Why Is My Wine Yelling At Me?

This Chateau Ste. Michelle chardonnay is yelling at me. And it's not alone. Lately a lot of wines have been screaming from the glass like a drunken frat boy belting out hip hop at 3:00AM. Okay, so the analogy might be flawed, but the sensation of drinking certain wines - almost exclusively domestic - has elicited more wincing than pleasure. Whether the result of a warming planet or a deliberate catering to American, Twinkie-loving palates, wines' alcohol levels, flavor intensities, and manipulation have increased to a roar.

It's not a relaxing-glass-of-wine experience. 

But is that completely fair?  It could be that these wines are no different than they've ever been.  Maybe I'm the one changing.  Perhaps I'm growing cranky and frail as I age, or my palate is just exhausted after years of drinking. Best guess is that, like most root causes in life, the answer likely lies in a confluence of these contributors.  But, still.  It can't just be me. 

Bolstering this theory, a retailer recently made an interesting remark to me about oak.  She said that alcohol levels and oak treatment tend to rise in unison because winemakers use oak to mask the alcohol, resulting in these dizzying, powerful sugar/alcohol/oak bombs.  Here's how that works: 

As grapes grow and gain exposure to higher temperatures, the sugar levels increase.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that they are ripening faster.  Phenolic ripening in particular, happens as the fruit matures somewhat independent of sugars.  So, by the time harvest rolls around (which is dictated by phenolic ripeness) sugar levels can be through the roof.  More sugar = more alcohol.  And, guess what, alcohol does not taste good, which forces winemakers to compensate - or obfuscate - layering vanillin flavors of oak to distract from ethanol's heat.  And all that layering makes for a yeller. 

There are some alternative techniques some growers and vintners use to avoid this loudness, but at the end of the day, you can't change the weather.  But you can change what you drink.  Which is what I've been doing.

Regular readers may recall the various virtues I've extolled of Sudtirolean wines made in the highlands of northeastern Italy.  Vineyards at higher altitudes enjoy more sunshine (great for phenols) while high temperatures tend to remain more moderate.  As a bonus, these locales also enjoy greater diurnal swings, or temperature variations between daytime highs and nighttime lows.  This boosts those delicious complex acids I've grown so fond of.  Many of the wines coming from this and other similar regions boast terrific flavor and complexity while remaining lower in girth, sugars, and alcohol. 

My current favorite example of this is pretty much any schaiva vernatsch from Alto Adige.  Usually clocking in at 12.5%, these wines are several shades paler than your typical pinot noir, but pack an exciting array of flavors and high-toned sensations thanks to those gorgeous, delicate acids.  And so undersung are these wines that they remain a relative bargain (<$15).  Schiavas are not alone, either.  Reds from Val d'Aosta, Alsatian wines, and even some Spanish whites are easygoing in this regard. 

But the West Coast? It's where look to for power, intensity, and hit-you-over-the-head obviousness.  Which is fine on occasion, but this aging body can't handle being yelled at every day.  Thank goodness the world is a big place.  Wine comes from everywhere.  And, occasionally, it's still fun to walk down the street singing Run DMC.