“Alcohol delivers flavors.”
So writes Lettie Teague in her debut column “Wines that Pack a Little Extra” for the Wall Street Journal on Saturday. What does she mean by “alcohol delivers flavors”? She seems to be implying that higher alcohol translates into more flavor. But is that really true?
One of the hottest hot-button issues in the wine world is rising alcohol levels. Although alcohol itself is tasteless, elevated levels of it in wines often accompanies enhanced polyphenols, which can make for big, showy wines, such as a Martinelli Zinfandel that weighs in at over 16% alcohol. But high alcohol actually often crowds out flavors (or vineyard specificity), and, at elevated levels, its searing heat can dominate a wine’s aromas. Although Teague quotes Aldo Sohm, sommelier at Le Bernardin, to support her case in the story, in a follow-up email to me, Sohm said that high-alcohol tends to come at the expense of refinement and complexity. And that’s just it: does Teague really think that the wines of Christophe Roumier or Noel Pinguet (Domaine Huet) or Manfred Prum (J. J. Prüm) lack flavor compared to Martinelli zin or El Nido Clio? I would think not. So why does she present such a black-and-white view in her story, where “flavors” only arrive in the rarefied vapors north of 14% alcohol?
The piece also portrays sommeliers who champion low alcohol wines to be insufferable snobs. She even goes to far as to wonder if the word “balance” is “actually a code to keep out wines that they don’t like or styles that don’t fit their personal taste.” Teague then plays “gotcha,” discovering cabernets above 14% on the list of RN74, a San Francisco restaurant whose wine director is quoted in the piece against high-alcohol. (She also finds some some high-alcohol wines at a retailer who took a similar stand.) So what? At worst, that shows them guilty of inconsistency but it neither invalidates their point nor does it prove them wrong or snobs. Teague rummages around in her basement to find, lo and behold, that she has a bunch of “delicious,” high-alcohol wines. So she likes them, therefore they are okay, but when other people say they don’t like them, they are guilty of pushing their own personal taste and of snobbery. Who’s the hypocrite here?
It’s also worth noting that both on on Twitter and in a follow-up email, Rajat Parr denies making the claim that wines over 14% lack balance and suggests a more nuanced approach to alcohol. Sources often deny quotes especially on controversial issues, such as this. But Teague also recently had her account of the proceedings in another column publicly disputed by those who attended. And in a related blog post on alcohol levels, Teague states that the nebulous “anti high-alcohol crowd” says that high-alcohol wines pose health risks. I, for one, have never heard that argument.