We know the world is getting warmer, and one of the results has been higher alcohol levels in wine. The standard 12.5% bottle of two decades ago is now routinely 14 or 15, and let’s not forget that the law allows for a variance of 1 to 1.5%.
Simply put, certain types of wine can carry high alcohol more gracefully than others. Cabernet Sauvignon purists may yearn for the good old days of 12.5%, but it’s entirely possible to make a balanced Cabernet at 15%. Pinot Noir, however, is another matter. The reasons we supposedly fell in love with this grape variety in the first place have to do with grace, elegance and balance, and an alcohol level of 15% or higher tends to obscure those characteristics.
To make matters worse, Sideways was filmed in Santa Barbara, which has become the favorite Pinot Noir region for many Americans. It’s hard to find a warmer climate, or one less suited to the delicate texture of Pinot Noir. The latitude of Santa Barbara is 34 degrees—draw a line eastward, and you’re in North Africa. Beaune, by contrast, is at 47 degrees; if you draw a line west, you’ll come out north of Portland, Oregon.
Without singling out brand names, many Americans are now drinking Pinot Noir that is excessively rich, ripe and overblown, with the color and taste profile of Merlot. There’s nothing wrong with most of it, but you’d be hard pressed to identify it as Pinot Noir in a blind tasting. It may not be Burgundy, but it’s the style of wine that many of us seem to like.
Of course, there has been a backlash. Darrell Corti, a wine merchant in Sacremento, declared a few years ago that he would no longer sell wine over 14.5% alcohol in his shop (he must have a very small store). In the sommelier community, the backlash has been similar. Rajat Parr, wine director for the 18 restaurants in the Michael Mina group, has a policy of not serving Chardonnay or Pinot Noir with more than 14% alcohol at the San Francisco eatery RN74, which specializes in the food and wine of the Burgundy region.
If you’re a fan of high-alcohol wine, don’t let the occasional Soup Nazi rain on your parade. If the world continues to get warmer it won’t be possible to grow Pinot Noir in Burgundy, and Santa Barbara will be the only game in town.