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Pinot Noir and Alcohol, Take Two

2011 May 24
by Mike

I posted a link last week to my Slate article about alcohol levels, and later updated it to include a link to financial blogger Felix Salmon’s broadside against my piece and my reply to his rant (don’t ya just love Internet spats?) But no one responded to the questions I posed about high-alcohol pinots, and I am very curious to hear what you think.

My friend John Gilman, taking a break from pulverizing Château Pavie, tweeted the other day that my article “missed a key issue in debate—high alc wines lose both focus and complexity.”  As I told John, I wasn’t discussing the merits of high-alcohol wines; I was simply arguing in favor of diversity and choice and noting that a lot of people seem to enjoy fruit bombs. That said, I think John made a fair point: past a certain alcohol level, wines lose precision and nuance. That’s particularly true with pinot noir. For my taste, pinot just doesn’t work well as a high-alcohol wine. The alcohol has a crowding-out effect on exactly those things that I most adore about pinot—the subtlety, the delicacy.

Delicacy is key. Probably the biggest beef I have with higher-alcohol pinots is texture. I don’t like syrupy wines, and more often than not, higher-octane pinots feel thick and heavy on the palate. The viscousness, when coupled with extremely sweet fruit—and the two usually go hand-in-hand—instantly causes me to reach for the dump bucket (or kitchen sink—whichever is closer). So much of what I love about red Burgundies is the tactile pleasure, that enthralling combination of crispness, succulence, and silkiness. That’s what I want from pinot, wherever it originates. I can’t say at exactly what alcohol level the texture problem arises—it varies from pinot to pinot, which is why I’m against arbitrary cut-offs. But above 14 percent, the syrupy sensation certainly becomes more prevalent.

Is texture an issue for you? Where do you come down on the great debate over pinot and alcohol? Is the high-octane style an aberration/abomination, or do you think it is a legitimate expression of pinot?

27 Responses leave one →
  1. Mike Logan permalink
    June 4, 2013

    Syrupy is not the issue. The issue is that somewhere between 13.5 and
    14% alcohol in wines made from pinot noir the bitterness of alcohol
    dominates. SUre it’s a matter of taste. If you like the flavor of alcohol,
    that’s your choice. But balance is not just a matter of taste, but a matter of fact.

  2. May 26, 2011

    An interesting post on this topic (in part) by Blake Gray today…..don’t know if you all saw it:

    http://blog.wblakegray.com/2011/05/alcohol-in-wine-increasing-in-every.html

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  3. May 26, 2011

    I agree with the above commenter that we should shy away from numbers as a rule; they are however often useful as a guide (when making a purchase, for example).

    13.5% tends to be my magic number for Pinot Noir, but I’ve been surprised occasionally in both directions.

  4. May 26, 2011

    Hi Ryan,

    Italy is a great place to catch the wine bug. Thanks for your comments, and I think you make an excellent point about competing orthodoxies. More and more, the debate just feels like two sides talking past each other, and I think there’s an obvious explanation for that: people have different preferences. From what you describe of your own taste, it seems clear that you are not as hung up on the syrupy thing as I am. We are just different that way, and it doesn’t make one palate better than the other. As I said in my Slate piece, there is plenty of wines these days to satisfy every palate. I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had about alcohol levels and why they are rising, but I think the debate has become too dogmatic and vituperative.

  5. Bill Klapp permalink
    May 26, 2011

    Ryan, there are folks out there espousing the refreshingly different “I can’t get enough alcohol” view. They are generally referred to as “winos”, I believe! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I know that you are not thinking of MD 20/20.)

  6. Ryan Kilkenney permalink
    May 26, 2011

    I became interested in wine in 2005 or so, on my honeymoon in Italy. And it became a serious hobby only some years later. By that time the anti-Parker wine counterculture was already in full swing, which may explain why I can’t get excited about the great alcohol debate. I just hear competing orthodoxies, one about as stale as the other. (Actually, it would be refreshingly different if someone said that they can’t get enough alcohol – the more the better. Heat? Bring it on.)

    I personally want some base level of ripeness, which I find in “elegant” California pinots (e.g., Arcadian) and “ripe” California pinots (e.g., Siduri). I bet I could find my sweet spot in Burgundy, too, it’s just too expensive to explore. I’m not particularly turned off by viscous wines, but I’m happiest when the wine is light and the flavors are concentrated.

  7. May 26, 2011

    Mike writes “I am against label drinking in all forms”.

