A funny thing happened the other day while I was sampling Napa Cabernets: I kept nodding off after every half-glass of research. Surely I jest, but there’s a foundation of truth beneath the humor. In short, alcohol levels in wine—particularly high-end New World reds like Napa Cabernet and Australian Shiraz—are rising; yesteryear’s rocket fuel passes as today’s 14-percent alcohol norm.
If you haven’t noticed the trend, that’s understandable. After all, alcohol levels appear on wine labels in teensy print. Even without a magnifying glass, however, the rising potency is anecdotally evident in the terms used to describe today’s acclaimed wines: “monsters,” “fruit bombs,” “hedonistic,” “full-throttle,” “opulent,” and so on. Hmmm, wine on steroids?
The trend has spiraled in part because the types of wines most apt to feature “high octane” also are the most likely to reap the highest critical acclaim, bringing into question whether the current American wine culture has engendered a fundamental shift in terms of what people consider “great” wine.
As an antidote, use common sense. Just because a wine gets 95 points from a wine critic doesn’t mean it’s right for your burger or pizza. Look beyond the ratings and think about context: wines with more than 14 percent alcohol will work best with full-flavored, hearty food. Another logical approach when shopping for “big” wines is to steer toward types of wine that traditionally have been whoppers because of their combination of grape(s) and climate, rather than because vintners encourage ultra-ripeness that yields higher sugar and, by extension, alcohol. California Zinfandels, Italian Amarones, French Rhônes, and Spanish Prioratos are naturally built for power. And, by all means, ask your trusted retailer for a particular bottling that fits the bill. For example, at Rochambeau Wines & Liquors (389 Broadway, Dobbs Ferry 914-693-0034; rochambeau.com), manager Jeff Wooddy happily will turn you on to the Bella Zinfandel whose 16-percent alcohol is part of a concentrated but balanced package of spice, fruit, and coffee notes—just what your big steak is looking for in a mate.
// W. R. Tish