Forbes: Alcohol and Balance

8/26/2018 5:05:11 AM

Wines Of The Week: Alcohol And Balance

Forbes | By Brian Freedman | Aug 24, 2018 | Original Article

Discussions of alcohol levels in wine are analogous to the third rail of train tracks: Often dangerous to even approach, and it should only be done with extreme caution. This is because everyone, it seems, has an opinion about what constitutes an “appropriate” amount of alcohol. It makes sense: The abv in a bottle has a huge impact on the balance of the wine, the flavor profile, the texture, the ways in which it interacts with food, and more. Strong opinions, on either side of the proverbial aisle, are justified, and I find plenty of merit in both.

But as with all deeply held convictions, it’s far too easy for logical argument to devolve into orthodoxy, when the reality is that there are plenty of great wines that don’t have all that much alcohol (the Kutch Bohan Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016, for example, clocks in at 11.3% abv, and it’s magnificent, with copious red fruit, Indian spice, and roses leaving a lasting impression long after the wine has been finished) and just as many that have higher levels (the Faust Limited Release “Graffiti Edition” Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, which comes in magnum and boasts 14.9% alcohol, is balanced and assertive all at once, with chocolate, cedar, blueberry cobbler, cassis, and cigar tobacco). They are verydifferent wines, but I find a ton of pleasure in both.

I’ve always felt that the place where the grapes are grown should be taken into consideration when judging a wine’s “appropriate” alcohol levels, as well as the farming techniques and, yes, the style of wine that is intended to be coaxed from that fruit. History and tradition matter, too: The best red Burgundy, in my opinion, tends to be more moderate in alcohol, whereas valley-floor Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley often should be higher in alcohol than, say, its counterparts on the Left Bank in Bordeaux. Of course, vintage conditions always play an important role, too.

More than anything for me, when assessing the wine in the bottle, it’s about balance: So long as all the proverbial moving parts that constitute a pleasurable sip of wine are in harmony, then I’m happy. I’ll likely drink fewer glasses if there’s a surfeit of alcohol, and certainly this is especially true in the warmer weather, but I’ll derive just as much pleasure from it no matter how much alcohol is there as long as it’s balanced. The same goes for lower-alcohol wines: Few things are more enjoyable than a bottle that I can share and finish with another person over dinner without feeling terrible afterward. They both have their appropriate time and place, and neither one seems to me to be inherently better than the other.

That having been said, my two Wines of the Week today both approach or possess 15% abv; both, in their way, are quintessential examples of their intended styles and places of origin; and both of them are seriously enjoyable bottles.

My white Wine of the Week is a bit of a cheat in this context, actually, since it’s fortified. But still, the Tio Pepe Fino en Rama, released in 2018, is, even at 15% abv, wonderfully refreshing, incredibly complex, and a great example of the style, which, to oversimplify, essentially involves filtering the fino far less aggressively, if at all, than a producer would for its more standard bottling.

It’s also worth noting, to bring things back to alcohol levels, that this delicious bottle is utterly refreshing. I recently shared one with my wife on a sultry summer day, and we both drank our pre-dinner glasses rather more quickly than I’d expected. And with dinner (an amazing pairing with General Tso’s chicken, shockingly enough), the bottle vanished before we had finished our respective second bowlfuls of food. It was balanced, generous, and never overpowering, either on its own or alongside our dinner.

My red Wine of the Week is the Palmaz “Gaston” Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, which rings in at 14.9% abv and is an absolutely wonderful wine, unabashedly rich and almost brooding, with blackberry coulis, cocoa powder, black licorice, and bacon, and a finish that nods in the direction of cassis, Earl Grey tea, and charred orange peel. Interestingly, it’s a wine that I believe would be less impressive if its alcohol were lower. There is a sappiness to the texture here, and a lingering richness on the palate, that haunted me long after I tasted it. And the ripeness of the fruit leads to a complexity of expression that throws all of the more savory characteristics into sharper relief.

As far as pairing this beautiful wine with food, I’d recommend a grilled soy- and brown sugar-marinated skirt steak, though a simply seasoned and well-marbled rib eye would work just as well. And, indeed, the right pairing here could lead to finishing the bottle, despite its alcohol content. I’d be more than happy to do so.

Tio Pepe Fino en Rama (2018 release)

What an expressive and complex nose, with pear fritters, walnut, hazelnut, and hay, all leading to a palate both creamy and silky, rich yet refreshing, with notes of dried pineapple and apricot, spice, fennel bulb and seed, preserved lemon, and a hint of salinity on the finish that keeps on demanding subsequent sips. Available for under $30.

Palmaz “Gaston” Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Napa Valley

Rich and almost brooding, with a decadent aromatic swirl of blackberry coulis, cocoa powder, mineral, bacon, and black licorice. On the palate, this is sweetly fruited with more of that blackberry coulis as well as a touch of cassis, yet there is also a hit of acid that reminded me of balsamic reduction, that perked everything up perfectly. It finishes with Earl Grey tea and charred orange peel, lingering with balance and character to spare. SRP: $200