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It's in the balance

I was going to talk about my latest enthusiasm (one of several, as ever) but self-restraint has taken a grip for once. It’s November; it’s cold; it’s dark. Waxing lyrical about bracingly sharp, fresh, ultra-light whites from Basque Spain’s Txacolí regions (yes, plural: there are three) has its time and place, but let’s face it (I just have) here and now probably isn’t it. So, from one extreme to the other: high alcohol. 

The rising level of alcohol in table wines is an old hobby horse. I first lamented – aka railed against – the increase in alcohol in wine in The Sunday Times almost 21 years ago (the beginning of 1997: you too can do the math, as they say) and here I am still going on about it, even though we’ve seen researchers, producers, sometimes whole regions and countries making successful efforts in recent years to rein in alcohol – producing balanced wines from fully ripe but less sugar-rich grapes and wines with less alcohol as a consequence. 

I’m still singing from the same hymn sheet, but I’ve modified my tune slightly in the last two decades. To lay my cards on the table, I don’t like levels of 15 per cent and more in the wines I drink. I’d rather have 12.5% or 13.5% than I would 14.5%. No change there then, but what I now recognise is that the argument about balance is more nuanced than I once thought. Wines with very high alcohol may be out of balance, but they aren’t necessarily. 

Last week, I tasted several wines at 15% and more. One was 15.8%. They were at a tasting, so I wasn’t being invited to drink them, which was fortunate because I couldn’t have done, or at least not with pleasure (although there were wines there that I could have drunk with real enjoyment). They weren’t to my taste because they were so powerful in flavour and body, but they were very good wines. The component parts – fruit and other flavours, acid, tannin and, yes, alcohol – were in balance with each other. 

You may already have guessed they were from California – from Napa Valley and Paso Robles, imported by a California wine specialist called Four Corners Wine, which has wines for which you have to join waiting lists in America, and they’re being sold here at cellar-door prices. 

I’m emphatically not saying that all wines at high alcohol levels are in balance. An awful lot aren’t. Their fruit is jammy, the acidity is too low, the alcohol sticks out on the finish, they’re anything but fresh tasting and won’t age because the fruit will dry out/wither leaving clumsy alcohol and tannins in their wake. A case in point: a few days before the Four Corners tasting, Anthony and I were lucky enough to be giving a Napa Valley Vintners masterclass at hangingditch’s tenth anniversary wine fair. Five of the Cabernet blends were in the 13.5–14.5% alcohol range and they were stellar and fascinatingly different. The sixth had a score of 97+/100 from influential American critic Robert Parker and the advice (or instruction) from him to ‘drink it over the next 30 years’. Count me out. It was 15.8% alcohol and I found it jammy, heavy, uncomfortable. 

So, yes, I’m still banging on about high alcohol levels and I avoid them as far as I can, but there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.  I wonder whether I’ll still be banging on about it in 21 years’ time. If so, shall I count you out?