I recently tasted some very fine older Grand Cru Bordeaux — several from the excellent 2000 vintage, by no means old by Bordeaux standards. While it must be said that even in some of these splendid bottles, alcohol had crept up somewhat from the historical past, levels nonetheless remained far short of the 14 per cent to 15 per cent that have become all too common.
The hallmark of truly great wine is not only complexity but, perhaps more importantly, exquisite balance. These bottles had that in spades, beautifully nuanced fruit with notes of spice, subtle oak and earthiness as well as savoury and meaty character. All elements melded together harmoniously and lingered on the palate, with staying power for years to come. These are table wines in the classic sense, balanced and refined, with alcohol kept well in check.
Unfortunately, the wine world has been moving in a very different direction in the last decade or so, increasingly dominated by big, heavily extracted, high alcohol wines. Few foods can stand up to their bold, dominating flavours. Is it, perhaps, high time to get back to true table wines that achieve their highest peak when paired with equally fine foods? Wine and food are meant to be enjoyed together. When neither dominates, both taste better as a result.
a compelling case
David McMillan is chef and owner of Joe Beef, a small restaurant located in Montreal’s Little Burgundy district. David first came to my attention when reading a feature article by Chris Nuttal-Smith that appeared in the Globe and Mail. Chefs from across the country were asked about their expectations and hopes for 2012. McMillan, a man of fervent conviction, delivered an opening salvo that immediately caught my eye. “We can’t give away Australian wine any more. People’s taste has changed. They’re getting back to drinking Old World style wines, natural wines, low-alcohol, small production wines that go with food instead of killing it … There’s nothing I can prepare in the kitchen that has more flavour than a 15 per cent alcohol Cabernet Sauvignon from sun-drenched Australia or California. Super-caramelized, burned onion short ribs? I don’t want to cook that food. We want to buy wines from real people who work as winemakers at family-run wineries. Small restaurants, small producers, small fisheries, small wineries: small is better.”
I caught up with David McMillan by phone in late February and first asked him if it was really true that people were shunning big New World wines. He responded, “I have been cooking for 25 years in Montreal and have followed the tastes of my clients over the years. I have had to change the kind of food and wine that I serve. As people have become older, they cannot stand the heavy oak and high alcohol.” When asked if this was also true of the younger crowd he replied, “The fun thing is that on any given night, there are young and old alike. The young, who are starting to dine out more frequently, are there to learn and we are indoctrinating them into a lower alcohol regime.”
To McMillan, it is all about the difference between a healthy beverage and one that is not. To illustrate his point he asked if I had ever noticed what happened to a glass of water that had wood chips soaking in it overnight (I had, and the resulting muddy-brown sludge is not pretty). “Exactly”, he said. “There are very complex chemicals in wood, and you would never drink it.”
We talked about the time when big Californian and Australian wines first started coming on the market in Canada. “We loved it and loved it and then got tired of it real quick!” McMillan remembers. He followed that up with the observation, “The classics are the classics for a reason. They all have their application in dining.”
The conversation turned to why the heavily extracted fruit-bomb style has become so pervasive. Among many factors — including more wines coming from warmer New World climates and a general warming trend, even in Old World regions — there is also what some refer to as “The Parker effect,” named for the hugely influential American wine critic, Robert Parker, editor of the Wine Advocate and originator of the hundred-point wine scoring system. Parker’s tastes run to powerful, heavily extracted, higher alcohol wines. These score 90 points or more on his scale. It is no secret that his personal preference for the big bombs has had a wildly disproportionate effect on tastes and winemaking in general. Many wines, even in Bordeaux, have been re-styled to achieve the highest possible Parker score. No wonder! The difference between a Parker 90 and a Parker 88 or 89 can make a wine or give it the kiss of death. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, McMillan concluded that he had figured out that Parker’s scale is really all about concentration. Laughingly he says, “The kinds of wines I like to drink score in the low 80s.”
McMillan’s sentiments are echoed by Michael Howell, respected chef and owner of the Tempest in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Howell is a leader in the Slow Food movement, strongly committed to locally sourced foods. He observes, “We are being forced in this direction by the tastes of middle America. Sommeliers, wine retailers and producers will go where the money is.”
Importantly, Howell notes, “From a chef’s perspective, current trends in dining are shying away from meat towards ethnic cuisine. Flavours are becoming more precise. Small and subtle flavours need to be paired with wines that reflect current trends.” Sean Doucet, formerly executive chef and now director of operations for the Delta Halifax, and also a devotee of the local sourcing philosophy, is categorical about the kinds of wines that match well with foods.
