Seattle Times Wine Advisor: 2010, 2011: Interesting years for West Coast wines


FOR A DECADE or more, a quiet battle has been fought over rising alcohol levels in wine. As red-wine alcohol levels in particular have risen from an average of 12.5 percent in the 1970s to almost 15 percent (and often much higher) today, consumer tastes, led by those who import and retail wine, have begun to demand more modest, balanced wines.

The trade press has weighed in, the onliners have blogged relentlessly on the topic, and the critics (especially Robert Parker) have taken much of the blame for the popularity of these jammy fruit bombs. The thinking goes that Parker et al have been awarding the highest scores to the ripest, fruitiest wines, which must be soaked for years in expensive new oak barrels in order to mask all the heat and compensate for the sweetness of the fruit. In so doing, wine prices have risen, and wine complexity — other than flavors of jam and oak — has diminished.

Vintage variation still plays a role in wine styles, though vintages that are deemed less than California-perfect, and that produce wines with hints of herb, green fruit or stem, still get written off as mediocre. Ask the winemakers in Oregon what happened to sales of their 2007 pinots, for example, when the entire vintage was deemed subpar by a couple of influential publications.

If winemakers and wine consumers can’t seem to bring alcohol levels down, Mother Nature can. Witness the wines from 2010 and 2011; both of them cool, late, challenging vintages. This past year even Southern California got slammed by rain and unseasonably cold weather right through harvest. So for those who have been lobbying for a return to more modest, Euro-style wines, the next round or two of releases from up and down the West Coast should be most interesting.

My first chance to taste the more serious reds from 2010 came in the form of a flight of Ken Wright pinot noirs. Wright is a very talented and even visionary winemaker, but at times I have found his single-vineyard pinots so ripe, so jammy, so dark and alcoholic, that they seemed more like syrahs. But in 2010 his wines are remarkable not only for alcohol levels between 12 and 13 percent but also for their finesse, elegance and depth of flavor.

As Wright explained in a recent email, “2010, like 2011, was a late cool year. In both cases we had quite a bit of hang time, though, which provided ample aroma and flavor development. You will notice that alcohol levels are modest, which for me is refreshing after some of the more heavy-handed vintages of the last decade. Those very warm years provide wine that is immediately lush and large-framed, but perhaps with less elegance and finesse, particularly over time.”

Many 2010 white wines also show great style and texture at modest alcohol levels. Among recent favorites are: Ross Andrew’s 2010 Meadow (a pinot blanc), Chateau Ste. Michelle’s 2010 Pinot Gris and Woodward Canyon’s 2010 Estate Sauvignon Blanc.

But my first taste of a white wine from 2011 was a real shocker.

Convergence Zone Cellars, a new producer based in Woodinville, has released its 2011 Drizzle Pinot Gris. Sourced from the outstanding Ciel du Cheval vineyard on Red Mountain, this offers ripe, round, rich flavors of honeyed pears and peaches. Succulent and fruity, it lists the alcohol content at just 12.3 percent, but cuts its sharp acidity with 2 percent residual sugar. Suh-weet!

The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt’s “Washington Wines & Wineries” is now in print. His blog is http://www.paulgregutt.com. Email: paulgwine@me.com.


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