Has the Low Alcohol Revolution Gone Too Far?

balanceI’ve heard the arguments for many years. High alcohol wines lack subtlety and have no place at the dinner table since they never complement food. They’re hot in the mouth, show stewed, murky fruit that lacks focus, and have low acidity making the wines taste heavy,  unbalanced, and lifeless.

High alcohol was either a plot by Parker and his peculiar taste for overly ripe fruit or a calculation by warm weather regions like California to take advantage of casual consumers and their preference for sugar. Thankfully, thanks to forward looking winemakers and somms with more refined tastes, we’ve moved on, in recent years, to more elegant, classic styles, with lower alcohol despite the influence of climate change.

And then I taste an Amarone and you can throw all those arguments out the window. Most are vibrant, complex, and exciting, rich to be sure but with taut acidity and a long, elegant finish. You probably wouldn’t want one with a salad but they’re fine with most robust meals.

Recently I ventured out to a restaurant for the first time in 15 months. A recent vintage from Amarone producer Albino Armani was among the bottles we savored. (The others were a Rioja Gran Reserva 1994 from Urbina and a Domaine du Pegau Chateauneuf-du-Pape, 2005.) Albino Armani’s Amarone is noted for its intense cherry flavor and fresh minerality. (They still use the high-acid grape Molinara in the blend unlike most modern producers.) For me, the Amarone was the most memorable wine of the evening in part because it complemented the food so well, especially the grilled king trumpet mushroom in an intense tarragon verjus. The alcohol was just over 15%.

The move to lower alcohol wines has been on the whole a good thing. I’ve tasted some delicious reds with alcohols between 11% and 13% (along with a few lean and green skeletons austere enough to be praised by Calvinists.)   We have thankfully become intrigued by flavors other than those that come from ripe fruit producing a much more varied and interesting wine landscape.

But we also have to realize there are many ways to get a wine in balance. Skilled winemakers and growers can make balanced wines with higher or lower alcohol. Drinking wine by the numbers is just a thoughtless habit. Ripeness is no sin. It’s just one dimension of what wine can be. If we avoid high alcohol, we’re missing out on some really distinctive wines.

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