Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Some Quick Thoughts on Alcohol and California Wines

Can California wines be balanced? My friend Vinotas posits that in order to have balanced wines, vines need to be stressed and the conditions to stress the vines are not present in California. His argument is more nuanced than that I urge everyone to read his two part series on why we sells French wine.  I'm going to try to refute some of what he says, however.

Balanced wines are harmonious unto themselves and better complement a meal, which is a huge plus. Vinotas asks "how can you eat anything with an oaky, sweet CA Cabernet that's 15-17%/volume?" Fair enough, but let's dig in a bit there. It's unlikely that he has ever had a non-fortified wine that is 17% alcohol. I've only had one California wine that was that high, a Zinfandel, and it wasn't very good. Notwithstanding the lack of 17% wines, Eurocentric drinkers will often cite them as evidence of the lack of balance. I see that as a red herring. Let's work our way down. The only wines that are 16% that I own are Zinfandels and they are generally not as serious wines, meant to drink over the near term and have massive walls of fruit to hide the alcohol. Can you drink them with food? Sure, if you like ribs or chili (and who doesn't). The argument in favor of California wines gets far more complicated once you hit 15% APV. That is especially true for California Pinot Noir. To the extent there was a trend towards over-sized Pinot, I think that pendulum has begun to swing in the opposite direction with even people like Brian Loring admitting that his wines were insipid. It is easier to defend Cabernet where the alcohol may be hidden by fruit and tannin. 

Again, it is a question of balance with the balance being between the fruit and the structure (tannin and acidity). The more alcohol, the more fruit and tannin needed for cover, which makes it harder to keep them in balance. That does not mean it is impossible, only difficult, and there are any number of winemakers that get it right.


Mike P said...

Ben, interesting topic. I know without a doubt that California wines can be balanced (at least the ones I drink). Your friend is abviously jaded. When he says this: "These days, it seems like everyone and their brother is making wine out West, and the amount of plonk (that's a quasi-technical term meaning crap)". Has he ever been to a Paris grocery store? The amount of plonk is STAGGERING. (I should post on his blog, but will stay here). Plonk is plonk is plonk. Finding jewels amongsth them is the fun chore we are faced with. Thats why we do our CLONYC dinners. If we ventured out thinking that we will be bombarded with plonk....why would we? We know there are able and sensitive winemakers out there. We even know some personally. Tanzers point of view on this topic is dead on. Anyone who gets GrapeRadio should seek his segment out. Do I have scientific facts here and now? Nah, just my palate. Sure high alc wines are problematic. Your numbers all make sense. Not being a Cali Pinot fan I will leave your opinion intact. Just don't f with my Cabernet :)

Balance is subjective.

Ben said...

I believe he realizes plonk is plonk and that France produces tons of insipid wines in the opposite direction of ripeness. He just prefers mediocre French wine to mediocre American wine.

Oh, and believe me, Mike, I know better than to mess with your Cabernet! Thanks for commenting.

Mike P said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike P said...

Ben, Also keep in mind that different levels of plonk exist. Plonk in Franse was insipid thin cellar floor and weedy. (my experience). Plonk on the west coast can easily be the high alc wines. Although I think west coast plonk is still more thin, weedy and insipid......wait a minute....never mind. :)