    Note to Bruce: That is exactly what my statement means to say. One does not drink labels and thus the ABV statement by itself is not determining. Whether it is a useful guideline is something else again.

    The problem is that statements like “I know from experience but …” still reads to me that the stated alcohol has a predetermining effect. I certainly cannot and will not argue that viscosity of wine is more likely to be elevated with wines of elevated alcohol levels. I also know from experience that neither Mike nor I nor Raj Parr nor anyone else can tell the difference between 13.7 and 14.3 ABV if other factors like pH, TA, non-de-alc wine is involved. That is why 14% is such a pernicious number.

    You don’t like syrupy Pinots? OK. That is a fair statement. The likelihood that the instances of syrupy wines increases as alc goes up. Also fair. But using 14% as some form of measuring rod, as Mike’s later statement suggests is misleading. Why not just leave the preference to style rather than to one specific number. pH may be a far better measure than ABV for finding a style, for example, but wines are not labeled with pH numbers so alcohol level becomes the whipping boy.

    I am still waiting to hear if Dehlinger is syrupy at 14.9%. Certainly Jon Bonne and Alan Meadows have shown that they do not think it is. So, once again, we are back to the conundrum. Why keep referring to a specific number when what one really means is a specific characteristic that is depending on palate impression rather than label reading.

    Now, this may all seem like dancing on pinheads, but the meaning of words is important in wine criticism. And so is the avoidance of concepts that do not mean what we are trying to say.

    My thanks to Mike for allowing me full rein to express my concerns on this point.

    Charlie Olken

  8. May 26, 2011

    Bruce,

    That’s my position, stated with greater clarity than I’ve managed thus far! I’m against label drinking in all forms; wines should be judged on how they taste, not what the stated alcohol level is. That said, with enough experience, one can reach some general conclusions. As I said, I find that texture becomes an issue with pinots above 14 percent alcohol. I’m against arbitrary cut-off points, and I know from experience that there are pinots above 14 percent that do not exhibit the syrupy character that I abhor. But based on years of tasting, I would say that texture tends to become a problem for my palate once past 14 percent. The key words there are “for my palate”–for other people, perhaps the threshold is higher, or maybe texture just isn’t much of a concern.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Mike

  9. Bruce Gutlove permalink
    May 25, 2011

    “I have not liked and will not like any wine over XX% alcohol” strikes me as a statement both arbitrary and unsupportable.

    “Based on my tasting experiences I’ve found that I am less likely to enjoy wines with actual ABV’s above XX%” seems a perfectly reasonable statement to make.

    Some people surely go too far in blaming alcohol levels. But it is possible to go too far in the other direction by denying that alcohol has anything whatsoever to do with a sensory assessment of a given wine.

    I’m not sure what is meant by “ABV is not a determinant. Tasting is the only determinant.”
    But it may be a case of going too far.

  10. May 25, 2011

    Mike–

    The tree up which I am barking is the tree that has become a forest of comments that are critical, not balanced. It is the forest that does not recognize a Dehlinger or the new Morgan Rosella’s or a host of well-balanced wines over 14 ABV.

    And while we are at it, if the existing regulations for US wines identified 14.5 ABV as the cutoff point for a different tax category instead of 14%, would that number have become the artificial paradigm for the forest.

    As for what I like or do not like, have a look at my website or send me an email and I will be happy to give you access to the thousands of Pinots I have reviewed in print over the last several years.

    I do want to make sure that you understand my position. It is this. ABV is not a determinant. Tasting is the only determinant. I don’t care what numbers anyone calls out. There are no absolutes in this business, and my writing friends who like to mention pH as their measure of ageworthiness or specific acidity levels for Chardonnay miss the point entirely. The examples of how these folks get hoist on their own petards are too numerous to mention, but do have a look at the latest Decanter in which Calera’s 14.8 ABV Chard is held out as a prime example of the so-called new paradigm for CA Chard. It is no new paradigm. Josh’s wines have always been both up in alc and in acidity.

    Wines should be judged by taste and not by numbers. Every time we in the wine writing community start throwing around numbers, we lose the focus on individual wines. Just have a look at the comments above. No one there is suggesting that there are plenty of acceptable wines above 14% ABV.

