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The alcohol level debate: Is it about “buzz” or buzz?

41 comments

First, kudos to Jon Bonné for a good primer on alcohol levels in wine in last Sunday’s Chronicle. I’m keeping it because it contains handy information, such as the official government regs on printed ABV numbers, which I can never remember even though I’ve looked them up dozens of times.

It was also really cool that Jon persuaded the [WARNING! Dated metaphorical reference alert!] green eyeshade types at the Chron to pay to have 19 wines analyzed for alcohol. What’s surprising was not how far off so many of the wines were in reality from what the label said (I assume as much every time I taste), as the fact that some of the readings were actually close. (Only one was dead-on accurate.) I’d love to send everything I review to a lab but that’s not financially feasible.

Now, about the title of this post: “buzz” or buzz? The “buzz” in quotes refers to getting high from high alcohol wines. This is the big gripe of those who don’t like anything over 14.0% or 14.5% or whatever their cutoff level is. They want to be able to drink 2 or 3 or (gasp!) even 4 glasses of wine without the room starting to spin. Personally, that doesn’t happen to me, but then, I’m a professional.

The second meaning of buzz is in the marketing sense. From Wikipedia: “Buzz: a term used in word-of-mouth marketing…which serves to amplify the original marketing message…a vague but positive association, excitement, or anticipation about a product or service.”

We all experience buzz all the time. It’s built into the release of movies, DVDs, cars. Every new product from Apple has buzz. A new Michael Mina restaurant has buzz. And guess what? Articles about alcohol levels in wine have buzz.

For some reason I can’t quite grasp, this ABV thingie has become the buzziest topic in the world of wine. Anytime anyone with any credentials weighs in, everyone goes all a-tizzy. (It might even happen here!) If you think about it, alcohol level in wine isn’t that big a deal. I mean, it’s not important enough for so many people to get so crazed by it; the emotional impact of alcohol level is far higher than it ought to be. If people are really in a debating mood, we might get worked up by, say, stoop labor conditions in the vineyards, or the free interstate shipping of wine (see my remarks yesterday about big government and the Tea Party), or why California wine is so widely perceived as being too expensive for the quality. We might even wonder why such ordinarily sensible people as Ursula Hermacinski, a longstanding friend of mine, say such silly things as “Would the wine industry come to a complete halt?” with Parker’s retirement from California, as Ryan Flinn reported two days ago in Bloomberg. (Memo to Ursula: No, my dear, it won’t. If anything, we’re liberated. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last!) There are so many more important things to get worked up over than ABV.

Personally, when I blind taste a Cabernet and give it 94 points in my head and then see that ABV is 15.4%, it not only doesn’t bother me in the least, it doesn’t even surprise me. I can give a Cathy Corison Cabernet an equally high score even though it has only 13.8%. The two extremes are not mutually exclusive, and in fact most lower alcohol Cabernets in California run the risk of being green and unripe. I’m glad that there’s a cadre of winemakers in California that’s focusing on under-14% Pinots, but that doesn’t stop me from loving a Siduri “Pisoni” that’s closer to 15%. I’ve tasted Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Chardonnays that were high in alcohol and so rich, so opulent, they were practically food groups in themselves. If the low ABV crowd doesn’t want them, fine; more for me.

Anyway, a final congrats to Jon Bonné for convincing the Chron to publish alcohol levels in their reviews. Even though the actual number may be up to 1-1/2 points different, it’s better than no information at all.

  1. Steve,

    I noticed that some time back you started listing the alcohol levels on the wines you recommend on some Fridays as “Wines of the Week.” Why did you start doing this?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. “For some reason I can’t quite grasp, this ABV thingie has become the buzziest topic in the world of wine”.
    Because most people want to drink more wine, not more alcohol.

  3. Adam: I started because I think it’s information that people want. Case production also.

  4. Tom Quinn says:

    The whole alchohol debate is a typical example of cultural elitism. A very small percentage of the wine consuming public , apparently belives that it is very sensitive to marginally ( and after all isn’t this debate more or less concerning a 1% differnce between a wine at 14.5 versus 15.5 alchohol) higher percentages of alchohol in wine and that this somehow makes the wine in question less suitable to be a part of the fine dining experience. As Adam Lee has most vividly pointed out, this premise is patently untrue. Hence this cabal of wine elitists ,now erroneously believes that because of their heightened awareness levels, their taste preferrences in wine must be imposed om the more plebian pallets of those less enlightned. Again, total hogwash. If a wine is well made, richly balanced with all the attributes that create the sensory pleasue that drew most of us to this magnificent beverage in the first place, how can other disparate parties question the validity of such a personal and subjective undertaking?

