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How come the French are trying to lower alcohol in wine while California’s raising it?

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Last month, a seminar was held in Mendoza, Argentina, at a trade fair. The seminar was sponsored by the OIV (International Organization of Vine and Wine), a Paris-based organization that studies scientific issues related to wine and grapes, and the French Institute for Vine and Wine (IFVV), an agency of the French government. One of the most important agenda items discussed at the seminar was dealcoholisation of wine. As OIV’s summary headlined, “Dealcoholisation at the top of the Euroviti 2009 agenda”. It went on to say “…a large part of the seminar was devoted to low alcohol wines.”

Why France is interested in low alcohol wines is complicated. Partly it’s due to rising national awareness of the problems of alcohol abuse. It’s also, one suspects, fueled by French resentment of California wines that are higher in alcohol than theirs, and have for some time been more commercially successful (for that very Parkeresque reason, the French contend). For all these reasons, the French are interested in manufacturing lower alcohol wines, and they’re developing techniques for doing so. To quote from the OIV summary, “…several technological advances have been made. These include partial dealcoholisation techniques for finished wines, a technique for reducing the sugar content of musts, a technique for reducing the fermentation yield using yeast, and a selection of grape varieties with low sugar content at maturity.” The conference didn’t stop at mere technique. “Socio-economic and sensory aspects were also addressed, particularly the impact of lower alcohol levels on the sensory experience of wines, as well as the degree to which consumers appreciate and accept low alcohol wines.”

Then we come to California, where our wines have been going in exactly the opposite direction: up, up and away in alcohol. “[S]ales of so-called ‘hot’ wines — those reaching at least 14 percent alcohol — have tripled in the past decade,” says this article, headlined “State’s wines get extra shot of alcohol,” and which was widely published in several media outlets two days ago. The article quoted Ehren Jordan, one of the hottest California winemakers (no pun intended), as saying, “If you want to make big wines, come to California, because it is hot as blazes here.” [His Turley Wine Cellars Zins are in the 17 percent range.]

I’m not reflexively anti-high alcohol. I rate and review high-alcohol wines almost everyday. Sometimes I love them and sometimes I don’t. It’s a question of balance. High alcohol is not an issue for me, probably because I’ve developed a California palate (not that that prevents me from appreciating a lower-alcohol wine of complexity and elegance). But I do have to say it’s surprising how research into lower-alcohol wines seems to have ground to a halt here in my state. If anybody’s working on it, it’s escaped my attention — and I get paid to know what’s happening.

Sure, we’ve had alcohol-free wines in the past. Sutter Home’s Fre comes to mind. (It’s been many years since I last tasted it, so I can only say I hope it’s better than it used to be). But it doesn’t seem like low- or no-alcohol wine is at the top of anyone’s agenda. How come U.C. Davis and Fresno State aren’t on this bigtime? Where is Wine Institute? How about the big wine companies that account for most of the nation’s sales? Are there garage entrepreneurs out there who are tinkering? I have a feeling a lot more wine could be sold if consumers who aren’t comfortable with alcohol were offered tasty alternatives.

The challenge to low- or no-alcohol wines is, of course, to preserve flavor once you’ve stripped out alcohol. No easy task. But as the French technological advances mentioned above suggest, through a combination of them it might be able to be done. If it’s doable, California can do it, and take the lead in an important new area, as the state does in so many others.

Dept. of Shameless Self-Promotion

Winebusiness.com just published their 2009 Most Visited Blog Postings and this little blog has 5 of the top 14, more than anyone else. All I can say is, it’s hard work coming up with stuff 5 days a week, but I’m glad people seem to like what I write.

  1. Carlos Toledo says:

    The french never learn, do they? An entire industry in dire straits (champagne anyone???) and yet they’re trying to set different rules or trends….that’s great news. I’ll keep buying my italian, spanish, chilean wines….

  2. Steve,

    Interesting blog, and one that I’m sure will get you plenty of responses!!!!!

    First off, you say that you are not ‘reflexively anti-high alcohol’ bit based on some of your reviews in the past, and some of your previous blogs, you do seem to have a lean against these wines in principle . . . and might this not affect how you look at a wine after peeking at its lable?!?!? Just a quick question . . .

    Second, you wonder why certain universities and/or the Wine Institute is not looking at these things . . .hmmm. I’m not sure that they are not. But even if they are not, should they be? I’m not sure . . .

    I do know that yeast research is very active and researchers are constantly looking to find yeast that perform their job more efficiently – and result in conversion factors leading to lower alcohol wines . . .

