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What is it with SFO/Central Coast and High Alcohol Wine Lists?

In a just completed week of estimable eating in San Francisco, Portland and the Monterey Peninsula (Hakka, Perbacco, Mochica, Millbrae-Asian Pearl, Stockton / Jackson St take away dim sum and Plow in Potrero Hill and Kenny and Zukes in Portland), our penultimate night at a Chowhound favored Monterey Peninsula seafood restaurant confronted us with a 300+ bottle wine list.

'We're both eating fish--let's get a crisp white, although not a real Chablis because it would blow the whole dinner budget on a north of $100 bottle, maybe a good muscadet or lighter Italian white' I muttered to myself.

I leafed through the weighty wine book with the embossed front cover. Pages turned. Reds, super reds, new world centric, high alcohol (14% minimum) cabernets, merlots, pinot noirs and zinfindels chardonnays, new world pinot grigios and sauvignon blancs all got dismissed out of hand. Too headache-y, too red, too oak-y, too vanilla-y, too high sugar to balance the high alcohol, too wrong for seafood.

Finally a full page was labeled 'Vibrant Whites'.

'Aha' I thought to myself. My kind of wines. There was only one problem. Almost all of them were 13% alcohol and greater.

So what's the problem one might ask? When pairing with food, it's my taste to drink anti-Wine Advocate anti-Robert Parker market proven style composed wines. (There are exceptions--but those I prefer simple pairings, with cheese for example.)

Rather, wines made in the classic style, less then 13% alcohol. Red or white--the razor applies to both. We drink these daily at home--from France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Even my old classmate of Freya Cellars, whom I haven't seen or spoke to in years since the vines were young, makes only Pinot Noir from vines he planted himself up in Oregon, and only at less than 13% alcohol. And he sells out by subscription every year. It's reassuring as it affirms that I'm not way way weird.

From the 'Vibrant White' section, I inquired after a $35 Sancerre. '14%' answered the waiter after returning from the wine wall where 300 bottle specific wine summaries were posted for the waitstaff. Then I asked after another. She asked if I had other questions so she could get all the answers in one trip to the reference section.

'I'm not sure' I said 'I need to get some answers first'. She sent over the manager/sommelier. I asked her the same questions.

'Sorry--it's global warming. They are even growing chardonnay in Germany. It's unlikely we have anything you would like'.

I tuned her out muy pronto. Where is she getting this drivel (not about global warming, but about wine making styles, global warming and chardonnay--Salon, wine salesmen)?

So I ordered an expensive Vinho Verde. 'Alvarinho' it also said. We tasted it. It was grapefruity, but in a mineral styled ok way. Not nearly like so many grapefruit pith tasting Spanish albarinos. ALBARARINOS . I slapped myself upside the head. This was no more a vinho verde than I'm a 20 something wine wanna be. It was an albarino, albeit Portuguese and rather good for its kind. It had a brown glass bottle. How could I have not seen it?

Maybe because it was misleadingly labeled in the weighty 17 mile Drive centric wine book?

But I didn't say a word. My wife fidgeted. That's what she does when she is almost out of patience and about to head to the bar to console herself. That's about as serious as it gets. I sucked down the wine and laughed at myself for having gotten snagged into an albarino when I was after a simple fun vinho verde, a know-it-all as momentarily clueless as any babe in the woods wanna be.

The next night at Asian Pearl in Millbrae, our final dinner, we ate like kings for little--Steamed Giant Clam sliced with garlic, Roast Pork, Salt and Pepper Squid and Mustard Greens (Sherlihon). The pork with salt fish was a too rare plate sized sausage patty too underdone to merit re-order, but we didn't care. With a couple of beers and tip the bill was only 60% of the previous night's well north of $100 tab.

Sigh. And some drool worthy pictures:

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Perbacco
230 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111

Mochica
937 Harrison Street, San Francisco, CA 94107

 
 
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  1. Riper grapes resulting in higher-alcohol wine is a fad. There has been a series of hot summers in Europe, but if it weren't for the fad, growers would have picked earlier. A backlash has been brewing for some years. Darrell Corti instituted a 14.5% cutoff three years ago:

    http://www.sacbee.com/static/weblogs/...

    Vinho Verde is a region (DO), and it produces a variety of wine styles in addition to the familiar light, low-alcohol, slightly fizzy white. There's even red Vinho Verde. The white may be made from a dozen different grape varieties including Alvarinho (aka Albariño).

