When the magazine Wine & Spirits issued its annual list of the world's top 100 wineries last week, six Washington wineries and dozens of Washington


The Burden of Proof

When the magazine Wine & Spirits issued its annual list of the world's top 100 wineries last week, six Washington wineries and dozens of Washington wines made the cut. Such recognition was not always ours. As little as 35 years ago, the words "Washington wine" were more or less synonymous with the words "cheap, sweet, alcoholic swill fit only for alley and curbside drinking accessorized with a brown paper bag." But in recent years, even some of the finest Washington wines have begun to show one affinity with those unregretted predecessors: high, sometimes overbearing alcohol content. Wines that used to claim 11.5 percent or 12 percent alcohol content now routinely bear 13.5 percent, 14 percent, even 14.5 percent ratings. That may not seem like a lot, compared to the 80 proof and 100 proof (40 percent to 50 percent alcohol) ratings boasted on liquor bottles; but it's high enough that one good-sized glass can put a lightly built individual pretty close to the .08 blood-alcohol level the state patrol considers bust-worthy. More generally, it's enough to turn a satisfying beverage into a rather rank and crude experience. Broadly stated: Wine should never taste "alcoholic." In a well-made, well-balanced wine, alcohol is a silent partner, supporting flavor components like acids and tannins and phenols and sugars, but never taking the foreground. If you experience even a wisp of the burn to the tongue or prickling in the sinuses that are natural concomitants of the savoring of brandy or Scotch, something is wrong with the wine you're drinking. Two trends have coincided to push the average alcohol level of Northwest wines to dangerously high levels. First, a series of long, hot summers have pumped the grapes full of sugar, and unless you're making sweet wine, all that sugar gets turned into alcohol. Second, winemakers are depending less on chemistry and more on their tastebuds to decide when grapes reach "physiological ripeness." That sounds great, but in practice it means that by the time a grape tastes exquisitely ripe to the tongue, it may pack enough sugar to fell an elephant once it's turned to alcohol. Washington and U.S. winemakers aren't the only ones being led up the garden path. There's a temptation in all hot-country wine regions, in much of Australia, parts of Chile, South Africa, Spain, and even southern France, to let the sun do its stuff and harvest only when the grapes are on the point of turning into raisins. But the brute fact is that this temptation has led to "table wines" that pack as much alcoholic punch as traditional "fortified wines" like port and sherry, or the wicked old muscatel winos used to bang their heads with. If these wines tasted as good as their more discreet forebearsif they tasted good at allthe numbers wouldn't matter. But when even a fine-flavored, full-bodied wine may leave a faint lighter-fluid aftertaste, it's time to consider whether, alcoholwise, less might be a good deal more. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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