mondavi appears headed in the opposite direction… [Winemaker] Tim Mondavi and I have different taste preferences… He has never concealed his distaste for big, ultra rich plush or tannic red wines. I know he can make rich, compelling wines, yet he prefers structured wines with elegance and finesse.” Tim Mondavi replied, “I am concerned… that there appears to be a current trend toward aggressively over-ripe, high in alcohol, over oaked wines that are designed to stand out at a huge tasting rather than fulfill the more appropriate purpose of enhancing a meal.” There you have the whole debate about style in Napa in a nutshell. Yet after this was all said and done, the style at Mondavi changed in the direction of greater richness.

I’ve always found Opus One easy to underrate in the early years, when it tends to be somewhat dumb, and to retain a touch of austerity, but in vertical tastings I’ve found it to age well. Tasted at the winery five years ago, the 2005 was showing beautifully, the 1995 showed the elegance of a decade’s extra aging, and the first vintage (1979) was still vibrant. My impression at the dinner this week was different. The 2005 shows powerful primary fruits, with not much evidence of development, and a touch of oxidation, showing in the form of raisons on the finish. If it hadn’t seemed the most complete wine of that vertical at the winery, I would say that it must have been brutal when it was young. As this is an unexpected turn of events, I wondered whether perhaps the bottle might be out of condition, whether perhaps the oxidative impressions were due to poor storage, but I think this question was answered by the 2009, which showed a similar, but less evident, impression of oxidation. Again this is a turn-up for the book, as the last time I had the 2009 was at the winery just after it had been bottled: tannins were subsumed by dense, black, and aromatic fruits, and my impression was that the fruit concentration offered great potential for development. But today, aside from taming the tannins with time, I really don’t see much development in flavor variety, and I suspect this is going in the same direction as the 2005. The 2012 is certainly a very big wine, yet identifiably Cabernet-based, with that sense of restraint and hints of tobacco, but I’m concerned that the massive fruits may turn in the same oxidative direction as the earlier vintages. How long, Oh Lord, how long, will it be before the wines develop interesting flavor variety?

I wonder how much alcohol has to do with these impressions? The first vintage of Opus One had 12.9% alcohol, the level stayed under 13% through the 1980s, under 14% through the 1990s, and now alternates between 14.0 and 14.5 according to the labels. Although alcohol isn’t obtrusive on the palate–in the current parlance that winemakers use to explain or apologize for high alcohol, it is balanced—it’s the very high extract and fruit concentration that achieve the sense of equilibrium. This makes it hard for the wine not to over-power a meal. I know that there’s a school of thought that alcohol levels aren’t relevant or interesting, and that no one really cares, but I do: not just because the wine is too heady, but because I don’t like the corollary that there’s simply too much flavor . Or more precisely, too much quantity of flavor and not enough variety. There comes a point where levels of extraction are so high that varietal typicity disappears and everything is just fruit, fruit, fruit. My plea to Napa winemakers is to back off: you don’t have to extract absolutely everything you can from the grapes. It might be a better compromise to harvest under 14% alcohol than to go that last step to super-ripeness.

The Reality of Appellations in Napa

In Napa for the Barrel Auction this weekend, I spent Friday afternoon at a series of tasting events organized by the producers of several AVAs. My objective was to determine whether I could see any specificity to Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the  top three appellations of the valley floor: Rutherford, Oakville, and Stags Leap.

The Rutherford Dust group of producers takes its name from the supposed quality of Rutherford: a dusty note in the wines. Whether this is real or is a marketing ploy has been long debated. “The tannins of wines from Rutherford give the sensation you get by running your hand backwards along velvet,” was a description by one producer. Things started out well at the Rutherford Dust group tasting. The first three wines, Alpha Omega 2009, Faust 2009, and Grgich 2008 all showed a similar quality to their tannins. I would not describe it as dusty, more as a sort of slightly sharp tang to the tannins on the finish, but it was a distinctive tannic grip. Then inevitably came some wines to spoil the pattern, Hall Excellenz 2005 (massive tannins), Flora Springs Trilogy (tight and elegant), and then Rubicon Estate 2008 (firm and furry). But with the exception of Peju 2008 and 2001, whose wines were distinctly more aromatic than the others, there was a commonality, with firm tannins giving the wines a classic impression across several vintages.

Things also started well in Oakville, where the first few wines all seems to fit a pattern where taut black fruits were supported by fine grained tannins that reinforced the impression of elegance. Nickel and Nickel’s Branding Iron and Sullenger Vineyard 2008s, Ghost Block Estate 2009, Kelleher 2007, Far Niente 2009 all supported a view that Oakville plays St. Julien to Rutherford’s version of Pauillac. Bond St. Eden 2006 was much more reserved, but generally conformed to the elegant style.But then Harbison 2009, Plumpjack Estate 2009, and Paradigm 2008 all displayed a much softer style, with more overt, opulent black fruit aromatics extending from blackcurrants to cassis.

In Stags Leap District I got much less impression of consistency. Several wines were very soft, forward, and approachable, with soft black fruits on the palate, supported by nuts and vanillin on the finish, with tannins noticeable only as a soft, furry presence in the background. Clif Lede Poetry 2009 and 2004, Stags Leap SLV 2008 and 1997, Pine Ridge 2008 were nice enough wines if you would like something to drink in the immediate term, but I was left wondering how it represents Cabernet typicity as opposed to Merlot or Syrah to make wines that are so fruit-forward and lacking in tannic structure. Shafer One Point Five 2009 showed Shafer’s usual ripe, aromatic style, while Clos du Val 2007 and 1997 showed a more traditional approach, with good acidity supporting firm fruits and the tannins showing a structure halfway between the Rutherford grip and Oakville precision.

Where am I left? There may be a typicity that distinguishes the tannins of Rutherford and Oakville if you let it express itself; I reserve judgment about Stags Leap. In any of these appellations, however, you can make soft, forward, fruity, wines with lots of nutty vanillin to bump up the appeal, using appropriate winemaking techniques. Caveat terroir.