“When I am pairing a certain dish with a wine, I definitely steer away from high alcohol. I look for wines in the 12 per cent to 13 per cent range. 14 per cent to 15 per cent will overpower delicate dishes. Even if you are going the contrasting route, too much alcohol will simply overwhelm most foods.” When asked what kinds of wines he is seeking out for the hotel’s Harbour City restaurant, he responds, “We are definitely going in the direction of local wines, especially to pair with our great local seafoods. Quite honestly, I steer away from big Aussie fruit bombs. I can’t remember the last time I paired a wine like that unless I was specifically asked to.”
I recently asked readers of my Halifax Chronicle Herald column, Wood on Wine, their opinion on the controversy. Everyone who responded wanted to see lower alcohol levels. Bill Hughes of Halifax wrote, “I preferred when wines were in the 12 per cent range. There’s something about enjoying a few glasses of wine (with or without food) without getting too giddy. More alcohol simply spoils or overpowers fine foods and numbs the palate and other senses … Higher alcohol in wines goes along with super-sized drinks; king-sized portions and suicide wings. I am with the Mediterranean when they explain their food as ‘less is more,’ and this is how I feel about wine. However, that’s not to say there’s no room for a big fat Barolo. Bring it on!”
Chris and Shannon O’Shea wrote, “Being regular wine consumers, we too have noticed the trend in higher alcohol, especially from places like Australia. Overall, some of these wines are successful and some not so much. We do know that the higher alcohol does not, generally speaking, enhance the tasting experience. So what gives? More sugars in the grapes that need to be converted to alcohol? Is it done to prop up what might be considered flat or uninspiring wines with a spark of alcohol? Or maybe it is a trend in winemaking to create a bolder flavour profile. In our minds it is not really needed in most cases.”
It does seem that the message is getting through that high alcohol is a problem. There is the growing concern with health, as well as the elephant in the room, namely, the Draconian consequences of drinking and driving. To be fair, producers have been responding to consumer tastes. It is also not a simple matter to resolve. I offer two thoughtful views from the producer perspective.
Sandro Boscaini is the well-respected president of Veneto-based Masi Agricola. They also operate a satellite operation in Mendoza, Argentina. He notes this new trend came from the New World, primarily California and Australia, and projected hot region wines as full-bodied fruit and high alcohol. He adds, “Even historic production regions with better viticultural practices, aiming to lower yields, combined with global warming effects are now easily reaching higher average alcohol.”
Boscaini agrees that there is a need to address the issue: “More and more there is a request for less alcohol but … consumers do not want to go back to the watery low alcohol wines of the past, rather they aim to taste richness with less alcohol. Drinking and driving is an incentive.” He goes on to say, “It is almost impossible to apply to this unless adopting a certain technology (more on this later) that reduces original natural alcohol content … Obtaining an unbalanced wine may be a dangerous effect of this practice.”
Niel Groenewald, winemaker for Bellingham in South Africa, concurs that the trend has increased in South Africa over the last 15 years, with alcohol going from 13 per cent to almost 15 per cent. He also notes that 15 per cent on the label can mean 15.49 per cent, according to South African export laws. Groenewald lays much of the blame on wine scribes and others. “International wine consultants have pushed the riper style of wines: juicier tannins, more extraction, this in conjunction with wine journalists giving higher ratings for these fruit bombs and junk tannins.”
He admits that in the early 2000s, grapes in South Africa were picked riper, and cropped lower producing, over-extracted wines. However, since 2006, he says, “I have had a serious drive for lower alcohol, bringing back the fruit, elegance and finesse. I believe terroir gets disguised if grapes are harvested over-ripe.”
Groenewald believes that much can be achieved by proper site selection, especially in cooler, higher altitude locations. Canopy management and balanced growth will also help to achieve riper tannins at lower sugars, but he thinks that resorting to technology is necessary. At Bellingham, he says, the drive has been to lower alcohol without compromising on ripeness, by experimenting with spinning cone technology and membrane separation, which are legal practices in South Africa.
Groenewald concludes, “I do not believe we will be making our best red at 12 per cent, but we can indeed make proper terroir-driven wines in a warmer condition at alcohols of 13.8 per cent to 14.3 per cent — in my opinion, the sweet spot for South Africa.”
It does seem that the movement towards lower alcohol in table wines is gaining more traction. It is certainly reinforced by the trend towards, lighter, healthier cuisine. To give Chef McMillan the last word, “How can you offer healthful cuisine without offering similarly healthful low alcohol wine?”