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Feature Article

Cabernet Cola

No, there's no such thing as Cabernet Cola wine but... there is a correlation with the popularity of high alcohol wines and cola drinkers.

California (State Appellation)

It’s the Unreal Thing – High-Alcohol Wines
for the Cola Generation

There’s a reason that many Cabernet Sauvignons
are described as having a “cola flavor."

by Dan Berger
September 18, 2007

One of the most difficult things a wine taster has to do when evaluating double-blind is to determine the regional characteristics of a wine, especially if the wine is high in alcohol. The higher the alcohol in the liquid, the less likely he or she is to be able to discern the subtle terroir elements in the glass.

This stands to reason. Alcohol (ethanol) has its own aroma, and the higher the concentration it is in a wine, the more likely it will be to mask components that are fruit-based. Moreover, higher alcohols (which are generated by higher sugar
High sugar—just like some wines.
levels in the grapes) can also be related to flaws in wines. In high-alcohol environments, yeasts are under stressful conditions in which they don’t operate as efficiently as they do when the sugars are more moderate.

It has been roughly a decade since this issue has taken on such importance for those who like more food-oriented, age-worthy red wines (and to a degree whites). In California, the excellent 1990 and 1991 vintages produced more classical wines; 1992 and 1993 were El Niño vintages and wine makers had a more difficult time making great wines. Then came 1994, and the ultra-ripe character of the red wines from the long, warm growing season without rain made for intensely ripe flavors.

Many wineries feared that higher alcohol levels could make the wines appear to some people as aberrations, but a number of reviewers liked the wines. There followed two excellent (but largely unrecognized as great) vintages, 1995 and 1996. In those years, we got a lot of superb red wines that displayed regional characteristics and varietal distinctiveness somewhat akin to the best vintages of the 1980s.

Then came the “blessed” vintage of 1997, with its warm, long, rainless growing season, and wines that exhibited even more excess ripeness than did 1994. Again the high-image reviewers went gaga for them, and that pretty much sealed the deal: ultra-ripe fruit was the way to go. Add to that some beneficial economic factors (long hang-time fruit costs less), and you have a formula for the destruction of regional character in wine.

High Alcohol, Low Expectations

For about the last decade, I have challenged the notion that one gets more flavor from high-alcohol wines. In fact, the additional flavors tend to be fruit of a sort that is anathema to wine aimed at the dinner table. Such “fruits” are actually raisins and over-ripe plums.

Many wine makers agree with this assessment, but very few have had the courage to state this publicly. That’s because most of them are employed by wineries that have done focus-group research in which consumers are interviewed about their taste preferences. And these companies learn that many consumers appreciate over-ripe wines. My theory as to why this is may be reduced to a single reason: such wines are more like soda pop and less like wine. High alcohols make for a softer, sweeter taste, and thus are the wines anti-complex. They are simple.

And thus do the winery owners believe high-alcohol wines are the way to go. Such wines seem to get high scores from wine publications that do not care a whit about regional character or varietal integrity. What sells wine today is bigness. And big wines are not for drinking, they are for sipping and spitting out.

Winemaker Randy Dunn, whose Cabernets once were thought to have too much tannins to age, has proven us all wrong. I have tasted a number of older Dunn Dunn-vineyards-cabernet.jpgCabs in the last few years, and many of them are better for their time in the bottle, and most show the concentrated black fruit and dusty components that only a classic Napa Cabernet can show. Dunn set the style for Caymus Vineyards in the 1970s, and his own Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignons from Howell Mountain have long been the mountain standard in Cabernet character.

And a key reason for this, I contend, is that Dunn has always tried to produce his inky style of wine with a moderate amount of alcohol. Until recently, all of Dunn’s wines have had alcohol levels below 14.0 percent (The 2004 is an exception; see below.)

The issue of high alcohol in red wine has long been a burr in the saddle to Dunn, who finally had his fill of the trend and sent out an email to wine writers [see related feature with full text of Dunn’s email at APPELLATION AMERICA in which he decried the high alcohol levels in many wines]. Dunn told me that the letter he sent out was “the watered-down version, compared with the original.”

Dunn said his Cabernets have always been lower in alcohol, yet perfectly balanced because “we’ve always just picked by flavors, and I have purposely not had high-alcohol wines. But I have to admit that my 2004 is about 14.08 percent alcohol, so we did put 14.1 percent on the label. But in my defense, that was an accident.

“I don’t make my final blend until a week before bottling and by that time, the best blend came out just over 14 percent .” Located on Howell Mountain, he said, the elevation allows him to fully ripen fruit without excessive sugar accumulation. “Being at this altitude, we bloom later than the valley floor, so we’re behind the valley floor. But we’re above the fog and we are a bit warmer than the valley floor, so we catch up. However, our days are cooler by as much as 10 to 15 degrees, so it’s more difficult to get the fruit really ripe than it is on the valley floor.”

Hang time in overtimeAre grapes hanging around too long? Vintner George Vierra thinks so.

Read more on the continuing high alcohol controversy in Alan Goldfarb’s interview with George Vierra.
Dunn’s wines show the distinctive black fruit character of the mountain, and because of his lower alcohol levels, he allows the pH of his Cabernets to rise to 3.7. (A higher alcohol would not work with a pH that high, he said.) “That’s a bit higher than I’d like, but if you do the trials, and you see what tastes good at 13.5 percent alcohol; that’s a good level. The lower the pH, the more aggressive the tannins get and the less appealing the wine is on release.”

