Ripeness and alcohol continue to polarize wine drinkers. The prevailing trend almost everywhere these days is toward more moderate levels of alcohol, but a highly vocal wing still finds too much alcohol in too many wines.
It's the sugar in the grapes, of course, that ferments into alcohol, so winegrowers are seeking ways to get enough ripeness to deliver pleasurable flavors without the sugar getting out of hand. Finding a cool climate can do it. But sometimes a cool vintage is a mixed blessing, as my recent experience sampling 2011 Washington reds demonstrates.
In three days of blind tasting through a range of new releases, mostly 2011s along with a few from surrounding vintages, I was struck by how much alike many of these 2011s tasted. Merlots, Cabernets and Syrahs and attendant blends all shared similar structural and flavor profiles. The 2012s and 2010s reflected more individuality.
Many of those who push for low alcohol argue that excess ripeness can obscure terroir, the sense of place that wine can reflect. They say it's riper wines that taste alike, just fruit and more fruit.
I value complexity. Although I prefer fruit, I want it to balance with other elements in a wine's profile. At 12.5 or 13.0 degrees alcohol, too many wines just taste anemic. The best ones, the ones from cooler climates, can have an utterly beguiling resilience and open texture.
Throughout most of Washington, 2011 brought lower temperatures and wetter weather than usual. But unlike their neighbors to the south in Oregon and California, Washington winemakers got fairly normal sugar levels. The early wines I tasted from this vintage showed lighter textures than usual and pretty flavors. It looked as if they dodged a bullet.
The more serious wines, however, seem to be all over the board. Far too many veer toward earthy and savory flavors and little or no fruit. Tannins can be tough. Alcohol levels are maybe half a degree lower than usual, but many of the wines were still in the 14 to 14.5 range, and with normal acidity levels. In many cases ripe characteristics, which many of us want for a pleasurable wine were missing. If you like earthy, savory styles (and some of them can be compelling), you can find them among Washington's 2011s.
In comparison the 2010s and 2012s in my tastings brimmed with fruit, and not all the same fruit. Some leaned toward fresh currants, others to cherry, yet others to berries, or combinations thereof (and others). Those were riper years, though not as big and powerful as, say, 2007 or 2009. But next to the general run of 2011s, they stood out as much more present and expressive.
2011 has its standouts. The percentage of 2011 reds I've rated 90 points or higher ("outstanding" on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) is only down a few ticks from previous vintages. There are even a few "classics" (95 or higher). But be forewarned. More 2011s have scored in the low 80s and high 70s than usual. You just have to choose carefully.