You’ve heard it’s the Summer of Riesling, right? As we wind up our Fall Preview week here at Grub Street, we turn to a wine trend that’s becoming more noticeable both in restaurants and in wine journalism over the last year or so: extolling the virtues of low-alcohol wines. Beyond pushing just Riesling as a perfect wine for food pairing, sommeliers are helping wine drinkers discover that with wine, alcohol percentages below 13% are better. “Alcohol is not a flavor,” says John Ragan, sommelier at Eleven Madison Park. “And it shouldn’t be in a good glass of wine.”
Alcohol levels can affect the taste of food in a number of ways, especially by masking flavor. Mark Bright, sommelier at Saison in San Francisco, says the sweet spot is around 12 or 13%. “With spicy food, the higher the alcohol the more you intensify the heat. And high alcohol also masks the character of the wine you’re drinking, because all you get on the palate is that alcohol burn.”
Especially in California wines of the last decade, it is not uncommon to find Cabernet Sauvignons and Zinfandels with alcohol percentages higher than 16%, a level generally unobtainable for most European wines except in the very warmest grape-growing regions. “You’re not supposed to grow grapes in a desert,” Bright says. “But that being said, California has some of the happiest climates for grapes. You get the most consistent vintages in California because our summers are usually so consistent in terms of temperature. In most places in Europe, winemakers struggle most years to get their grapes ripe enough to reach 12% alcohol.” Over-ripe grapes lead to more sugar and therefore more alcohol, and American winemakers are learning to be more careful to harvest the grapes earlier to make more delicate, lower-alcohol vintages.
Ragan and Bright both agree with critics like Bill Daley in the Chicago Tribune that Riesling is “one of the most versatile food wines ever created,” largely because traditional German Rieslings usually clock in around 8% to 11% alcohol. “These wines really allow you to focus on the flavors of the dish,” says Ragan, and he also notes the acid balance of Riesling complements a range of foods. Varietals like Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Grenache, and blends from the Loire region in France are go-to choices for many sommeliers, and consumers are increasingly figuring out why. Even devoted Cabernet drinkers with expensive tastes are figuring out the alcohol-percentage formula. Ragan says some of his most popular bottles at Eleven Madison are California Cabernets from the early 1990s, when alcohol levels were kept at around 12.5%. “The feedback we constantly get is that people can appreciate the flavors more. They’re picking up on the fact that their tongues aren’t burning with these wines like they are with newer vintages, and they like that.”
The other bonus of sipping these more Old-World-style wines: you can drink more without getting blotto. This comes in handy when pairing six or seven different wines with a tasting menu. “I always tell people, you can drink two bottles of 8% Riesling or one bottle of 16% Zin for the same amount of alcohol,” Ragan says. You may want to consider that the next time you know you and your lightweight friend are going to polish off a few bottles over dinner.
Earlier: Three California Winemakers Discuss the Difficult, Possibly Disastrous 2010 Vintage [Grub Street]
This Summer: All Riesling, All the Time [Grub Street]