Dunn still makes just 4,500 cases of Cabernet and sells a high percentage of it direct to consumers.

I asked Dunn if he was planning another letter to illustrate his concern for another issue. He said he was, and that it related to the fact that Napa Valley was fast becoming a wine region with only one wine (Cabernet Sauvignon), which could do harm to the area’s image.

“But worse than that,” he said, “we’re headed for not only one varietal, but one style.”

READER FEEDBACK: To post your comments on this story, click here

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [5]

Arthur , Founder
redwinebuzz.com, California
Very good point, Dan! I have always believed that the foods we are raised on frame our reference points and dictate our aroma and flavor preferences. Growing up in the former Soviet block, soft drinks and convenience foods as well as artificial flavoring were virtually unknown to me. American fare was a considerable paradigm shift for me. I just hope that people see that it's not alcohol levels that are your point of contention, but the overly ripe, soft, food-unfriendly character of wines that do not have the make up to age and evolve. The alcohol levels are a secondary issue.

Mike Pollard , Blogger
http://shirazshiraz.blogspot.com, San Diego, CA
A note to Dan Berger (and the rest of the anti-high alcohol league):

Appellation America is directed toward a very small segment of the wine drinking population, so I wonder how much thought you or any of the other writers on the “big wine” topic give to the average wine drinker. Is it in the interests of the majority of consumers that appreciate the riper style of wine that you pen these articles?

There are an additional few questions I would like some data for, and no I don’t want dogma or anecdotes. Let’s put some meat on these bones!
1) Where are the studies showing that there is a correlation with the popularity of high alcohol wines and cola drinkers? (Just pose that possibility to the average Australian wine drinker and see what answer you get).
2) How many wine drinkers buy wine so that they can determine the regional characteristics of a wine? (Do you really believe that Mr/Mrs Average Winedrinker is at all interested in regional character when they drop by their local wine shop to get a few bottles to serve at their dinner party?)
3) More to the point, how many wine drinkers can actually identify regional characteristics in a wine?

And finally, when is the anti-high alcohol league (Corti, Dunn, Asimov, McCoy, yourself and others) going to attempt something constructive in terms of addressing alcohol levels in wines? No, the diatribes that have been written thus far are not constructive. They are destructive, divisive and elitist. When will any of you judge these wines blinded against food? Wine has been judged this way at The Sydney International Wine Competition for the last 26 years. (Just as an FYI, the 2007 winner was the 2004 Neagles Rock One Black Dog Reserve Cabernet Shiraz. At 15% alcohol it came away with best Fuller Bodied Dry Red Wine, Best Red Table Wine of Competition, and Best Wine of Competition.) When will any members of the wine press pull together both sides of the argument to discuss alcohol and balance in wine as the Wine Press Club of NSW attempted in July of this year? If winemakers believe that less ripeness and lower alcohol levels will be popular with the cognoscenti then why don’t they make limited releases of such wines? These wines would likely sell at a premium, albeit to very small market. But surely that is a more constructive approach than writing “The current fad of higher and higher alcohol wines should stop.” If the Australian wine community can approach this topic in a constructive manner then it’s about time that the US does the same.

Patrick Llerena , Vintner
Iridesse Wines, Healdsburg, CA
Thank you very much for your attention to this issue, Dan. I arrived in Napa Valley for the 1996 harvest and have closely followed the issue of grape ripeness & sugar level to flavor profile & alcohol. It seems that I am always taking the side of "food friendly" and "Old-World-style" wines. Now that I am selling my own brand, when in the marketplace I am often forced into the role of apologist to defend why my alcohols are so low and why the "Big" wines have high scores and gold medals! Sure they taste good. Sure they are yummy and have big bold flavors that coat my tongue. But "Wine is the Ultimate Condiment", as the adage goes. None of these wines do any justice to food and the care with which it is prepared. Wine should enhance a meal, not replace it. I, too, love Blackberry Cobbler, Root Beer Floats, and Haagen-Daas' Dulce de Leche Ice Cream. My wine doesn't need to taste like them; there is more to it than this. My wife, Genevieve, has just posted her perspective on when to pick (as it relates to this conversation) on our blog www.iridessewines.wordpress.com. You may find her views to be of interest as well.

Mark Arvanigian , wine retailer / writer
centralvalleywine.blogspot.com, Fresno, CA
Dan, Let me say that much of this, as you point out, has been happening for many years. Many (even one of your readers) says that the market should speak -- and indeed it has, and continues to do so. It cannot be seriously contended that the American palate is not oriented to the sweeter side of the spectrum. It patently is. But wine is only a small part of the culinary world -- why should wine escape this wider trend? The rest is on my blog.

Arthur , Founder
redwinebuzz.com, California
Mark [comment #4], Thank you for posting this commentary. It was good to see. You would think that a drink which enriches companionship and moves us to merriment would not stir this much fervent opinion. I am glad that you recognize the role of high alcohol as byproduct of the pursuit of jammy flavors and I agree with your contentions that those of us who speak for more composed and food-friendly wines are seeking variety in the wine world and value for a hard-earned dollar. I am putting together a project called project23 the purpose of which will be to get winemakers to explore a style of wine made a different way. I invite all (including Mike Pollard [comment #2]) to the discussion: www.redwinebuzz.com/23_bx_wine.htm

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