Thursday, October 20, 2011

Yep, It Can Get Hot In Paso Robles

As I review my tasting notes after sampling wines in Paso Robles the past two days I'm struck by the high proportion with surprisingly elevated alcohol levels. Here's a cabernet sauvignon with 15.6 percent alcohol, a mourvedre with 15.3 percent alcohol, a syrah with 15.3 percent alcohol, a primitivo with 15.2 percent alcohol, a zinfandel with 15 percent alcohol. These are not aberrations. Wines with 14.5 percent or more alcohol account for most of the wines we've tasted so far. And they aren't all red wines. A roussanne clocked in at 15.8 percent alcohol, a rose also at 15.8 percent alcohol.

What's going on here? Again, I've listened to winemakers say that to get wines to speak loudly and impressively they've got to get their grapes really ripe. California wines are California wines only if they fairly shout with fruit, and to get them to stand up and proclaim their fruitiness means harvesting the grapes when they are so mature that they are just a day or two from ending up in a Sun Maid box of raisins. If Paso Robles growers and winemakers didn't let their grapes get so saturated with sugar, one vintner said today, they'd end up with wines that were, well, relatively French like. Let that sink in awhile.

Understand, I don't much care about a wine's stated alcohol level, just as I don't much care about whether a wine was blessed with 97 points or 89 points from some highly regarded critic. They're just numbers, open to all sorts of manipulation and interpretation. I rather base my estimation of a wine on how it tastes to me, and hope to convey those impressions to other wine enthusiasts in a lingo that is accessible and helpful. I've tasted, enjoyed and endorsed wines with relatively high alcohol levels. If they've been balanced, lively, fresh and long, among other qualities, that's been fine by me, regardless of whether they have 13 percent alcohol or 16 percent.

The frequent knock on high-alcohol table wines is that they taste hot, as if they have been fortified with a jolt of brandy, and that they are clumsy, heavy and sweet. Some of those high-octane wines I've tasted in Paso Robles could indeed be faulted on those grounds. Mostly, however, the high-alcohol wines simply haven't been as well enunciated as they could be. It's as if the alcohol is some sort of rigid barrier, preventing rather than amplifying the expression of fruit and place that winemakers are striving to grasp.

Yesterday's tour ended last night with a dinner at the home of Gary and Marcy Eberle. Gary Eberle has been making wine in Paso Robles for nearly four decades. His fellow vintners universally credit him with introducing and setting the standard for Rhone Valley varieties in the Paso Robles area. In his eagerness to make his guests feel welcome he did something that was actually pretty wicked. He pulled from his cellar two of his early cabernet sauvignons. One was from 1981, the other from 1982. Both were brightly colored, both were sleek in build and both were surprisingly complex and compelling, though both showed their age, politely called bottle bouquet. Some guests favored the 1981; I preferred the 1982 both for its somewhat intensified complexity and for its more forthright expression of olives, a trait that lingered in both vintages. The 1981 had just 13.1 percent alcohol, the 1982 only 12.6 percent alcohol. Yet, both were elegant, representative of the variety, and clearly capable of bringing satisfaction to the table; in the case of the 1982, for several more years. If they are French-like, well, I can live with that, and quite happily.

The lesson: High alcohol isn't needed for a wine to express itself, live long and provide pleasure. In talking of how vintners have come to convince themselves that high alcohol is needed in table wines to have something remarkable to say of California, Eberle was his usual disarmingly candid self. Winemakers let themselves be seduced by the lure of high scores handed out by critics who favor wines of weight, concentration and jammy fruit, regardless of their alcohol content, and that's the prize they have been chasing, said Eberle, including himself in the throng of vintners pursuing high points. Now, he's dialing back on ripeness in his grapes, and is working toward reducing the alcohol levels in his wines to around 13 percent and 14 percent. "These wines have 30 years in them and they're still not over the hill," he said of the 1981 and 1982 cabernet sauvignons. In short, he's listening to the lessons he sensed three decades ago, not to critics whose high points spring from a style of wine that may be impressive today but may not successfully carry many wonderful memories a decade or two from now.

1 comment:

  1. At the end of the day it is still about sales. Most wine drinkers I speak to are not put off over high alcohols as long as the wine tastes great and for the more "enthusiastic" drinkers, balanced. One of my most popular wines currently has an alcohol of 16.2% and we cannot keep it in the winery. Sales of our "lower" alcohol wines (14.5%) are sluggishly slow. Is this due to style or personal preference, I couldn't tell you. I just see what the consumer is buying and what they are not.

    Despite a push by the trade and blogosphere for lower alcohol more "complex" wines, the consumer is clearly voting with their dollars and higher alcohol wines continue to dominate at least our winery sales here in Paso. I would love to make complex, ripe wines at lower alcohols (no higher than 14.5%), but the market and at the end of the day economics as a small producer and staying in business have a very clear decision in the style we produce.