  5. As a sales rep for two different wine distributors, I present 4-6 wines to 6-8 accounts daily. As part of the presentation, I prepare a tasting sheet for their reference, listing most of the pertinent that a potential buyer might find relevant in making their decision. Grapes, percentages, barrel treatment (or lack thereof), AVAs and percentages of ABV.

    It’s just another factor in making the decision and consumers should have all pertinent information in making their decision. If they want to make a decision based on ABV, then that’s their prerogative, just as it would be should they decided based on AVA or grapes in the blend. Whoever is paying the freight should get to decide where it’s going…

    So why *wouldn’t* any professional wine reviewer include relevant information?

  6. “The “buzz” in quotes refers to getting high from high alcohol wines. This is the big gripe of those who don’t like anything over 14.0% or 14.5% or whatever their cutoff level is…”

    That’s not my impression; a lot of the trade and media debate seems to be over other topics. For example, whether higher alcohol wines do or do not clash with food or certain foods. Or the use of alcohol levels as a proxy for long hangtime or use of ultra-ripe grapes, with all the changes in pH, balance, flavor, phenolics or longevity that implies.

  7. Christian, I never understood the gripe that big wines don’t go with food. They go with big food–short ribs, a grilled steak with blue cheese sauce, things like that.

  8. Sherman, I agree. I would provide ABV in every one of my reviews if the magazine let me. They’re supposed to be working on a way for it to appear online.

  9. I think all the wines listed were all labeled legally but you hit the nail on the head Steve it is Buzz and “Buzz”. What people don’t want to talk about is the amount of clear alcohol reducer that is added back to get them that ripe tasting. You always have 1%.

  10. Steve,

    Since you are already going “off label” to get production numbers why not ask submitting wineries to provide you actual alcohol numbers. Since there are legitimate financial reasons for wineries not to change the numbers from vintage to vintage, asking wineries to provide you with that information would be acknowledging that fact and providing your readers with what I imagine you believe they really want, actual alcohol percentages. It would also separate you from the pack.

    I will be happy to start sending that information right away if you want.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  11. “Christian, I never understood the gripe that big wines don’t go with food. They go with big food…:
    For my taste, I agree. Big oaky Chardonnays can be delicious with blanquette de veau or roast parsnips and wild mushrooms. Not oysters or crudo.

  12. Adam, thanks. I really have no way of contacting thousands of individual wineries and asking them to submit real numbers. But if people are reading this, I’d appreciate it if you would. Anyway, as we saw from Jon Bonné’s article, even what the winery thinks is a real number may not be. Ask Josh Jensen!

  13. So much is made about alcohol now, like the writers and bloggers needed a new piriah to distinguish themsleves in order to draw a crowd. It’s much easier to write about a quanitative number rather than a qualitative character like balance.

    Wines that are complete and balanced intergrate alcohol and most wine afficianados could only come close to the alcohol % of most well made wines.

    Sometimes missing by over a percent or more…

  14. Sherman (and Steve),
    “As part of the presentation, I prepare a tasting sheet for their reference, listing most of the pertinent that a potential buyer might find relevant in making their decision. Grapes, percentages, barrel treatment (or lack thereof), AVAs and percentages of ABV.”
    Shouldn’t you also provide data on TA, pH, and residual sugar in order to provide all ‘pertinent’ information? These stats are as important as the others you provide, to the balance and ‘understanding’ of a given wine, especially if the buyer is guided by such factors ahead of how the wine actually tastes. And why do YOU find it important to list ABV but not the other stats? Perhaps because this has become such a (regrettably) hot topic in the blogosphere and somm-o-sphere?
    ’4-6 wines to 6-8 accounts daily’? When do you find time to pick up checks and attend pointless sales meetings? Worried that your manager is reading this blog? (just kidding)

  15. I see no reason to publish alcohol numbers unless one also publishes TA, pH, RS for starters. Oh, and full disclosure on cepage, second and subsequent bottlings, makes the alcohol statement legible and easily read.

