Cycles take longer in the wine business than they do in the stock market.
I cut my professional wine teeth in 1992: 26 years ago. In ’92, Robert Parker was a 93+ (with a bullet) for wine influence, and the wines that got the best scores were, generally, really big, really ripe and higher in alcohol. Go to the 2000s decade (2000-2010), when I would say Parker was a 99 for wine influence, and the “big wine” craze was at its zenith. True, Parker did push more palates to this style, and pushed more producers to go bigger, but from my perspective he didn’t teach consumers to like bigger wines. I witnessed wine drinkers genuinely like the bigger, riper style wines better, whether they read Parker, or knew Parker, or not. In my mind, Parker has been the spokesman for the broad consumer taste. And that is more ripeness, more extraction, more flavor.
But preferences change. It’s natural. And it takes an authoritative voice or voices to move the change along. This decade, we’ve seen a change in wine from “bigger is better,” to “balance is better.” Ripe, not “over-ripe” grapes. Taste of the land. Bright acidity. And so on. Now, harvest 2018, there is room for success for wines of both styles and those in between. If you’re in wine sales, I bet you like the general openness of your customers for all types. In my last years as wine shop owner/wine merchant, I sure did. The job of selling wine was more complex and more interesting.
Free wine advice from a former Napa wine shop owner & sommelier
Which brings me to the headline: Is there such a thing as too alcoholic a wine?
I have to answer this question twice: once as a wine salesperson, then as a wine consumer.
The salesperson answer is NO. I’ve had oodles of wines at 15+ alcohol that were balanced, complex and wonderful. I have been surprised to find out a wine’s elevated alcohol, post-taste, countless times. Yes, you can make a fantastic wine that is not “too much” by (almost) all tasters’ definition at higher alcohol levels (let’s just say over 15% for the sake of the article). Besides, as a wine professional/salesperson/ambassador, who am I to say a higher alcohol wine is inferior? I will not disqualify because of its alcohol level just as I won’t because of its color, origin, price, etc.
My answer to the question, as a consumer, is a qualified no. I hit 50 last year, and the body is taking alcohol differently now (it’s a good thing – I have a booze governor now!). That 1% alcohol difference makes a difference on the brain, the body and the next day. Party of 1 to 3? I like to keep the alcohol at 14.5% or lower. Party of 4 or more? We can spread it around and feel just fine about ourselves. Of course, the food, time span and the company are factors, but I’m running out of time.
You do need to be more careful in selecting riper, stronger, bigger wines as it takes a more skilled winemaking hand the higher the alcohol gets. More weird stuff can happen, and believe me, I’ve tasted plenty of weird “over the top” wines. That’s where your trusted wine merchants, sommeliers and wine critics (like me!) come in to help. If you believe the best wines for you are the wines you like best, that’s OK, provided they are well-made wines. Enjoy them all, alcohol notwithstanding.
Here are two wines at 15+ alcohol and two under 14%, all beautifully balanced, and full of flavor and pleasure.
COMMUNICATION BLOCK Cabernet Sauvignon “Lampyridae Vineyards”
Mount Veeder, Napa Valley 2014 ($100/bottle).
15.5% alcohol and you’d never know it. So good. MY TASTING NOTES.
JonEVino St. Laurent “Dale Ricci Vineyard” Los Carneros, Sonoma County 2015 ($30)
Coming in at 11% alcohol. 11%! Beautiful wine to match myriad foods. MY TASTING NOTES.
BOHÈME Pinot Noir “Stuller Vineyard” Sonoma Coast 2014 ($53)
Cool climate Pinot Noir. Smells better than the best perfume to me, and the flavor is bright, long and strong. All this at 13.9% alcohol.
MY TASTING NOTES.