Big Wine: Good or Evil?

The rise of "big" wine—ripe, rich, with lots of fruit and alcohol—is hugely controversial. Two top experts argue about whether bigger is better.

Suddenly it seems as if the shelves of wine shops have been simultaneously invaded by a new species. Bred predominantly but not exclusively in places like California and Australia, these bottlings are markedly different from the traditional wines of countries like France and Italy—different not only in taste and texture but in alcohol levels and aging potential. Loved by some, loathed by others, these recent arrivals have come to be called, somewhat inadequately, big wines.

But are big wines too much of a good thing? To debate the relative merits of big versus traditional wines, F&W invited a proponent of each style to share his views. Making the case for big wine was Brian Duncan, the wine director of Chicago's Bin 36 restaurant and the Great Lakes Fish House in Lincolnshire, Illinois. Robert Bohr, wine director of Cru restaurant in New York City, rose to the defense of traditional wines.

Styles Defined

Q: What exactly are big wines?

Duncan: Big wines are about power and pleasure and simple, unabashed hedonism. Made from grapes that are totally ripe, they're wines with big, rich flavors, a generous amount of fruit and relatively high alcohol levels—15 percent and more. They're also precocious; that is, they're ready to drink upon release, although many will benefit from cellaring. A great example of a big, intense wine that has proved to age well is the Pride Mountain Vineyards Cabernet made by the highly regarded Bob Foley.

Q: And how would you define traditional wines?

Bohr: Traditional wines are generally lower in alcohol than big wines and they're also more subtle, less about power and more about finesse. They also age more gracefully. A lot of these big wines are low in acid and therefore won't age well. And most cult Cabs are too new for anyone to know how they'll age. Traditional wines, however, have proved themselves. They are truly wines of terroir—wines that reflect their origin, the specific place they come from. While terroir may be an overused word, it is entirely apt when describing traditional wines. In Burgundy, for instance, there is a difference in the terroirs of Chablis and Chassagne-Montrachet. Although both regions produce Chardonnay, the wines aren't likely to be mistaken for each other. That isn't always true for big wines.

Duncan: I think you're heading into dangerous territory by invoking terroir, Robert. In blind tastings, even French winemakers have mistaken California Chardonnays for their own Chassagne-Montrachets—although some 5,000 miles and a lot of difference in terroir separate the two areas. I'm thinking of wines from California producers like Peter Michael and Mark Aubert.

Q: What grapes do you think have the ability to produce the most outstanding big wines?

Duncan: Grenache, Syrah and Zinfandel have the greatest potential for big flavor. Not every grape varietal is suited to this style. For example, I don't think Pinot Noir is suited to be a big wine. There are California Pinots with 16 percent alcohol that taste more like Syrah. I love big wines, but I have an aversion to wines like that.

Bohr: I agree with you there, Brian. To me, the argument for varietal correctness—for Syrahs that taste like Syrah and Pinots that taste like Pinot—is at the heart of my argument in favor of traditional wines. Pinot Noir needs to taste like itself, which, frankly, it does best when it comes from Burgundy.

Q: Can we start tasting some of the wines you both brought? Robert, tell us about the 2000 Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny.

Bohr: This red Burgundy is silky and fragrant, with wonderful floral aromas; I think it proves you don't need a wine packed with lots of extra-ripe fruit or excess alcohol to experience pleasure. Because it's from an off vintage, it's a terrific value—around $50 a bottle—though it's admittedly light-bodied even by traditional wine standards.

Duncan: I love it, but a wine novice won't get it. What they will get is this 2000 Henschke Keyneton Estate Euphonium, an Australian Shiraz blend. Here's a wine that's a lesson in how a big wine can have power and richness but not be excessive. It's big, but not brutal. The key is its balance of fruit, acidity, tannins and alcohol.

Bohr: I think this Euphonium's alcohol verges on obtrusive. Still, I'll admit it's not an offensive example in a category full of offensive wines.

Big Wine Origins

Q: When did the current vogue for big wines get its start?

Duncan: I'd point to the late 1990s, when the Turley Zins coming out of California—wines with more than 16 percent alcohol—became a cult phenomenon. Before Turley, not many wine drinkers had experienced wines with such power and layers of flavor. The wines got big scores from the critics and became highly allocated, expensive and, of course, sought-after. I think that's when big wines really took off.

Bohr: Brian's right. Critics, notably Robert M. Parker, Jr., have favored fruitier, more alcoholic wines with high scores. On a table crowded with samples, big wines speak the loudest. And it's not only Zinfandel but other varietals as well. The highest scoring California Cabs have become alcohol monsters.