    The focus on alc levels is a red herring. It has nothing to do with drinking more wine. You did not mention the comment by Raj Parr that he wants to be able to drink two, even three glasses of wine. The guy is a Red Burg addict (in the nicest sense of the word), and those wines run around 13% with some above 14%. Drinking a CA Pinot at 14.3% would not in any way prevent Raj from having a second glass. He would have to deny himself the 14th glass but not the second or third. Do the math. This is a big red herring built on the kind of false logic in the Parr statement.

    I don’t care what people drink. That is their business, but trying to scare the public with falsehoods, misdirection and innuendo is not acceptable. And we, as writers and evaluators, need to be sure that we tell the real truth. It is not the second glass that is the problem. It is the second half of the bottle.

  16. Regardless of the causes and consequences, the increase in Pinot Noir’s alcohol levels to the 15%s these days, from the 12%s in the early nineties, represents a hefty 25 percent increment: i.e., for every four glasses of “15% Pinot”, one could drink five glasses of “12% Pinot”, with the same alcohol intake.

  17. Peter,

    Not to let facts get in the way of a good argument, but the average harvest brix for Pinot Noir in California from 1991-1994 was 21.6, resulting in an alcohol (at a .6 conversion rate) of 12.96. From 2007-2010 the average harvest brix for Pinot Noir in California was 24.7 resulting in an alcohol of 14.82. That is, of course, without the widespread use of water, de-alcoholizers, reverse osmossis machines, and whatever else us winemakers are routinely derided for using.

    That means that there is closer to a 14% increase in alcohol in the wines (without the adjustment). Meaning that you can only drink 86 glasses of Pinot instead of 100……Of course, if you take the average Americans increase in weight into account during the last 20 years (or, sadly, if you take my increase in weight into account over the last 20 years), you will see that there’s no difference at all in how much you can drink! Finally, something great about getting fatter!!!

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  18. Adam,
    Where did get your data? Do you mind quoting your sources?
    Since this is not my area of expertise, I’d be delighted to hear Dr. John Kelly’s opinion on the development of more efficient yeast strains (that convert higher percentages of sugar into alcohol) in the last two decades. Recent (conversion rate) numbers also contain higher proportions of rotofermenters (and reductive fermentation in general), which increase rates to 0.60-0.63.
    Incidentally, Dr. Emile Peynaud’s “must weigh chart” (Knowing and Making Wine; 1984; Wiley; pp. xvii) shows a potential alcohol level of 11.3% for a 21.5 Brix (0.5256 conversion rate).
    In any case, assuming a conversion rate of 0.55 for the early nineties, a 21.6 Brix would represent 11.88% ABV. In this case, the (average) increment in alcohol levels in the last two decades would remain at 24.75% (14.82/11.88 = 1.2475).

  19. I thought the high alcohol debate was more about style: i.e. hedonists and democrats like big, juicy, knock-your-socks-off wines, while cultured, sophisticated, wine-savvy republicans favor the more restrained 14 and under wines. (Just kidding about the political thing — democrats don’t drink wine.) As a wine retailer, I match wines to my customers’ tastes. I don’t reference ABV — because most wine drinkers couldn’t care less. They just want to know, “Will I like it?” If I sell someone a Zin that tastes like Port, it’s because I know they’ll enjoy it, even if I wouldn’t. I do, however, like big bold Australian reds, and I like the Aussies’ attitude about them: if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the Southern Hemisphere.

  20. This use of numbers that are half true further distorts the real picture.

    Twenty years ago, a higher percentage of Pinot NOir was going into sparkling wine than today. We know this because bottle fermented sparkling wine production has increaased far less rapidly than grape acreage. That change by itself has the effect of increasing average picking Brix.

    And the denial of Adam’s point about alcohol limiting strategies also means that Mr. O’Connor’s data is not exactly correct. Further, just because there exists more efficient yeasts does not mean that they are being used. There has been a significant increase in fermentations with indigenous yeasts. They are no more efficient today than they were twenty years ago.

    Finally, if a winery wanted to limit alcohol, one gambit not recognized here is the choice of less efficient yeasts.

    Mr. O’Connor posits a 25% increase in alcohol per volume of liquid. But he does not compare the alternatives for folks who make absurd claims about second and third glasses. In Raj Parr’s situation, and I apologize to Mr. Parr for the continued mention of his name as if he were the only one to comment on second glasses, the comparison between CA Pinot and Burgundy today is nothing like a 25% difference. It is closer to 10% or one glass in ten or one ounce per half bottle. And if anyone is drinking more than half a bottle, I hope they have a designated driver or are walking home.

