Wine of the Week: Balance at the High-Alcohol Edge

Categories: Wine

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Once, on a trip to Napa as a budding wine journalist, I asked a winemaker who had proudly poured me his newest creation, what the alcohol level was. His snide-scoffing response was effectively that I didn't know what I was asking and was just going with the flow of anti-high-alcohol nay-sayers. Shakespeare's "the lady doth protest too much," comes to mind, as the only reason I asked was that his wine tasted so clearly out of balance.

As a less-then-a-glass-per-day drinker, I don't care what percentage of alcohol is in my wine, as long as it's in balance. When the alcohol shines out like a hot headlight in a dark night, though, it throws the whole experience, just as the headlight disturbs the balance of nature. Give me a soft candle, a bright sunrise, or a noonday sun, but fit it into its environment.

The best case to be made for noon day sun I've had was the very enjoyable 2010 Opolo Mountain Zin.

A true value buy from Paso Robles, this is always jammy, full of fruit, and forward facing, exactly as I like my ZIns. What makes the 2010 such a compelling case is that it stands at a labelled* 16.7%, but does not drink noticeably out of balance. The memory and feeling of the alcohol is clearly there, particularly in the finish, and that's why I even bothered to look at the label, but I would have lost a bet in a percentage-guessing game.

Here are my notes for the tasting on opening:

Opolo Vineyards Mountain Zinfandel ($28)

Warm preserves fresh off the stove in the nose. Jammy, juicy mouth with a solid hit of acid which carries through particularly in the finish. Cherry-plum jam, ripe and under-ripe blackberry, a bit of dark, sweet chocolate and the "heat"of the alcohol noticeable after a few sips. At 16.7 (labelled) this is one of the highest alcohol, non-fortified, wines I've had, if not the highest, but it's not noticeably out of balance. The memory and feeling of the alcohol is clearly there, but its not a palate-destroying issue. Admittedly, three sips in I reminded myself to drink with caution, but the balance, with an admittedly "porty" note and forward flavor, is reasonable and appropriate.

So, rather than get into a debate about what level of alcohol is appropriate -- and I can point to at least one producer who will state categorically that quality pinot cannot be produced in excess of 14% alcohol -- let the wine be your guide. And drink responsibly.

* Tip on Wine Labeling. In CA wines are allowed either 1 or 1.5% leeway between the alcohol on the label and the actual percentage. So our 16.7 wine could actualy be closing in on 18. If only we had a budget to test it


Contact Ben Narisin at sfoodieben@gmail.com . Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.

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