If the topic of the year is rising alcohol levels in today's wines, as it appears to be, Wells Guthrie of Copaín is probably the poster boy for the lower-alcohol crowd. Several years ago he had an epiphany: After making a reputation for big, bold, muscular Syrahs and broad, fleshy Pinot Noirs, he decided to change.
Before he became a vintner, Guthrie worked for Wine Spectator as a tasting assistant. Knowing him, I have followed his wines as best I could, given that I don't review California wines. Besides, when it comes to New World Syrah I have enough on my plate with Washington and Australia, and for New World Pinot Noir my heart belongs in Oregon and New Zealand. But Wells got a lot of attention when he publicly declared his disappointment with his early wines and aimed at a different, lighter balance in his wines.
In a recent conversation, Wells walked me through his personal odyssey, then offered to send me three bottles to try of his 2009s, which he says he is quite proud of, to demonstrate what he's after. Over dinner with some friends last weekend I opened his Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Monument Tree 2009, Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Cerise Vineyard 2009 and Syrah Yorkville Highlands Hawkes Butte 2009. They range from 13.2 to 13.8 percent alcohol.
In general, I liked their transparency and nicely focused fruit flavors. These were not thin and earthy wines, which too often become darlings of the low-alc crowd. The only wine that showed the kind of depth and suppleness that for me is critical to both Pinot Noir and Syrah was the Monument Tree (92 points, non-blind). The Cerise (87, non-blind, for me) had a sharpness and acidic bite that, one hopes, will be balanced with flesh as the wine develops in the bottle. The Syrah (90, non-blind) had plenty of nerve, even if it lacked the peppery, spicy or savory notes that are hallmarks of cool-climate Syrah.
On balance, though, these wines showed more presence, more generosity and, in the Monument Tree, more flesh than I had found in my previous encounters with Copaín's more delicate side. They demonstrate that California wines don't have to be big and bold to be good. We all agreed they were easy to sip with a summer dinner of cold cherry soup, grilled chicken thighs, grilled eggplant and a corn and avocado salad.
The dividing line for many is acidity, not alcohol. Though not excessively so, the Copaín wines we tasted showed their acid prominently. And just as the low-alc folks find some wines overly hot that I find perfectly balanced, I find some of their favorites overly tart. For all of us the Monument Tree defined a transparent, balanced wine. It reminded me of some of the outstanding Oregon 2008s.
Guthrie likes the acidity. "The wines have better energy now. The greater acidity cuts through the fat," he said. That's fine with me, by the way. The more variety we have, the more likely any of us will find wines we love to drink.
I admire what Wells has done, because he has gone about this transition with intelligence and persistence. He did it because he discovered, after his first vintages had been in the bottle a few years, that they were not aging as well as he expected. "I wanted them to be fresher after four or five years," he said. "They seemed to be becoming flabby, not in a bad way, but it wasn't what I was looking for."
When to pick is a moving target for any winegrower. As grapes ripen on the vine, flavors morph from green to ripe and the tannins from the skins and seeds change from hard and biting to soft and plush. All the while the starches are converting to sugar. It's that sugar that becomes alcohol in fermentation, of course. The trick is to get those other elements right before the sugars get out of hand, or the grapes become raisins, which can happen rapidly in a warm climate.
At first Guthrie tried picking the vineyards surrounding his winery in Russian River Valley early to get less alcohol. The neighborhood includes such favorites as Allen Vineyard and Rochioli, which produce rich, ripe styles of Pinot. But picking earlier did not work there. "At around 13 percent alcohol, the wines I made off of these vineyards were barely darker than a rosé," he said. "[There was] nothing compelling about them."
So he turned his focus to cooler regions such as Anderson Valley, where he already was making Pinot Noir that in his view developed fully ripe flavors and still came in at well under 14 percent alcohol.
That's one of the prime messages that seems to get lost in alcohol discussions. If a wine is to express the character a vineyard has to offer, a winemaker must listen to the vineyard. In warmer places, in certain soils, the wines must have higher alcohol levels to fully realize a vineyard's character, otherwise the wines can come off as thin. In other places the full character comes without high alcohol. Those who make the wine need to understand the place that will define it.
That's why Guthrie looked for the right place to make the style of wine he wanted, rather than just pick earlier in a place unsuited for it.
Really, it's the same in the Old World too. Wines such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhône, Barolo from northern Italy and vendages tardives from Alsace routinely come out north of 14 percent alcohol, and always have, because the grapes grown there need it to find a welcome balance. The difference is that in the New World, a vintner can choose a different path, rather than being stuck with a region's tradition.
More to the point, the great vintages in Bordeaux and Burgundy have always been the ripest (and more alcoholic than average). The best lower-alcohol wines come from places where the ripest vintage won't be too much, otherwise the wines might need high-tech ways to remove alcohol. It's a sliding scale, folks, and always has been about balance and expressiveness. Find it in the glass, not on the label.
Morewine Bishar — Del Mar, California — July 27, 2011 1:36pm ET
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