Down with Wine Dogma: An Open Letter from Winemaker Sean Thackrey

© Slav Zakota

By Ray Isle Posted July 29, 2015

A lot of recent debate in the wine world has concerned questions of balance. Are black-fruited Napa Cabernets that weigh in at 15.5% alcohol a sure sign of wrongheaded winemaking, or are they exactly the way they should be? Is Pinot Noir at a less extravagant 12.5% balanced, nuanced and expressive—or is it just sharp, unpleasant and flavor-challenged? Winemaker Sean Thackrey weighs in with an open letter.

A lot of recent debate in the wine world has concerned questions of balance. Are black-fruited Napa Cabernets that weigh in at 15.5% alcohol a sure sign of wrongheaded winemaking, or are they exactly the way they should be? Is Pinot Noir at a less extravagant 12.5% balanced, nuanced and expressive—or is it just sharp, unpleasant and flavor-challenged? I wrote about the issue in my column not too long ago, here, and recently acclaimed winemaker (and man of strong opinions) Sean Thackrey sent me the following open letter, weighing in on the same issue:

It's difficult to understand fads such as this; that is, fads such as the assertion that ‘lower’ alcohol is an expression of subtlety and intellectual complexity and general all-around Frenchness—without reminding ourselves just how much of the wine world is simply a branch of the fashion world, and that ‘low alcohol’ happens to be the anorexic currently on the catwalk.

In fact, good wine is always made from ripe fruit, which means fruit ripe for the wine-maker's particular purpose. Grapes ripe for Champagne are of course less ripe than grapes ripe for Amarone; but they are ripe, not unripe, for their purpose, which thanks to the British invention of the méthode Champenoise in the middle of the 17th century, is to produce an adorable sparkling wine which would no doubt be ruined were the grapes harvested at a higher sugar level.

On the other hand, grapes ripe for Champagne are not ripe for Amarone; which means that, no, for that purpose, they aren't more ‘subtle;’ they're just unripe, and the wine made from them will taste accordingly.

So what's the point of dogma in all this? Since no one disputes that excellent wine can be made from grapes comparatively lower in sugar, what is the point of arguing that this is so, when no one argues the contrary? Methinks someone's marketing guru doth protest too much.

If what you're making really is all that delicious, there's no need to demonstrate the limitations of your palate by claiming that all wines made with one or two percent more alcohol content are undrinkable; this is too perfectly stupid for comment. Pour what you've actually made as wine, so that we can all see how it—rather than your PR bling (i.e., we're all about subtlety and intellectual complexity and general all-around Frenchness)—actually tastes in the glass.

Otherwise, by next year, this will all be so last year—or maybe that was last year, that this was all so last year…?

If you're interested in reading my more extensive interview with Sean from our July issue, it can be found here.

Related: 
Inside the Audacious Mind of an Unrepentant Wine Artisan
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