Q: Was there ever a time when California wines were closer to traditional European wines in style?

Bohr: The great Napa Valley Cabernets from the 1970s were a mere 12 to 13 percent alcohol, just like traditional Bordeaux. And those Cabernets were more ageworthy.

Q: Behrens & Hitchcock's 2004 "Cemetery" Cab blend weighs in at 16.1 percent alcohol. How do wines get to be that high in alcohol?

Duncan: It's not an unnatural development; higher alcohol levels are a natural outcome when grapes are grown in warmer new-world climates. In California, for instance, grapes ripen to sugar levels that winemakers in Bordeaux can only fantasize about. High sugars translate to high alcohol. In the good old days winemakers also used to harvest their grapes according to sugar levels, not according to flavor ripeness. Now winemakers know that the two things are not the same. Today they wait until they get the flavors—phenolics is their term—totally ripe. So yes, you do get more alcohol but you also get more flavor. And not only in the New World but in the Old World as well. Try this Spanish red, the 2004 Vinos Piñol Ludovicus Terra Alta. It's fruity, but also balanced and fresh. It's a great buy at only $10 a bottle.

Bohr: Even at a modest price, it's way too simple. Everyone will love it. It's like Monet. Who doesn't love Monet?

Duncan: There has to be a place for wine neophytes to begin. Just like Monet is for art neophytes, this Ludovicus is for wine neophytes. I say start them on Monet and as they gain perspective, they'll get to Pollock.

Bohr: I don't accept that only fruit monsters can turn people on to wine. Here's a wonderful white that would engage any attentive beginner, the grand cru 2000 Domaine René & Vincent Dauvissat Les Preuses Chablis. It's restrained, yet the flavors fill the mouth. And it doesn't hit you over the head.

Pairing Points

Q: Let's talk about how big and traditional wines pair with food. Isn't it hard to match big wines with food?

Bohr: Absolutely. Most big wines have little natural acidity because they're so ripe. Yet acidity in wine is what enlivens food. If you want to enjoy a plate of oysters, drink a lean, high-acid Chablis. If you want to ruin the experience, choose a low-acid new-world Chardonnay.

Duncan: I'm not saying I would suggest that someone dining at one of my restaurants order a full-bodied wine with lots of oak to accompany something delicate like poached turbot or seared bay scallops. But it is exactly the style of wine I'd propose if the person was having, say, lobster in a cream sauce.

Bohr: But delicate dishes aren't the only foods that are wrong with big wines. There can be problems pairing big wine with hearty dishes, too. At best, some fruit-bomb big wine can only coexist rather than be a partner to a dish like a simple leg of lamb roasted with rosemary and garlic. But a traditional wine like a classic Bordeaux with a bit of tannin and not too much overt fruit is the perfect foil to a dish like that.

Duncan: Well, if you bring that same fancy Bordeaux to a backyard barbecue, it probably won't show well. Nor will it stand up to a leg of venison rubbed with blackened spices. Those are occasions and dishes that are made for a wine with lots of ripe, juicy fruit, whether it's a California Zinfandel, a Grenache from Spain or any Rhône-style wine from the New World.

Bohr: Traditional wines have more to offer than just fruitiness. They have other, more subtle flavors that work even better with food. For example, to bring out the earthiness of a wild mushroom risotto, you can't do better than a mature Barolo, which has equally earthy flavors, not just a bunch of overt fruit.

Duncan: My best food-pairing advice is to match the intensity of the wine to the dish. The wine should never overshoot the food, and vice versa.

Q: Robert, is there ever an occasion where you might drink a big wine?

Bohr: Maybe at the end of a long meal where I've shared 10 bottles of traditional wines, and I feel like I need something to whack me over the head so I'll sleep through the night. Then I'd go for a classic like Penfolds Grange from Australia.

Q: Is there a big wine that both of you could admire?

Duncan: What about this 2001 Tommaso Bussola BG Amarone della Valpolicella Classico from Veneto? It's made from late-harvested, air-dried grapes. It's a full-bodied, high-alcohol wine that's big and traditional. It's hugely fruity, yet wonderfully textured.

Bohr: I'll admit that this Amarone has complex aromatics as well as lots of big flavors. Another thing I like is its typicity—it's an Amarone that tastes like an Amarone. Plus, unlike most big wines, it will age.

Peter Hellman, a regular F&W contributor, writes the Urban Vintage column for the New York Sun.

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