Thursday, July 28, 2011

John Gilman on High Alcohol in Wines versus Sound Acidity for Ageing

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John Gilman, Author-Publisher of A View From the Cellar
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2007 / 

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Wine Over 14% Alcohol

"If you had said fifteen percent, this would have been easy! In general I think it is important to realize that history has not been kind to wines put in the cellar with high levels of alcohol, other than fortified wines, but that is another story. 

For non-fortified wines, high alcohol usually translates into either a short cellar life or a less than positive evolution in the bottle- or both. There are of course exceptions- Henri Bonneau’s brilliant Châteauneuf du Papes immediately come to mind- but these are exceptions. 

For the vast, vast majority of wines, lower alcohol wines have traditionally aged longer and better. Part of this equation of course is that lower alcohol wines, having started with lower sugar levels in the grapes, generally start out life with higher acidity. I have been drinking wine a long time now, and it is pretty clear to me that acidity is the cornerstone to a wine’s ability to age gracefully for a long period in the bottle and remain fresh and vibrant. And wines that age well are the ones that interest me the most. 

The transformation that a wine undergoes with bottle age is still one of the mysteries of wine- how it improves, what chemical reactions are taking place- all of these things are still unknown even with our advanced levels of science. But if the key fundamentals are in place in the wine when young, we do know that the wine will change and evolve and become more beautiful with age. And one of these keys is sound acidity.

When one thinks back or reads about the legendary Bordeaux wines of the first half of the twentieth century--the 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, the 1928 Palmer, the 1929 Latour or the 1900 Margaux--one of the glaring things that so many commentators fail to mention is how low in alcohol these wines were back then--probably between eleven and twelve percent, and they came from ripe vintages in those days! One of the chief reasons that they lasted so long was specifically because they were lower in alcohol-balanced wines that were able to stand the test of time. 

As Monsieur Bonneau has emphatically proven, it is not impossible to balance your wines at high degrees of alcohol, but it is a hell of a lot harder to do it, and for every Monsieur Bonneau who has been able to succeed with his formula, there are thousands who have tried and failed miserably. A perfect example of the differences between higher and lower levels of alcohol are the 1947 and the 1949 Cheval Blanc--both great wines, but the headier, almost Port-like 1947 is nowhere near as interesting to my palate as the lower alcohol, hauntingly ethereal 1949. I have been fortunate to drink both wines on several occasions, and even once had them served side by side in the same flight at a memorable dinner, and I would be willing to argue that the beautiful 1949 will in the end prove to be the longer-lasting and ultimately more interesting wine. And let me be the first to tell you, not every high alcohol wine is a 1947 Cheval Blanc in the making- no matter what you read elsewhere! 

I think that today high alcohol is one of the worst plagues in the world of wine, as it virtually guarantees that the wine in question will not stand the test of time in bottle. A lot of people might say “so what”, I want to drink my wines younger anyway, so what do I care about higher alcohol. Other than driving home from the dinner party, they may have a point. As long as there remains plenty of cellar-worthy, lower alcohol wines for those of us who want to age our wines, then it should not be a problem. 

In other words, if each individual wine exists in a vacuum, outside of the temporal world in which we live, then there is plenty of room for both kinds of wines. But the reality is that the new car in the driveway of the vigneron who let his grapes hang out on the vine until they were ready to fall off, and consequently was able to get a higher score (and more money) for his wine because some critic was suckered in by the black-purple color and the sweet, warming effects of alcohol on the palate which gave the wine a consistency of motor oil, then the odds are that a few vintages down the road, all of the nieghbors will be vacationing in September and picking their grapes in late October to try and make the same money and drive the same cars. - - John Gilman, author of the newsletter A View from the Cellar:  (From an interview with Gilman on the Dr. Vino website.)

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