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In Defense of Big Wines

Recently, I had the opportunity to drink a couple of big Napa Valley Cabernets from Knights Bridge Winery. Both were from the 2008 vintage, both were from prestigious Beckstoffer properties and both were absolutely delicious by themselves and at the table. The “To Kalon Vineyard” was the bolder of the two with flavors of tart/sweet blackberries, a dark-chocolate earthiness reminiscent of a Howell Mountain red, savory dried herbs and a touch of anise. It was fruity without being fruit-forward, had moderate dusty tannins and was long on the aftertaste. The “Dr. Crane Vineyard” seemed more-elegant, less-tannic and had creamy black raspberry flavors instead of blackberry. Unfortunately, some folks won’t taste these wines, and not just because of availability or price ($135 each). Both wines have 15.5% alcohol, which many wine writers and a few restaurateurs see as an automatic flaw and possibly a sin against nature. I call these folks the “Alcohol Taliban” because of their didactic rejection of higher-alcohol wines even if the wines are well-balanced and even if these same critics have been known not be able to pick them out in blind tastings. Moreover, they want to tell those of us who find merit and good mouth-feel in well-made, higher-alcohol table wines – including Napa Cabs and Amarones – that we shouldn’t be drinking them. In a few cases, restaurateurs have even said, “You can’t have them to drink in my place.” Napa Cabs have come with higher alcohols since vineyardists and winemakers discovered they needed riper fruit to get rid of green notes (which I personally don’t mind in a Cab if not to excess by my standards) and that the public liked wines with riper fruits. For a long time this was OK with everyone. Part of the reason why the controversy has arisen now, I suspect, is that there is a more-vocal rebellion of the formerly timid against Robert Parker’s tastes for big, fruity wines. To an extent, I understand this because I like wines with higher acidity than some high-scoring Parker wines have. But I would never say these low-acid wines are bad wines, just not wines to my personal liking. Additionally, lower acidity and forward fruit don’t necessarily go together with higher alcohol. I certainly can understand someone not wanting to drink higher-alcohol wine because (1) it’s not their preferred style, (2) they don’t want the extra calories or (3) they need to drive home, and a 15% wine will raise their blood alcohol levels more than will one with 13%. Of course, this reasoning makes cocktails a no-no and argues the case for drinking more beer (and perhaps making unscheduled pit stops on the way home). But don’t tell me that above 15% is a flaw or automatically places the wine out of balance or that you’re not going to serve it to me because you know what’s good for me. I might just have to drink your lunch.
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