30 years ago Robert Parker made his bones advocating for new world flesh and opulence against the staid, old school, cooler-climate, French wines showing subtlety and finesse. And the wine world followed him putting California and Australia on the wine map and leaving the Bordelaise struggling to find their place.
But how things change. As James Lawrence wrote recently,
Indeed, there probably aren’t many winemakers alive who would challenge the accepted wisdom that today’s sophisticated consumer wants lower alcohol, fresher wine styles, a mantra repeated by the trade ad nauseam.
From Rioja to Stellenbosch, winemakers eagerly explain to visiting journalists that their approach “is to maintain freshness and elegance” – fruit bomb is out, and finesse is definitely in.
The whole wine world has now flipped its stance. High alcohol has all the cultural cachet of bell-bottom jeans and paisley shirts.
As Lawrence points out, this trend towards lower alcohol flies in the face of a warming planet. Wines from cool sites that used to produce understated, elegant wines are seeing sugar levels spike requiring winemakers to get creative in order to limit the alcohol.
This illustrates one of the paradoxes of this renewed love of restraint. One of the complaints about high alcohol and excessive ripeness is that it covers up the signature of the terroir, producing wines that are homogeneous and manufactured. But vineyards in warm climates produce grapes that are naturally high in sugar. If that’s what your vineyards give you then a commitment to terroir would demand you not mess with it by watering back to get less alcohol. Hot climates produce high alcohol. We should just accept that.
Yet, the battle lines are drawn as if there is some great moral issue at stake. It’s now virtuous, “accepted wisdom”, to like elegant wines and complain about the baleful effects of Parker’s palate.
But there is nothing at stake here. People get tired of one style and thus gravitate to a new style. But we inevitably will get bored with this new style and will return to preferring more opulence.
I don’t know why we feel the necessity to choose. I like a Jura Pinot Noir at 12.5% alcohol as much as the next person. But I also find a good Amarone (over 16%) scintillating. When I look back through the best big red wines I’ve had recently they tend to be around 14.5% but bear in mind the actual alcohol content of a single bottle may be closer to 16% since the labeling laws allow wines to be within 1.5% of their listed alcohol.
The alcohol percentage is just a number. I’ve tasted elegant, high alcohol wines full of finesse and wines at 13.5% with so much exposed alcohol they were undrinkable.
So we shouldn’t get hung up on alcohol content and shouldn’t get too invested in the latest trends.
What we should get riled up about is homogeneity, sameness. That’s just boring. And our tendency to follow the herd encourages it.