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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

The Alcohol debate

Oscar Foulkes December 1, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

I suppose I could be accused of having become over-sensitive to certain types of criticism of Cloof wines.

One of the most nonsensical criticisms of high alcohol wines is that one can drink so much less of them. Well, let’s do the maths – three glasses of 15% wine have the same alcohol content as three-and-a-third glasses of 13.5% wine. A third of a glass over three glasses is hardly a lot. In fact, I would say that the reverse is true. Sometimes when drinking a ‘lighter’ wine I have found myself getting close to finishing a bottle – when my regular consumption is a maximum of half-a-bottle of 14.5% red. Paradoxically, one is therefore more likely to consume more alcohol when drinking a lower-alcohol wine.

Let’s begin by saying that I fully accept that wine is an entirely subjective experience, and that – thankfully – we all have our own likes and dislikes. I would, however, expect of an informed taster to be able to say what it is about a wine that makes it unacceptable. Let’s add, further, that I’m not convinced that one’s experience of a wine can be reduced to a numerical score. There is no such thing as an absolute, empirical measurement of a wine’s quality.

All we have are preferences based upon an accumulated taste experience. Following from Edward de Bono’s observation that the mind recognises the familiar, we can become accustomed to just about any flavour experience. An article I read on the subject a few years ago suggested that eating something seven times is all that’s required for a new flavour to become accepted.

It is part of the unique style of Cloof wines that they are significantly more concentrated in flavour than the majority of other wines. An accompanying feature (let’s not at this point call it a benefit!) is that alcohol levels of the red wines are above 14%, and occasionally even above 15%. The wines are a reflection of the soils and climate where the vines are grown – dare I say terroir?

In this sense Cloof wines are no less valid as an authentic wine style than any of the established regions of the Old World.

I accept that the richness and power of Cloof wines can be a little intimidating. However, by the same token, some wines that I regard as being ‘green’ are considered perfectly balanced by others. These are preferences, based upon personal reference points.

The criticism I’m struggling with most at the moment is alcohol; one of the few truly empirical measurements applicable to wine. When printed on the label, it’s nothing more than a bland statement of fact. Once again, subjective judgement is necessary, to assess whether it’s in balance with all the other components in a wine.

It would be the same as saying that a wine that’s been aged in 100% new oak for 12 months is over-wooded. The percentage of new oak, and the length of ageing are both statements of fact, but a subjective judgement of the wine remains necessary.

My opinion is that our alcohols are in balance with the wines’ extract (polyphenols), tannins and acid. In support of my viewpoint (because this is, after all, so subjective) I offer an example of a wine that I believe is out of balance.

Earlier this week I spent a couple of hours working my way through a bottle of 2004 Vieilles Vignes Minervois from Domaine Pierre Cros. The first experience on the palate (admittedly without any ‘burn’) was the soft, sweet sensation of alcohol. This was accompanied by some interesting spicy flavours that dissipated quite rapidly. The texture of the fruit extract was hardly present. The palate was then belatedly attacked by some fairly determined tannins. While the wine was very definitely made up of three different parts, it was only the tannins that offered any kind of redemption from the wine’s awkwardness.

Here’s a wine with a relatively moderate ‘claimed’ alcohol of 14% (it can legally be as high as 14.49%) that is patently so alcoholic that it’s out of balance. Would I rather have a well-balanced 15.5% or an out-of-balance 14%? No contest.

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