The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

High Alcohol Wines and Spirited Debates

Posted on | May 13, 2010 | Written by Tom Powers | No Comments

I‘ve just finished reading the Lettie Teague Wall Street Journal article about high alcohol wines. Lettie—who, full disclosure, used to write for Italian Wine Merchants—explores the legal questions of these wines, their relative values according to sommeliers and experts, and their taste. She reaches the conclusion that these wines have “flavor and intensity and they were immensely pleasurable, “and she suggests that this alcohol is not unlike fat in meat: it adds flavor.

I then read Dr. Vino’s follow-up article in response to Lettie’s article. What’s immediately clear is that the subject of high alcohol wines, wines with over 14% alcohol, is a hot topic today. In his post, popular blogger Dr. Vino takes Lettie to task over her claims, her sources and her “hypocrisy.” Let’s just say that both writers seem to be fairly impassioned about their stance on the issue.

Reading around on the internet, I soon saw that there are very strong opinions on both sides of the argument: on one hand, there are outstanding sommeliers and wine aficionados that champion the lower alcohol wines, and on the other, there are the experts who find high alcohol wines to be too big, too full, too fruity and too garish. The primary pro-high alcohol argument is that they are more balanced— and the primary anti-high alcohol argument is that high alcohol wines aren’t balanced enough. Balance seems to be the underpinning of either polemic, which seems a tad counter-intuitive.

There are some commonalities that every wine expert, even Lettie and Dr. Vino, can agree on. For example, we can acknowledge that wines with low alcohol often seem to possess a more elegant style. Often these wines can present a greater level of complexity.  Sometimes they appear better balanced. They do pair better with most food, and often they evolve into even more impressive wines as they mature. But do these points necessarily make them better wines?

In considering the two opinions, I’m left with a rather simple question: Why do we need to decide that one style is superior to the other? And why do we need to suggest that high alcohol wines are poorly made, insignificant and to be avoided at all costs? Perhaps we can get back to a more simple reference point which is that many of these high alcohol wines are delicious. Do we need a better reason to represent these wines on our wine lists or in our personal collections? The answer to this question may be the root of the answer.

There are many wine lovers who approach wine in a manner that is exclusive, which is to say they contend that they understand the product better, have more experience than the rest of us and, therefore, their opinion is superior. This is rubbish. Wine is meant to bring people together. It’s meant for people to share and more than anything it is meant for people to enjoy. There are times when we simply want something that makes us smile and makes us feel more relaxed; there are times when balance doesn’t even enter the equation. One of the wines mentioned in the article was a Martinelli Zinfandel.  The Martinelli family are among the finest farmers anywhere. Their Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels, Chardonnays, and Gewurztraminers are always delicious. (For that matter, their apple juice is among the best I have ever tasted.) High alcohol, low alcohol or in the case of the apple juice no alcohol, Martinelli wines taste as good. Another example of these high alcohol wines would be Larry Turley’s Zinfandels. Do I care that they are complex? Absolutely not. I also don’t care if they’re simple. I merely care that they’re good.

I believe that any collection has room for both styles of these hotly contested wines. Indeed, I’d go on to argue that in my world there is a need for both high alcohol and low alcohol wines. I’d happily take a seat in the audience, enjoy a glass of both styles, and listen to both sides of the argument. I’d delight in seeing each presenter twist and turn with the vehement presentation of his or her argument’s points. And at the end of the discussion, I’d leave content that I had an opportunity to experience two fine glasses of wine and hear two fine orators. It’s win-win; it’s wine; and if it’s an argument or a wine made well, it’s all good.

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