    And as you and I both know, RO and other techniques ARE employed in CA and throughout the US to dealc wines . . .

    Quick question – and forgive my lack of knowledge on the subject, but what are tax laws like in other countries as it pertains to excise tax on alcohol based on alcohol levels? Is there a greater incentive elsewhere to produce wines with lower alcohol levels? THIS would certainly drive wineries to move in this direction (-:

    Also – are consumers here really screaming for lower alcohol wines? I’m not sure that they are . . .

    You’ve given all of us plenty to think about – and I’m looking forward to following the thread to hear other responses – and your replies!

    Cheers!

  3. Larry, I don’t peek at labels before I make up my mind. I could list you dozens of wines in excess of 15% I’ve given high scores to…also dozens I’ve trashed.
    I don’t know the tax laws of other countries. I am quite sure there are many consumers who want lower alcohol (or no alcohol) wines. People complain about high alcohol all the time. Maybe wineries could come out with two bottlings of each wine, one with regular alc and the other with none or very low.

  4. Steve,

    I can tell you that having alcohols all the way down to 8.5% in some of our Rieslings is a huge sales point to consumers. Also I am convinved that we would sell more wines (as an industry) if we would produce wines with lower alcohols.

    N.

  5. In my experience there’s a couple reasons the French are pursuing lower alcohol wines so aggressively. First, they consume wine on a more regular (daily) basis than we do so lower alcohol wines are a little more forgiving in this regard. Secondly, restaurant sales of wines have plummeted over the past few years given the reduction of allowable BAC while driving and increased police enforcement of it. They’re trying to lower alcohol content in wines to help save their industry.

  6. Steve,

    I have tasted a lot of high alcohol California wines and recently have been tasting some low alcohol French wine. I enjoy the differences in style.

    One request: To really pick up the nuances of wine, we need reference points. Can you recommend a hot, unbalanced California wine for your us as a reference point? This recommendation may cause a potential assassination attempt, but your opinion would be valuable.

    GM

  7. This shouldn’t be about non-alcoholic wines-that’s a different discussion. This is about reasonable levels alcohol and balance.
    I have a question for women wine consumers-why aren’t you raising hell and snapping your wallets shut at these hot, sweet wines? I’d like to enjoy more than ½ glass of wine with my meal and feel sleepy or have a headache the next day. But to do that, I have to buy/order wines under 13%. That means I have to buy wines from everywhere but California and I live in Napa!! If women are the biggest consumers, why aren’t more of us speaking up? Every woman I know feels the same way and we have stopped buying these over-the-top cocktails and have switched to wines from other countries.
    Restaurant owners-which consumer do you want? The customer who drinks 2-3 glasses from 1 bottle and is smashed or someone who can order an aperitif, a bottle with dinner and then perhaps a glass of port to finish the meal?? Which one brings in more $$$

  8. Geoff, I never single out individual wines for criticism in this blog. But if you go to http://www.winemag.com (Wine Enthusiast’s website) and sign up for use of the free database, you’ll see all my scores from 80 upward. Scores below 80 are consigned to the depths forever.

  9. Wow, a rhetorical question right Steve? One of the few folks who helped spawn the high octane phenomenon is now asking why!? How about this scenario…

    The French are making wines that will age well, pair with a wide range of food and are quite tasty when brett hasn’t taken over.

    California wines, like the greater social environment, play perfectly into the bigger is better philosophy. I remember horrifically when the big toy truck, mammoth SUV trend was emerging and can recall the parallel in the wine gig. I couldn’t believe these high octane, 3.85 ph havin, 60% new oak wearing, a mere 10 months in the bottle ageing wines were receiving high scores or puffs or stars from mainstream city folk like YOU STEVE, and the WS and the wine clown from Maine. Also the “want it all and want it now” temper of contemporary America plays into how we in this industry conduct our craft. People don’t want to wait for shit… they want to take their ’07 Cab home and drink it that night.

    That worked for a while… now what… patience…

    Most of California wines are out of balance. This is a known fact…

    If wineries want to continue to capture the attention of an ever increasingly wine astute audience, they’re going to need to bring their fruit in EARLIER in order to capture higher concentrations of natural acidity (age ability and food pairing), the sugars will be lower so the alc’s will come down (decreasing the viscosity from higher glycerin content) from and get off the oak kick. Oak is a store bought flavor folks…. You might as well have the cooper’s logo outside your tasting room. Buy $4,500/ton Napa cab and then oak the shit out of it? If the fruit arrives at the crushpad in good condition, why fuck with it?

    I’m having a hell of a time pouring balanced, age worthy zin because folks think they have to drink up their zin with in two years!