  11. May 25, 2011

    Charles,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Did you read my Slate piece about pinot and alcohol? I said very clearly that I think cut-offs are a bad idea, and I reiterated that point in this post. I went on to say that in my experience, the syrupy character becomes increasingly prevalent above 14 percent. I don’t think that contradicts my point about cut-offs. With some wines, the syrupy thing might kick in at 14.1 percent, with others it might be 14.8. It’s possible to find it below 14 percent, too. However, most of the wines in which I encounter that kind of viscousness are above 14 percent alcohol.

    As for your last paragraph, Charlie–again, you need to go read my Slate piece if you haven’t done so. I’m not generalizing, I’m not demeaning any wines–far from it. Read my Slate piece (or read it again), and I think you’ll realize that you are barking up the wrong tree here.

    Just out of curiosity: Have you tried Kevin Harvey’s wines? What do you think of Au Bon Climat and Calera?

  12. May 25, 2011

    I am constantly fascinated by this Pinot-alc debate. It almost leads to assertions that 14% is some magic tipping point–even when the writer (Mike, in this case) says he is not making that point and then does.

    The problem with the point is that it is arbitrary, ignores the fact that there have been wonderful Pinots on both sides of the pond above 14% for years now and then leads to comments like “well, they won’t age” when clearly the ageworthiness of a wine is not determined by ABV but by balance, depth and focus.

    The height of this silliness was reached the other day in Jon Bonne’s blog where he admitted, having lambasted 2009 Russian River Pinot Noir, that he had yet to taste the best producers from the 2009 vintage. And in so doing, he mentioned Dehlinger. Now, I admit that I like Dehlinger Pinots. I have multiple vintages in my cellar. I can assure you that they age just fine thank you.

    But, think about this. Virtually every Dehlinger Pinot is above 14.5 ABV and many run close to, and maybe over 14.9% (the upper number typically seen on Dehlinger labels). Mike, you may or may not like Dehlinger, and I am not trying to put words in your mouth or anyone else’s. But here is this outspoken (Bonne) critic saying he views Dehlinger as one of the best. And this comment is echoed by others including Alan Meadows who was called out after he lambasted CA Pinot and was reminded that he had picked Dehlinger out in a blind tasting as French.

    The point is that every time someone like you trots out the same generalization, and does not mention thin or green Pinots, does not mention volatile Pinots, etc, you wind up overgeneralizing and demeaning very good wines in the process. You need to stop talking about ABV as some sort of guidepost and start reviewing wines. It is in the bottle and the glass that measurements can be made. That is, unless you do not mind letting the notion stand that wines like Dehlinger, Merry Edwards, Williams Selyem, etc are suspect because of their labels rather than because of their past histories.

  13. May 25, 2011

    I’ll take the clown show over this:
    “Hot, sweet, and flabby. Not my style but apparently yours- 92 points”

  14. Bill Klapp permalink
    May 25, 2011

    Hmmmm, Danny Boy. Parker as performance artist. I envision him standing in the middle of the grand concourse of Grand Central Station, and on the stroke of noon, break dancing and spewing out scores as he spins around on the floor. While the passing New Yawkers totally ignore him, of course…

  15. May 25, 2011

    Mike,
    I’ll give you a point of view to think through. I would argue that the large scale reviewing machines do not really lead. Rather, they follow. IE, they sensationalize that which they think will produce the greatest results for their business. And not necessarily cynically for profit; most performance artists like and gravitate towards acclaim.
    As you observe, the underlaying public wine interest is changing- and that is reflective of a society at large that is changing. The wine reviewers will sense that they too must change their standards or decline further into irrelevance. We do see a lot of higher points flipping around more traditional wines now, and see a lot more in the near future. And then the formulaic ultra wines start coming down.

  16. May 25, 2011

    Dan,

    Thanks for stopping by. I generally agree with you. But as to your point about winemakers–they have been responding to incentives in the marketplace. An 87-point wine is a tough wine to sell, and if ratcheting up the alcohol and oak can get you over that 90-point hump, you are probably going to do it. That said, I think it’s clear that the incentives are starting to change. There is growing demand for wines that emphasize elegance rather than power. Look at all the excitement, for instance, regarding Rhys Vineyards. It’s not just consumers who respond to that kind of buzz–winemakers do, too. So I think things are shifting.