    Note that a wine that says 14% on the label could be as low as 12.5% due to the 1.5% fudge factor.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      In the EU, the wiggle room for wines under 14% alcohol is 1.0%. European producers tend to use this standard on their labels when possible worldwide so they don't have to maintain multiple sets of labels.
      http://europa.eu/legislation_summarie...

    2. "Where is she getting this drivel (not about global warming, but about wine making styles, global warming and chardonnay--Salon, wine salesmen)?"
      Not drivel.
      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/3259...

      "So I ordered an expensive Vinho Verde. 'Alvarinho' it also said. We tasted it. It was grapefruity, but in a mineral styled ok way. Not nearly like so many grapefruit pith tasting Spanish albarinos. ALBARARINOS . I slapped myself upside the head. This was no more a vinho verde than I'm a 20 something wine wanna be. It was an albarino, albeit Portuguese and rather good for its kind. It had a brown glass bottle. How could I have not seen it? "
      Why not a vinho verde? Alvarinho is one of the permitted grape varieties in the demarcation. VV's made with a high percentage of Alvarino/albariño tend toward higher alcohol levels (11+%).

      5 Replies
      1. re: Melanie Wong

        > Melanie Wong--"light, low-alcohol, slightly fizzy white."

        Ok, I got what I came for, in this case both validation and enlightenment. And never again will I mistake a brown (not green) bottle inside of which is wine labeled 'Alvarinho' as anything but. Doh, because I--of all people--should have known better.

        1. re: Steve Drucker

          Here's a link to an old note from the winemaker at Quinto do Dorado that says he does lees stirring on the Alvarinho. That would give it a heavier, creamier texture, even at lower than 12% alcohol.
          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/2997...

          Also wanted to add that not all Vinho Verde contain Alvarihno in the blend. And some will have nearly all Alvarinho and be labeled as your bottle was.

          Spain's Albariño used to fit the green, cracking wine category exclusively. But in the last decade or so, they've become more serious, riper and pricey, as have Portuguese VVs. I love vinho verde in all its permutations, if well-made, but it is more important than ever to pay attention to the label, alcohol level, and sommelier's description to get the style you want.

          Last yr I tasted a NV vinho verde at a friend's house that was refreshing, light and clean. He said that he'd purchased it for about $7 at Traverso's in Santa Rosa and the store couldn't keep enough on hand. Local winemakers had been buying it by the caseload for summer drinking. There's certainly an audience for the style in Sonoma County, just wish that it were easier to craft that style locally.

          Here's the photo of a 2002 Quinta da Pedra Alvarihno Vinho Verde at a locals restaurant in Oporto, November 2005, with the dinner cover of chourico-studded bread, octopus and tiny fishies. I was a bit dubious, wanting something fresher, but the proprietor said it was the best wine he had in the house. It was an oily, liquid stones, lovely wine.

           
          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Sonoma wineries had no problem cranking out pink Zinfandel when that was popular. I don't believe it would be hard them to produce light, fresh, fruity, lower-alcohol wines, at least if they can control when the grapes are picked.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              RL, wasn't there a recent article about growers being upset from this that allowance of a more lengthy hang time that results in reduced weight (ergo prices/ton) for their product?

      2. That's what I don't like about many of the Central Coast wines. Overripe grapws result in overblown, blowsy, alcoholic wines. unbalanced, and imho, unpleasant.

        <So I ordered an expensive Vinho Verde. 'Alvarinho' it also said. We tasted it. It was grapefruity, but in a mineral styled ok way. Not nearly like so many grapefruit pith tasting Spanish albarinos. ALBARARINOS . I slapped myself upside the head. This was no more a vinho verde than I'm a 20 something wine wanna be. It was an albarino, albeit Portuguese and rather good for its kind. It had a brown glass bottle. How could I have not seen it? >

        Vinho Verde is made from the Alvarinho grape. Alvarinho is the Portuguese spelling of the grape, which is the very same grape as Albarino. We pay between $6 and $10 per bottle for Vinho Verdi. It is generally low in alcohol, and kind of "simple." Noce for summer afternoon sipping, and maybe a shrimp cocktail.

        1 Reply
        1. re: ChefJune

          "Vinho Verde is made from the Alvarinho grape."

          *May* be made from Alvarinho. That's one of 35 or so grapes allowed in the DO, which makes whites, rosés, and reds, mostly simple but some complex. Having never encountered anything but fresh, young, slightly effervescent whites, I was baffled the first time I came across a robust still red VV in a tasting.