    Part wine mentality evolution and part contemporary American attitudes…

  10. Morton Leslie says:

    Considering that the ’29 and ’45 Mouton, the ’47 Cheval blanc were well under 13% alcohol, and the average alcohol of un-chaptalized or un-reverse osmosized Bordeaux is about 11.5 % alcohol it seems rather idiotic for the French to talk about doing research to figure out how to make lower alcohol wines. They just need to concentrate on making good tasting wine.

  11. It was fifty years ago and more when Ambassador Zellerbach founded Hanzell and attempted to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with Burgundian character. Among the things he did differently was to employ the use of French Oak barrels in the aging of his wines. Until then, virtually all CA wine was aged in large vats, mostly redwood or older American oak.

    That single change was a major step forward in the transformation of CA wine, and ultimately in the emergence of Chardonnay as our No. 1 variety. Please remember that there were less than 200 acres of Chardonnay in 1960.

    Oak barrel aging is integral to the wines of Burgundy, the wines of the Rhone, the wines of Bordeaux, Super Tuscans, Priorat, etc.

    So, when one reads a recommendation that wine no longer be aged in oak, one has to scratch one’s head. This is not forward thinking. This is not a search for balance. This is a narrow, singular view of the world put forward in language that demeans any other approach. It is to be ignored as “the answer”. That said, Randy’s view of the world is entirely legitimate as long as it is applied to Randy’s wines and is offered as an alternative.

    We all need to respect unique opinions. But, just because most Cabs are aged in oak does not disqualify them. Not unless all Bordeaux are also summarily disqualified as well as all Burgundy.

  12. Morton, I would almost always defer to your greater knowledge of such things, but I remember interviewing the cellarmaster at Cheval Blanc years ago, when I wrote about ’47 Cheval Blanc for Wine Spectator, and as I recall, he told me the ’47 was in the 14-15 percent range. I admit that my memory may be off, but I don’t think it was “well under 13%.” That’s why they called ’47 a Californian vintage.

  13. I adore low-alcohol wines and am grateful anyone is working harder on them. As a writer who does plenty of food-and-wine pairings, I think the key lies in how you drink the wine–with food, or without. Just last night I was testing two Gewurztraminers with a salad, and one really enhanced the food and made every bite and swallow refreshing. The other made the different components of the salad seem oddly discombobulated, and the swallow of wine was unbalanced. The first was 11.5% alcohol; the second was 14% alcohol.

    Interestingly, tasted alone, the higher-alcohol wine was better. It was balanced and had a headier perfume and didn’t taste “hot.” The lower-alcohol wine was understated, almost bland.

  14. Vinny Solignac says:

    As french citizen and world wine passionné, I would like to add the few following explanations to the above responses:

    - low alcohol government policy is reason 1: 2 wine glass and you got caught by police , no driving licence, no job : jack pot!!!!!

    - we drink less wine per day ( yes) and drink what is said to be better wine and less alcohol content. No more headhache after parties.

    - the organic trends in Europe to come back to the traditionnal good way of life and therefore delicate food and drinks, good taste.
    Sugary wine from the early california pionner like Arbor Mist has not given the best image of american wine .
    Personnaly, I do like Opus one as much as Petrus as Deloach but the rabbit from the french group Boisset is not my cup of tea.

    See you soon in Sacramento for UWS

  15. Morton,

    Slate wrote an article awhile back on the 47 Cheval Blanc….talked about the difficulties of the extremely hot vintage. Alcohol is said to be 14.4. You can find it here:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2184371/pagenum/all/

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  16. Steve,

    I find the question very interesting and have an answer: because, thus far, consumers in the US seem to prefer the so called “higher alcohol” wines. I have only been making wine since 2004, so am certainly not even close to an expert but I simply let my wines do what they will – all have come out in the 14-15% alcohol range – now, of course, I could monkey around with the fermentation and lower or raise the alcohol, but that somehow seem un-American!

    Of course, wine sales across the board have been down – one would assume it’s the economy, but perhaps it’s high alcohol? I don’t think so, but perhaps I’m in error. Also, I’ve never quite understood the “backlash” against high alcohol. People have a choice and if they want low alcohol wines, they’re out there and they aren’t hard to find – yes, perhaps the box stores have more mid to high alcohol wines, but… I just have never been able to figure out why this is even worthy of comment (no critique on you Steve, as we all love you too much)… People should simply buy what they want. I happed to prefer what I would term “mid-range” in alcohol from 13.5-15% alcohol – I realize 14% would have been considered “high” years ago and that, perhaps, is why California is criticized for upping alcohol levels.