    Mike

  17. May 25, 2011

    Well, I’ll confess certain affinity for high alcohol- as provided in a Gin Martini or an Islay Whiskey. With wine, not so much. And my aversion there is not just the heat or headiness of alcohol, nor the mass of fruit compote with or without tannic extraction. It is the whole Frankenwien sensation. To me, the difference between palatable wine and a grape cocktail is in the acidity. Acidity holds most of the secrets of both preservation and sense of place. And make that natural acidity please. The powdered additive may dissolve, but it still doesn’t fit in. At least not for me.
    I like Paul Draper’s writing on how and why this “bigger is better” movement came to pass in the vineyards and wineries of the late 20th century. And I like John Gilman on the impact on the wine in the glass. But early in life a business mentor trained me rigidly to solve problems not complain about them. So winemakers- here it is: pick your grapes before they turn into bird bait and you will make wonderful 85- 92 point wine. If you have a public who demands more points, more alcohol, or more compote- serve it on the side.

  18. May 25, 2011

    Sure, prices for the 05s were crazy, but that was the Allen Meadows effect. Look at the 98s, a vintage that Rovani slammed but that most Burgundy fans recognized to be quite good. That Mugnier Musigny? I picked up the 98 for $80 a bottle. In that case, the Wine Advocate worked to my advantage in two ways–Mugnier’s wines were not made in a style that Parker/Rovani particularly liked (far too subtle, elegant), and Rovani was not a fan of the vintage. In retrospect, Rovani’s verdict on the 98s, coupled with Parker’s repeated trashing of the 93s, destroyed the Wine Advocate’s standing with Burgundy fans and opened the door for Allen.

  19. Bill Klapp permalink
    May 25, 2011

    Mike, you are so right. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I learned that bottles of the 2005 Dugat-Py or Leroy Chambertin could be had for $1,800, the 2005 Mugnier Musigny for a mere $2,000 (and his Chambolle-Musigny Amoureuses a steal at $1,100), La Tache for $4,000, Roumier Musigny for $5,000 and Romanee-Conti for $10,000. I must say, however, that case- quantity offerings of those wines were few and far between for some reason. Can you imagine what those prices would have looked like absent the profoundly positive impact of Parker and Rovani?

  20. May 24, 2011

    Bill,

    In retrospect, Parker and Rovani were Godsends for Burgundy fans. They helped keep prices down!

    As I said in my Slate piece, I think there is a large segment of the wine buying public that likes these high-alcohol, exuberantly fruity pinots. I suspect such wines are less popular today than they were three or four years ago, but there is clearly still a market for them. It will be interesting to see where things stand in another three or four years.

  21. Bill Klapp permalink
    May 24, 2011

    I have been getting a little soft on Parkerism lately, having stepped away from the rhetorical fray to try and gain a little perspective, and one of the thoughts that I had was, in essence, a different spin on your notion, Mike, that we should live and let 16% alcohol Pinots live. Consider that Parker railed against Burgundy for years, and that there are now a couple of generations of his acolytes who believe that Burgundy is nothing but an expensive crapshoot. Consider that Meadows was not around, Tanzer was writing the right stuff on Burgundy, but also showing Cali Pinot the love by measuring it with a non-Burgundian yardstick, and WS was offering great values in village wines but often ignoring the top grand crus, devoting the lion’s share of its space to the current-drinking wines that its audience demanded. Add to that the fact that Parker never understood (as Meadows, Tanzer, Gilman and others do) that the aging profile of profound grand cru Burgundy pretty much parallels that of first-growth Bordeaux, and also that great Burgundy can be just as closed, obnoxious and unyielding in its youth as Bordeaux is (or at least WAS, before Parker’s influence was fully felt). (Did Parker never raid the cellar at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa for old Burgundies?) That bit of myopia caused him to damn much of classic vintages like 1993, and he and Rovani often told the faithful to drink up their grand cru Burgundy within a decade in order to salvage whatever little pleasure could be had from the dreadful, tannic, fruitless stuff. And then go buy a bottle or two of Claude Dugat or similar destemmed, ever-open and fruity wines, if you must drink Burgundy.

    Against that backdrop, it is not surprising that Parker and his followers want instant gratification in their Pinot Noir, and California and Oregon provide that, including the superfruity, high-alcohol bottles. Same deal with Chardonnay vs. white Burgundy, and that was so before premox gave the latter a bad name. I always chuckled when I saw the raving about Marcassin Pinots and Chardonnays that were holding up beautifully and had become even better with, say, 5 or more years of age. (Nobody ever kept count on the huge number of bottles of Pinot and Chardonnay that had completely fallen apart within 5 years of the vintage.) Thus, another way of arriving at your viewpoint is that most New World Pinot in general, and high-alcohol Cali pinot in particular, provide what a large segment of the market has been taught to want: cheaper, more understandable, more reliable, straightforward Pinot and Chardonnay, kissed passionately and continuously with that delightful new oak and ripened until fat and sweet from the extra alcohol carried by the wines. The anti-Burgundy. Virtually risk-free. No funkiness; clean and pure. (Little or no complexity, either.) Not 500 bucks a bottle, even for Marcassin in the secondary market. Something has been lost there, but re-educating the Parkerites is a daunting task at best. But I will defend Keith’s right to call the stuff “crappy” to the death!

