Sometimes there is nothing better than a big wine, a wine with loads of tannin, loud fruit right up front, and the heat of high alcohol. After a meal, in the dead of winter, when everyone is in for the night, that big, loud, hot wine is a meal in itself. Like a brash guest at a party, it won’t be particularly interesting or intriguing. There will be nothing subtle about it. But sometimes that lack of subtlety can be oddly satisfying. Sometimes we want a wine that doesn’t make us think or work too hard to enjoy it.
Sometimes there is nothing better than a delicate wine, a wine with soft tannins, gentle fruit that whispers quietly mid-palate, and the tang of cold-climate acidity. With a complex meal, this wine comes to life playfully weaving itself into the flavors and textures of the meal. Like the quiet guest at the party who speaks so softly, you can’t quite make out what she’s saying. But the more you catch, the more you want to hear. Sometimes you want a wine with enough complexity that it takes some time to get to know it.
In his book, Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest, Cole Danehower uses the term ‘hand over land’ to describe the first style of wine which he calls ‘plush.’ It is a wine that is made by man, where harvest is delayed for higher alcohol, maceration is prolonged for greater tannins, and more new oak is used for more flavor. The second style is what Danehower describes as ‘poised.’ This is the ‘terroir’ wine, wine that is made by the land. No winemakers here, only grape growers.
The author goes on to point out that one is not better than the other. He is writing specifically about Willamette Pinot Noir when he says, ‘Between poised and plush, neither is considered better than the other; they are both viable and popular wine styles.’
In a recent article about heat in wine, The Rising Tide; Alcohol in Wine Creeps up the Glass, Natalie MacLean writes that too high an alcohol content in a wine can overwhelm the other elements and ruin the wine experience. Her article points out that high alcohol is more likely to occur in new world wines where vineyard temperatures are higher. With global warming we’re likely to see more heat in our wines. Though early harvesting can reduce the alcohol levels.
MacLean does defend higher alcohol levels as an appropriate stylistic choice for many wines, such as Amarone and Chateauneuf du Pape. Certainly grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel have the tannic structure to hold higher alcohol levels. But how big should these wines be?
Simon Burton wrote about this style dichotomy in his article, Marques de Casa Concha; ‘I want to make wines I enjoy. I don’t want to make wines for a market.‘ Through his interview with Marcelo Papa, winemaker for Marques de Casa Concha, it’s clear that this big style in wine, a style that has been trendy for the past several decades in part because, as MacLean points out, we moved from high alcohol cocktails to high alcohol wines, may be on the wane. According to Burton’s article, ‘“super premium” is wine code for “red wine made using very ripe grapes and lots of new oak”, and increasingly winemakers – including, now, Papa – are backing away from that kind of thing.’
It seems somehow inappropriate to talk about trends in wine. Unlike in fashion, where trends turn every six to eight weeks, wine trends might take decades to wax and wane. Yet, the wine world does seem to be moving from big wines to cerebral wines, from brash to subtle, from plush to poised. Big wines will always have a place, certainly at my table, but there’s something more interesting about a refined wine. The harder we work to understand it, the more it gives us to think about.