Tastes do change, but so do wines

This week I'm reaching into the Wine Whisperer's mailbag to answer readers' questions prompted by earlier columns:

Q: Why am I having trouble with chardonnay? I used to love the wine but find them all tasting too fat and juicy. Have my tastes changed, or is winemaking changing?

This is a tough call. Chardonnay was the darling of the white wine world on the West Coast from the 1960s through much of the 1990s. Many of the American chardonnays were fermented in new oak, resulting in a predominantly woody taste.

I remember a tasting held at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco featuring American and French chardonnay. The French offerings were very varietal, with hints of spice, deep fatness and a lovely crispness. The spice came from a hint of oak.

On the other side of the room, the American chardonnays were, to a bottle, oak-driven with very little varietal character. This was a pivotal tasting as there were winemakers from all over the world taking part in this tasting. It was a sobering evening for the Americans, as we witnessed elegance versus overwhelming firepower in the form of oak.

This tasting took place in the early 1980s and I truly believe it changed more than a few notions on what exactly chardonnay was supposed to be.

My suspicion as to why you are not "loving" chardonnay like you used to is that you've changed palate gears and are looking for a more crisp style. Try the cooler-climate chardonnays from the Willamette Valley or the lovely chardonnays from Macon, France, which are reasonably priced and refreshing.

Q: What is with all of these high-alcohol zinfandels? It is to the point that two moderate glasses of the wine is all I can take. If I like zinfandel but do not want to drink these 14 percent- to 16 percent-alcohol reds, what should I do?

I hear this a lot. Zinfandel is a wonderful red and, yes, the wine has changed greatly over the past 20 years. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was rare to find offerings more than 14 percent. Occasionally, we would find Paso Robles or Amador County zinfandels that would have those levels of alcohol, but they were rare.

Today, the lower-alcohol zinfandels are the rarity. I'm going to stick my neck out and say this is a good example of global warming — the regions all over California are experiencing warmer days, meaning alcohol levels are spiking like crazy.

I sell more than 40 different zinfandels, and none is under 14 percent alcohol. I would recommend an Italian primitivo, which many say is the zinfandel grape, or close to it, structurally. One can find really well-made primitivo from the south of Italy for fair prices and in-line alcohol levels.

I share your belief that some of the wines on the shelves today are just too "hot" for everyday consumption. There is also the question of cuisine. Just what kind of cuisine would go with these wines? Any red wine more than 14.9 percent alcohol is going to punish cuisine, unless the food is very sturdy and spicy. Personally, I stick with the under 13 percent offerings in just about every wine I drink, with a max of about 14 percent alcohol.

A malbec from Argentina or tempranillo from Spain could be another good alternative to the high-alcohol zins. I bet you'd like them.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.

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