  22. May 24, 2011

    Bill and Keith,

    I agree with both of you. I don’t like the way most higher-alcohol pinots taste and feel, and I certainly don’t think they improve with age; I think they are far more apt to crack up on account of the alcohol. Sure, it’s conceivable that a 15 percent pinot can seem balanced, but it’s not likely to have the delicacy and subtlety that I want.

  23. Bill Klapp permalink
    May 24, 2011

    Keith, I like your man on the balance beam analogy. While I do think that a balanced high-alcohol wine is possible (and called “Bandol”, I believe!), I take Gilman’s point regarding loss of focus and complexity in pinot, and tend to believe that a “balanced” 16% pinot is most often (always?) but a boatload of fruit hiding a multitude of sins that will out in the end. Nothing new in the hiding, really. Absolutely brilliant wines often completely hide huge tannins and/or oak when young. But alcohol is a different matter altogether. The fruit must frontrun the alcohol for the life of the wine. At the point that it does not, the wine becomes undrinkable quickly. The “balanced” 16% pinot risks breaking the scale for my personal taste, but the greater risk would seem to be the wine breaking up when the fruit subsides. I could be convinced otherwise if somebody could point me to a 16% alcohol La Tache that is generally considered to be one of the greatest La Taches ever…

  24. May 24, 2011

    Hi Keith,

    Thanks for the comment. As I noted in my reply to Felix’s post, I quoted two eminent wine writers essentially saying that the high-alcohol style of California pinot should be put out of existence. I think you would agree that there isn’t much ambiguity about “kicked to the curb.” So I don’t believe it was a straw man argument at all. What I found particularly bizarre about Felix’s post was that he tried to suggest that I was somehow attempting to limit diversity and choice. He wrote, “In my neighborhood, I have one store which sells only Spanish wines; another which specializes in Italy. Would Steinberger shun those, too? California has no shortage of restaurants and wine stores selling big, fruity, high-alcohol wine. What harm is done by one or two which shun it?” He tried to make the same kind of argument with regard to Parr and RN74, suggesting that I was somehow impinging on Raj’s freedom. How he managed to turn my argument in favor of diversity and choice into an attempt to limit those things was quite a feat.

    As to your larger point, I completely agree. People have the right to make 15.5 percent pinots, and you (and I) have the right to criticize those wines.

    I also agree with the point you made on berserkers this morning regarding the 09 Beaujolais vintage. I think the vintage is controversial only because it’s fashionable in certain quarters to be contrarian.

  25. May 24, 2011

    On another note, the important point to make about alcohol is that the objection usually isn’t to alcohol qua alcohol. Rather, alcohol is a pretty good proxy for other stylistic characteristics. You can be pretty safe in assuming that a California pinot noir over 15% alcohol was harvested late and carries the attendant syrupy, candied flavors (jam, licorice, cola, sucking candy, and so on). Obviously that’s not always true, but it often is. If you find those flavors unattractive, you are wise to avoid the 15% alcohol pinot, and it’s quite besides the point whether you would notice any excess alcohol in tasting the wine. (Which is presumably what people mean when they defend the genre on the ground that they can still be “balanced.” “Balanced,” of course, is not a synonym for “attractive” — you can try to put a 400-pound man on a balance beam, but it still isn’t a pretty sight.)

  26. May 24, 2011

    Sorry to see how heated things seem to have gotten between you and Felix as I enjoy both of your work and find that when Felix wades into the wine world he usually brings a fresh and interesting perspective. I do think Felix makes a valid point when he characterizes your ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ position as something of a straw man. Those of us who tend to be critical of high-alcohol California pinot noirs have never advocated anything that would reduce anyone’s freedom to make or commercialize such wines. We are happy to see a thousand flowers bloom — but that doesn’t mean all flowers are created equal. They are free to make pinot noir at 15.5% alcohol if that helps pay their bills, and I am free to opine that the wine is crappy.

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