    Perhaps I’m just dense (no comments from the peanut gallery please), but I don’t understand why this is (a) important, (b) controversial, and (c) a topic of hot debate. People should drink what they want – and they can get wine with any amount of alcohol. I checked at my local “boutique” grocery and one has a large selection of lower alcohol wines – the manager there has a reputation for running a great wine department, he has a large volume of sales, and a great selection of hard to get wines – and probably 25% of the selection is lower in alcohol (8.5-13%). Yes, the share of his wine is in the 14-15.5% level (about 50%) and the remainder is higher than 15.5%… But, the wine manager tells me that this is what his customers want.

    So, my question to everyone, including Steve, is “why is this an issue?” Really, I’m not trying to be sarcastic, just curious why “hot” wines have become an issue.

    Richard.

  17. Hot wines are an issue because enough people think they are, and so that means it is. Consumers complain about only being able to drink a glass of wine before they get tipsy. Or about the wine being too rich for the food. Some have a special sensitivity to the port, raisin and prune flavors and some just object to the absence of balance. At any rate, it’s a consumer issue if enough consumers say it is.

  18. To Charlie-

    If you read my rant again, you’ll see I’m not against oak ageing, rather the NEW oak scheduling. I age my low alc wines in brls I buy from a reputable winery which have been filled three times. Although most of the oak flavoring (92-95%) is soaked out of them, wine still needs the wood phenol contact in order to bind and stabilize color, aromas and flavor.

    In my opinion (haha), oaking the shit out of good quality wine goes beyond personal preference or the like… It’s asleep-behind-the-wheel winemaking. The only excpetion for heavily (new) oaking of a wine is when the grapes arrive at the crush pad with dilluted or sub-par flavors… Then of course you oak it… we as consumer desire to taste something don’t we?

    New oak profiles are for beginner winos who really desire to identify something in a wine or for the quaffers in the blog room who like the cocktail factor of wine… Oaking the shit (more than 15%) out of wine is lame and the people doing it are either incompetent or they’re looking for high puffs or smokes or medals or ratings because they know the recipe…

    shriveled grapes + TONS of new oak + 10 months in brl = high scores from those who have never gotten on a tractor or stepped foot on a crushpad.

  19. Oh and Charlie,

    Having just done my year-to-date sales analysis, my wine sales are way up (22%), my wine club is up nearly two fold from 12/31/08 and I anticipate another 25-35% increase in 2010. I have a whole file full of emails and letters from folks saying how happy they are that they can FINISH a bottle of my wine and are seeminly unable to finish a single glass of the full throttle stuff that’s rampant out in the market place.

    So I must be doing something right, no?

    It’s our job to make and sell wine people can drink and enjoy, rather than make museum pieces wine folk collect and merely talk about.

  20. Hi Randy–

    Thanks for the responses. Delighted to hear that you are succeeding. Your stylistic preferences are uniquely yours, and if you can sell wine with those preferences ruling what you make, good on ya. But, where in the world did you come up with the 15% new oak number? Are you suggesting that wineries like Petrus and Mouton and DRC are only making wine for beginner winos? Wow. Care to rethink that comment?

    You are doing a good job of drawing attention to your winery, and obviously, you are selling wine. But, so are thousands of other wineries whose philosophies are different from yours, whose wines are selling like hot cakes and whose critical rankings are not based on the use of shriveled grapes. You demean an entire group of very competent and admired winemakers when you accused them of being lame and you diminish the usefulness of your own arguments by the way in which you dismiss everything that is not Randy.

  21. Charlie
    I think you’re taking your self way too seriously but I happen to agree with
    Randy. I’m in the industry and know of more wineries than I can count that are struggling right now. But everyone that I know that is succeeding is focused on food friendly, lower alc wines that are accessable and priced right. I have one example in mind which shall remain nameless:

    Winery A-Sells huge, over ripe Zins, Syrah and oaky chards. Had great growth for many years and now is down 40% for the past 2 years. The wines are thought to be undrinkable and they’re losing wine clubs clients.

    Winery B- is literally next door. Slow, steady growth over 8 years. Never got on the big, hot wine bandwagon but focused on food friendly, balanced wine. His wine club is growing at 5-10% per year and the winery has been up over 10% every year since opening. The reason? His customers keep coming back for consistant, accessable wines.

    Maybe more wineries are going to see the light and start to back off. BTW-Kermit Lynch wrote about this same topic back in 1988. It’s not new news!

