“Screw You and Your New World Wine Style”
One generally gets the impression that the trend/controversy of high alcohol wines is mainly found among New World wines (Aussie, California, etc). This year, the controversy went rather public in Bordeaux where tradition, new winemaking trends and stylistic "refinements" are battling it out.
For reasons of climate and tradition, Bordeaux wines have usually been more structured, only moderately alcoholic and recognized as good aging wines. In the mid 1990’s with the rise of the flying winemaking consultants and the emergence of the "Garagiste" (modern) wineries, the issue of tradition vs. modernity (balance vs. exuberance) started to be discussed.
Wineries like Le Pin and Valandraud revved up their wines, creating bottlings that seemed unrecognizable to many long-time Bordeaux drinkers and other vintners. The American critics liked them for their exceptional concentration. By the time of the 2005 harvest the "New Style" Bordeaux had spread to a number of estates and the controversy over what is "correct" Bordeaux really spilt over into the media, nearly demanding winemakers take sides. And they did.
The controversy, coming so near harvest, has centered on hangtime (the length of time grapes are allowed to stay on the vine before harvesting) and brix levels (the amount of sugar accumulation and the resulting alcohol levels).
One winemaker, Jean-Claude Berrouet of Château Petrus, suggested that by waiting too long to pick the alcohol levels would be "far too high". The very idea of "far too high" is a subjective determination.
Another winemaker, Gerard Perse of Château Pavie, sees it another way. He picked his grapes much later than Berrouet, about 3 weeks later, and achieved a potential alcohol level of upwards of 14.2, while at Petrus the alcohol of their 2005 will reach somewhere around 13.5. The difference, while seemingly small, is in fact significant.
To get a taste of the controversy one need only listen to Berrouet speak about the idea of higher alcohol wines:
"Some people say that Petrus started too early, but
we seek fruit and freshness. The taste of prunes
does not interest us."
That’s French for, "screw you and the New World wine horse you rode in on."
The consensus is that the 2005 Bordeaux vintage will be outstanding. In fact, one of the reasons that the "ripeness debate" took place at all was that the 2005 growing season delivered conditions of higher than usual natural ripeness that would seem to preclude the need to leave the grapes on the vine longer than usual looking for added ripening.
There is a lot swirling around in the French wine industry that lends itself to controversy. Sales are falling. Over production is a problem. The French people themselves are not drinking as much. More calls for lowing alcohol consumption are coming from European activists. And New World wines have taken market share from French wines in traditional export markets. Wine has always been an immense source of national pride (as well as bigotry). The ripeness debate will heighten the discussion in France over what it means to be "French". What it means to adhere to tradition that has made you in large part the envy of the culturally inclined across the globe.