Let’s talk about alcohol.
No, not vodka or whiskey or tequila. Frankly, once I “got into” wine more than two decades ago, I haven’t consumed much of the “hard stuff.” With so many different types of wine to enjoy, why would I?
I’m talking about the alcohol level in wine. Like so many things in life, it is something that is cyclical. (Just try saying “cyclical” after consuming a vodka martini, and you’ll understand why I stick to wine…)
In the early days of the California Wine Renaissance (circa the mid-1970s), most of the wines being made had alcohol levels of around 10-11 percent for whites and around 12-13 percent for reds.
Over time, however, those numbers started inching upward. In order to differentiate their products in the marketplace, some vintners opted for higher alcohol levels, which was the natural result of crafting wines in a more fruit-forward, mouth-filling style.
If you wanted subtlety in your wines, you’d pour a glass of dry German Riesling. If you wanted no-holds-barred, in-your-face flavors, you might opt for a California Zinfandel (red, not white), many of which pushed or even exceeded 14 percent in alcohol.
Those higher-alcohol Zins definitely stood out.
If you’re a Starbucks fan, think of a German Riesling as the Pike Place roast, and think of Zinfandel as the “bold” coffee selection of the day. Two entirely different styles, but both still under the broad banner of “Coffee.”
But times and palates change, and now there seems to be a general movement back toward lower-alcohol wines. There still are plenty of “big, bold monsters” in the marketplace, but most winemakers are lowering the alcoho–in some cases, to 1970s levels.
I believe the answer can be summed up in one word: food.
First, America had to develop a “wine culture,” and that’s what took place during the last two decades of the 20th century.
Once there were enough people drinking wine, the next logical step was for a “wine-and-food culture” to emerge. That began in earnest right around Y2K, and it’s still unfolding today as creative chefs find new and exciting wine pairing possibilities for their culinary creations.
And the best wines to accompany food, as a general rule, are those that are lower in alcohol.
We live in exciting wining-and-dining times–made even more so by growing numbers of vintners backing off a bit on the alcohol levels of their bottlings.