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Article – How much is too much?

March 15th, 2010

Fate intervened this week and has chosen the article subject for me. In the words of the great Leonard Cohen, “I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice”. Whatever about the golden voice, I had no choice, as two things happened in quick succession that led to the article subject matter. As with many of life’s interesting ( and uninteresting ) stories, it started with a bottle of wine. I have been tasting samples since my trip to France and also from the various wine fairs that I have been attending. I am inundated with samples of wine and it is proving tough going getting through them all. People who have heard me sing will appreciate the damage potentially being done to the “golden voice”. During the week, I tasted some samples from a very well reviewed house in the Rhone Valley. The famous American critic Robert Parker loves them and to be fair, the wines are very much full bodied tour de forces. The winemaker recommended that I open the top end wines about 5 hours before drinking. I had tasted the wines at a show in Montpellier in January but never checked the alcohol content. It is only when I got the bottles did I notice that 2 of the wines were marked 16%. The wines were well made and the alcohol was well integrated with the fruit, but that’s a big number – and this has a lot to do with 2007 being an exceptional year in the south of France. After my official tasting was done, I took the nicest bottle and had a couple of glasses in front of the TV. I only had 2, but I don’t mind telling you, I was like the annoying guest at the end of a wedding by the end of the second glass. I had a theory on everything and only for the children asleep upstairs; I may have even exercised the golden voice. I can handle a drink, but this one knocked me out. I slept the sleep of angels.

The next morning I was not hung-over, but I felt like I had been out for a big meal. The head was a little seedy and I didn’t jump out of bed with my usual energy. I did my few jobs around the house and had a few messages to do in Clonmel. One of them was to collect the new edition of Decanter, the UK wine magazine. I sipped away at a coffee and flicked through the pages and came across an article by Andrew Jefford, who asked the question “Can fine wine be made at 14% or even 15% alcohol, or is quality compromised”. Considering my previous night’s endeavours, I felt compelled to submit to fate and this is how my article’s subject came to be decided upon. Considering the length of time it has taken me to get to that point, no doubt some of you are wondering if I am re-sampling, but I can assure you I am on the coffee.

The article looks at both sides of the argument and lets various people state their case. Realistically, if you have a vineyard that is blessed with lots of sun and heat, you can get fairly consistent results and you don’t have the problems of grapes not getting to their full ripeness. This is why vintage is less important in the south of France than in Bordeaux. However, when you get a really good summer with lots of heat, then the potential trouble arrives. The more sun that the vines receive, then the more sugar content is in the grapes, and the higher the sugar content, the higher the alcohol content. There are ways and means to reduce and increase the alcohol levels artificially in wines, but at this stage, for those of you who have read a few of my articles at least, I tend to only be interested in wines that reflect the land where they are grown, and the people who cultivate this land. In essence, don’t mess with what nature has delivered. You have to take the good with the bad, or at least the winemaker does – I don’t have to buy them in a bad year. Wines alcohol levels range from about 4.5% ( in Moscato ) to about 20% in Port. The balance is everything and if you can noticeably smell or taste the alcohol in a port, then you can confidently class it as bad example. The alcohol is in balance with the fruits, which in this case are sweeter than a normal wine. But if you go back 50 years, table wine was in the 11% to 12.5% range, even in abnormally hot years. The big change has come from a mix of lower yields, selective harvesting and more efficient yeasts. If you then add Global Warming to the pot, you get more sugar and more alcohol. The ancient concept of terroir now comes back into focus as the vineyards that are exposed the most to the elements have to really work hard to control the levels. A lazy winemaker will be found out very quickly – pruning is a year round exercise. The higher altitude vines are that little bit cooler and this helps in the really hot years.

As if fate was really giving me a push, I just had the same conversation with Gay McGuinness who owns the wonderful Domaine des Anges in Provence. He was in the warehouse this morning dropping off the new order of wines. After some suitable comments about the Tipperary – Kilkenny match ( Gay is a Kilkenny man ), we got onto wine. Their vineyard is quite high and overlooks the famous Mount Ventoux. The amount of their wine that was sold this Christmas is a testament to the quality of the wines, both red and white. You won’t see too many wines that balance the higher alcohol so well, especially at the €12.50 price point. Considering St. Patricks Day is arriving, this might not be a bad option to show your love of wine and all things Irish. The winemaker is Ciaran Rooney, a Dublin man who is forced to live in one of the most beautiful regions on the planet. Interestingly enough, there are different rules worldwide for alcohol level labelling. Australia allows for a 1.5% tolerance, so a 14% labelled wine could be 12.5 or 15.5%. It is a similar story in the U.S. and New Zealand. European wines are a little tighter and demand a 0.5% threshold. Going back to my 16% sample wine, I am afraid I won’t be importing it, but they have some very nice Cotes du Rhone wines, red and white, at more realistic levels that I am interested in pursuing further. With vines, and the essential sunshine they require, there really is the potential of too much of a good thing.

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“Life is much too short to drink bad wine”

Red Nose Wine Article - Nationalist mar 11 2010

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