  21. Peter,

    The California Grape Crush Report provides average brix harvest levels for all harvests going back to 1976 — http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/Grape_Crush/

    As far as your claim that more efficient yeast strains lead to higher production of ethanol, I am skeptical. From what I have read (and I, too, am no expert), the increase in yeast efficiency that is talked about only comes into play if the wine is not fermented dry. Assuming that most of the wines produced in the early 1990s were fermented dry means that a more efficient yeast wouldn’t allow them to be significanly drier than they were previously. —- Moreover, one of the great criticisms to California wine now is that they are too sweet, ie. not fermented dry….these higher sugars wouldn’t mean a higher conversion ratio, but a lower conversion ratio. Combine that with the apparently ubiquitous water additions, spinning cones, etc and there isn’t likely an increase in the ratios between brix and final alcohol levels. — Of course, there are many other considerations as well, the ability to press grapes more efficiently now (which can lead to higher sugars than first measured), the use of closed tanks (as you mentioned), or open top fermentors (now used fairly ubiquitously), etc. etc.

    But I certainly think that it is quite a stretch to say that there once was a conversation rate of .55% and now there’s a conversion rate of .6 or even .62%. There’s simply no proof of that.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  22. Deb: “democrats don’t drink wine” ?? I beg to disagree!

  23. Adam,
    Again, I am not an expert in this area and this is not my opinion; I am simply quoting the sources below.

    “[For red table wines] each degree of Brix will convert to about 0.535% of alcohol during fermentation”. (Winemaking; Vine, R.P. et al; Chapman & Hall; 1997)
    “Now, couple this with “improved” yeast strains and improved yeast nutrition. We used to count on conversion rates of .55 to .57, and now we need to use .58 to .60. Thus, at 25° Brix, a must that used to ferment to a ± 14% alcohol will now be ± 15%”. (The Overblown Alcohol Issue; Johnson, R.; Wines & Vines; September 2007)
    “For red grapes from hot areas the relationship is more nearly 0.54”. (Modern Winemaking; Jackisch, P.; Cornell U.P.; 1985)
    “Must-Weight Chart “: (Peynaud, E.; Knowing and Making Wine; 1984; Wiley; pp. xvii)
    Brix = 21.5; Potential Alcohol = 11.3%; Conversion Rate = 0.5255
    Brix = 24.8; Potential Alcohol = 13.1%; Conversion Rate = 0.5282
    Brix = 25.8; Potential Alcohol = 13.8%; Conversion Rate = 0.5349

    BTW, can you estimate what percentage of the total volume of PN produced in CA is made with the “use of water, de-alcoholizers, reverse osmosis machines, etc”?

  24. Outside of industry insiders participating in the reincarnation of this alcohol conversation, no one gives a shit. Seriously, alcohol rating doesn’t even register in the top 10 factors affecting consumers’ purchasing decisions.

    We can probably all agress that, like industrial chemical flavors, alcohol as a distinguishing characteristic is not a desirable sensation in wine. Numbers don’t prove that, palates do. I think Mr. Parr made that point some weeks ago with Mr. Lee’s assistance.

    Can we move on to something important now like ethics in wine writing? :-)

  25. Steve M., maybe the whole industry is just moving to a numbers-based industry. The 100-pt system is immensely important, alcohol percentages are all the rage and negociants like Cameron Hughes make wines that only have numbers for names! Pretty soon the only letters on a label will be GOVERNMENT WARNING…

  26. I don’t think so Colorado. There’s still a place for text.

  27. Over the years I have had a number of discussions with Laurent Dulau (when he was with Lallemand) and Karien O’Kennedy who is with Anchor Yeast regarding the “efficiency” of yeast strains.

    In short, people whose business it is to know say that the idea that the cultured yeast strains are becoming more efficient with the passage of time is incorrect.

    I have 24 years of data that suggest that – in my hands at least – the range of “conversion” for a particular strain of yeast (EC1118 “Prise de Mousse”) ranges from 0.55 to 0.65.

    I believe the biggest source of error contributing to this wide range is inaccuracy in the measurement of juice/must Brix.

    Native and supplemental nutrition, oxygen introduction, tank configuration, fermentation temperature, temperature of cooling medium and frequency of cooling cycles, frequency of punchdown or pumpover (if used) – each of these also could conceivably contribute to more or less sugar ending up as alcohol.

