One of the hottest issues in wine circles these days is heat—as in, too much alcohol. Obviously, wine wouldn't be wine without the alcohol, and the buzz it delivers is part of the pleasure. But alcohol levels have been climbing, much to the chagrin of some oenophiles, who find higher-octane wines overbearing and exhausting to drink. I sympathize: I am not a fan of syrupy cabernets and syrahs that leave me wishing I'd brought a pillow to the dinner table. However, I also think way too much dogmatism and vituperation has crept into the discussion. Taste is personal, some wines hold their alcohol better than others, and there are plenty of wines to suit every palate. Whatever happened to just agreeing to disagree?
All this ferment has its roots in the fermentation process, which converts the sugar in grapes into alcohol. Sugar is a function of ripeness, and the more sugar there is in the grapes, the more alcohol you end up with in the wine. Alcohol, in addition to getting you mellow, adds body, texture, and a perception of sweetness to wines, and as the alcohol content increases, those qualities get ratcheted up. Grapes such as zinfandel and grenache naturally yield wines that are fairly high in alcohol, as do warmer regions like the southern Rhône and the Barossa Valley. But alcohol levels have been rising in a number of places. Oenologists recently told Britain's Decanter magazine that increased potency is threatening the character of Bordeaux's wines. Similar concerns are being voiced elsewhere.
Yet it is California that has become the main flash point in the debate over alcohol. Visit any wine shop and you'll quickly see why: the shelves are groaning with California wines in excess of 14 or even 15 percent alcohol, and the labels may not even be telling the full story. Under U.S. law, wines 14 percent or under can vary as much as 1.5 percent from what is stated on the label (as long as the actual content does not surpass 14 percent), and those above 14 percent are permitted a 1 percent margin of error. Although California has always produced its share of floozies (I'm still talking about wines), Napa cabernets and merlots generally weren't as heady in the past. A recent study led by University of California Davis professor Julian Alston found that sugar levels in California grapes have jumped 9 percent since 1980.
What accounts for the spike? Climate change is often cited, and it certainly appears to be a factor in other regions. But Alston and his colleagues suggested that the higher sugar levels in California were mainly the result of farming practices. They speculated that different rootstocks and new planting systems may have had a role, and they also raised another possibility: producers harvesting riper fruit in order to craft wines that appeal to critics, namely to Robert Parker. They noted that the largest sugar increases have been for premium grapes—cabernet, merlot, chardonnay—and in premium areas such as Napa and Sonoma. They wrote that this "could be consistent with a 'Parker effect' … of wineries responding to market demand and seeking riper flavored more intense wines."
Parker has wielded extraordinary influence, and his California scores have long indicated a yen for ultra-ripe (read: high alcohol) wines. His words, too: In 1999 and again in 2000, he blasted Tim Mondavi, Robert's son, for making wines he considered too light and restrained. He accused Mondavi of "going against what Mother Nature has given California" and said the strength of California wines "lies in power, exuberance, and gloriously ripe fruit." In 2007, he launched a similar broadside against California vintner Steve Edmunds. "What Steve is doing appears to be a deliberate attempt to make French-styled wines," he said. "If you want to make French wine, do it in France." Considering the power of Parker's ratings, it would stand to reason that many producers took the unsubtle hints and made sure to deliver the kind of wines he favored.
Parker's thirst for hedonistic fruit bombs, as he calls them, extends to pinot noir. In Burgundy, where pinot is the signature red grape, the cool northerly climate makes ripeness a challenge, and as a result, the wines tend to be modest in alcohol and emphasize elegance over power. But with Parker's blessing (or prodding), California pinot has evolved in a very different direction: The wines are often very ripe and lush, with alcohol levels pushing or even topping 15 percent. Echoing Parker, proponents of this style contend that it is a natural expression of California's sun-splashed terroir and that comparisons with Burgundy are misguided. Apples to oranges, they say.
In fact, though, California can also do pinot in a lighter, more delicate vein, and recent years have seen a jump in the number wines that evince a Burgundian spirit. Some come from vintners who have renounced the fruit-bomb approach. Others, such as the incredible pinots of Rhys Vineyards, are derived from sites that yield ripe grapes at lower sugar levels. The growing prevalence of this genre is an encouraging development, and I think it demolishes the idea that the boozy confections are inevitable or somehow more authentically Californian. With Parker's recent decision to hand over California coverage to his associate Antonio Galloni, the movement toward greater finesse may well accelerate. An exciting new chapter for California pinot could be at hand.