Burned Out by High Alcohol

Too much booze from overripe grapes drowns subtleties and delicate aromas
KJVR Meritage
2004 Kendall-Jackson Meritage ($12): Traditional Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc, but a very good wine for the money. Dense color, chocolate and rich berry flavors, medium weight, 13.5-percent alcohol and a pleasant, soft finish.

High alcohol levels in wine are no longer an issue raised solely by effete wine writers and nostalgic whiners who would turn the clock back by dialing down the levels to where they were a decade ago.

The most recent supporter is longtime Napa winemaker Randy Dunn of Dunn Vineyards, who wrote an open letter to the media in July asking journalists and the public to demand a stop to excessive alcohol.

“It is time for the average wine consumers, as opposed to tasters, to speak up,” wrote Dunn, who has been making his famed cabernet sauvignons and other wines since the late 1970s. “The current fad of higher and higher alcohol wines should stop. Most wine drinkers do not really appreciate wines that are 15- to 16- (plus) percent alcohol. They are, in fact, hot and very difficult to enjoy with a meal.’ ”

The central issue here is that alcohol levels in newer- style red wines, mostly from California and Australia, which used to be about 13 percent a decade ago are now as high as 16.5 percent.

That may not sound like much, but it’s enough to alter how you sense the wine. And you’ll get drunk faster on less. It’s also the difference between a splitting headache and a comfortable night’s sleep. High alcohol also interferes with how acutely you taste wine; it masks delicate flavors and aromas present in wine.

“Would you want to sample a soup, meat dish, or other course that is so overpowering that you cannot enjoyably finish what is in front of you?” Dunn asked in his letter. “These new wines are made to taste and spit — not to drink.”

Expensive, high-alcohol wines took off with the newly wealthy youth of dotcom market in the 1990s. They didn’t mind paying $80 and up for thick, raisiny, port-like young wine. In fact, they approached wine as stronger is better. That thinking and those wines have not yet landed. They have become the norm.

The problem is that to get that alcohol level, the grapes also need to be so overly ripe that the subtle distinctions that used to characterize Stag’s Leap from, say, Howell Mountain, are lost. At a certain ripeness level, even different grape varieties all start to taste the same.

Dunn isn’t alone in this judgment. Darrell Corti, a legend in wine retailing who runs Corti Brothers in Sacramento, Calif., announced earlier in the summer that he will no longer sell red wines that are more than 14.5-percent alcohol. He cites many of the same reasons as Dunn, and he also directly blames wine critic Robert Parker and Wine Spectator magazine for repeatedly giving their top ratings to high-alcohol wines, while ignoring what are often better, more elegant, subtler wines with less alcohol.

And now, British food chains Tesco, Saintsbury’s, and Marks & Spencer all have introduced lower-alcohol lines of wine, citing customer research that suggests people are getting fed up with alcohol bombs.

Can we be far behind?