  22. Kate, your arguments might have more impact if you named the wineries. I can think of lots of wineries that have been making prune juice for years, and it is not surprising that they are losing traction. Most observers, including me, have been dissing those wines.

    Somewhere between those over-the-top monsters and Randy’s wines, which I have tasted even though he never reveals who he is, lies a middle ground for California which is where most wineries lie.

    I don’t see the point in demeaning the people who drink those wines or the wineries who make them. As I said to Randy, his style is a legitimate style, but it is not the only legitimate style. It’s time for him, and you if you agree with him, to accept that no one should dictate style preferences to anyone else.

  23. Okay, the simple question: Why are many of our wines at higher alcohol levels? I can’t speak for others, but can guaran-dang-tee you that our mountain Cab, Syrah, and our Merlot are virtually tasteless at a brix of 24.5. At 25, 25.5;
    they are just unimpressive grape juice. 2009 we had Cab sitting at 26.5 for 3 painful weeks…with zero, nada, zapola taste. Then one day you taste the fruit and there is abundant blackberry, cherry, plum, cassis(naturally due to sugar content), maybe a hint of strawberry, perhaps some huckleberry. In other words, we harvest on Brix(% sugar) at 24.5 or anything near there, at Cerro Prieto anyway, hell, it tastes like many of those cheap azz French $7 wines. No thanks. I’ll take my chances, wait for the flavors to come in and be blessed with the raw product to make spectacular wines. But in the 3 grapes noted above, higher sugars(hence higher alcohols) are necessary to attain the truly magnificent flavors. Harvest on taste, not on Brix. That is where the action is, regardless of who disagrees.

    Our cold valley Pinot, incidentally, makes a very nice lite yet crisp Pinot at 23.5 to 24.5. In Pinot our flavors are there from the gitgo, ie, once they hit a much lower sugar content. I will not speak for anyone else, but will say is if someone buys one of our flavor busting wines, Cab, Syrah and Merlot are going to be in the high sugar/alcohol range…because, here anyway, that is where one finds our spectacular flavors. As for the french, the govt dictates what many of them have to do, and if low alcohols are the Orden del dia, then fine, have at it. But around here, anyway, most of the folks who appreciate really fine flavor filled wines, you are talking higher alcohol content.

    Given a preference, I would make and drink lower alcohol wines, but i prefer flavor, and here at Cerro, that means higher alcohols.

  24. Gotta agree with Larry. Our Sierra Foothill fruit sources require extended hang time to get ripe. Ripeness = Sugar = Alcohol. Folks have tried to pick early and found the result to be flavorless wines with too much acid and no balance (add Brett and you’ve got European wine!). Our style has not changed since we started – Anything Below 15% is a Failure. In the big picture – the numbers on the bottle don’t mean as much as the flavor. Consumers demand that element and can’t be fooled for long.

  25. I agree with those that stated that isn’t about high alcohol or not, it is really about balance. At the end of the day, certain wines do well with a higher alcohol level. If the fruit and other subtle characteristics can shine through, I am all for the wine whatever alcohol level it may be at.

    Simply striving for a low or high alcohol level seems like the wrong goal but maybe the easier one to manipulate.

  26. Charlie,

    The 15% new oak s semi-arbitrary. As you know, some varietals can absorb a higher % of new toast and still show vineyard profiles. But if you think about it, what about the % of 1 year brls in the mix and add the % of still oaky two year brls, pretty soon one will find themselves with ( and you know this) too much overbearing store bought flavors. That what the coopers offer. A store bought flavor. Anyone can load their truck up with new brls and impart nearly exactly what the cheat sheet says. Where the winemaking in that? I believe it’s far more challenging to work with the vineyard (or grower) as the season progresses to concentrate the NATURAL FLAVORS (various acids, skin development and yes… sugars) while using restraint once the fruit arrives at the crushpad capturing the essence of the vineyard and not new oak. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

    Charlie is right, I’ve become militarized by what I’ve seen transpire the past decade in the wine gig and am perhaps a bit harse. However, those who neglected the vineyards, allowed the clusters to shrivel, bringing the decimated fruit to the crushpad with bucket fulls of tartaric acid waiting, put the wine in 60% new oak for 9 months, (dealc) sterile filter to bottle, submit to their sure thing for a silly number-byte and let the number monkeys fill up their bank accounts. Good business, bad art. In my opinion.

    I like a big wine every once in a while. Friday night, pull out the sledgehammer and away we go! They do pair well… with bed. However, if the industry wants to broaden it’s consumer base and take this thing to the next level, we might want to look at making wines people can pull that second or even third cork with friends over dinner.

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