    And then there is the error in the final alcohol measurement itself (as I mentioned in my comments on Jon Bonne’s piece). One need not have worked in a lab and made thousands of alcohol measurements to understand that any individual measurement has an inherent uncertainty. A plus or minus.

    So let’s be generous and say the ranges of uncertainty in measurements of Brix and final alcohol are pretty tight – say +/-0.5° Brix and +/-0.5% respectively. If the true Brix of a juice is 24° and the true resulting alcohol is 14.5% (0.60 conversion), due to the inherent inaccuracies of the measurements the calculated conversion rate could range from 15/23.5 = 0.64 to 14/24.5 = 0.57.

    Hmmm… 0.55 to 0.65. Y’all may now go on with all your hand-waving.

  28. Thanks John, I appreciate the information.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  29. I’ve had an offline request to expand on the inaccuracies inherent in measuring juice/must sugar content.

    Back in the day I worked for wineries where we bought grapes on contracts that contained a “sugar window” clause, and price per ton penalties if the grapes as delivered fell outside that window. This made for all sorts of fun and games at the “sugar shack” – the measurement station where the grapes were delivered.

    If the grower him or herself showed up with that first grape delivery I knew we were at the edge of the window (especially if they got out of the truck with the contract in hand). What we were supposed to do was take a core out of a delivery bin, squeeze the juice out, and measure the density with a hydrometer. Depending on how I felt about the grower, I might actually offer them several options.

    I have lots of stories, but bottom line: I could get the sugar to be high or low depending on how I made the measurement. Part of this game was played on the differences between measuring with a hydrometer and with a refractometer (please google if you need more info on how these work).

    The hydrometer always gave the higher reading, especially if the grapes came in cold (under 20°C) and I “forgot” to apply the temperature correction – and maybe even made an “allowance” to round to just below the bottom of the meniscus.

    Alternatively, if the grower agreed, I might use the refractometer – especially the one out of the six or more at the shack that I knew read consistently low. ;-) Need I say more?

    Part of the inaccuracy is that density measurements by hydrometer are not solely of the actual sugar content, but include a contribution from non-sugar extracts (such as tartaric and malic acid).

    The theoretical conversion of 1 g/100 mL glucose to % abv ethanol is 0.60 almost exactly. Regardless of the yeast strain used or how the ferment is conducted, if the sugar content of the juice before any fermentation is carefully determined enzymatically, and the ethanol content immediately after fermentation is determined by gas chromatography (both methods accurately calibrated) this is very nearly the number obtained. Nobody does this in the real world. And nobody did it in the old papers that Peter cited above either.

    Relating the bottled % abv back to the initial sugar to get a conversion is even more inaccurate. My barrel cellar has low humidity. I age my wines for 2 years in barrel. It is not uncommon for the wines to go up between 0.10 and 0.15% abv in this interval.

    Across the industry, are more wines being barrel aged longer in dry cellars? (Yes.) Perhaps this has contributed to the perception that alcohol “conversion” factors are going up with time.

  30. Steve;
    I was kidding about the democrat thing. Thankfully, drinking and talking about wine keeps our brains and mouths too busy to talk about politics. Hooray for that.

  31. Just noticed I slipped a decimal place in my comment above: it is not uncommon for the wines to go up between 1.0 and 1.5% abv over two years barrel aging in a dry cellar.

  32. I knew I’d hate the Jon Bonne article when I read the first sentence that asserted wineries in Napa Valley were actually making dessert wine. Sure, according to ancient government law, but in my book that was nothing short of sensationalism. Steve, I agree, the factoid about ABV numbers was informative. I’ve been quoting it incorrectly for years.

    I’m sad to see us focus on alcohol, pH numbers and all that other BS. We’re starting to lose the romance. I’ve actually been on sales calls in NYC with Somms who refuse to buy wines fermented with (1) non-native yeast; (2) a certain yeast; (3) or variations on that theme. Huh? Really? When I pop the cork on the bottle tonight as I do every night, I’ll be saying – “so honey, tell me about your day”. I certainly won’t be talking about the wine, let alone it’s pH level, alcohol content or what, if any, yeast was used during fermentation. Thank god I drink purely for pleasure. I don’t want anything to mess with my buzz.

  33. Kathy–

    I wonder if any of these too hip somms ask the chefs in their favorite restaurants if they use modern tricks like mixers, blenders, molecular gastronomy in their cooking. Using indigenous yeasts is tantamount to not seasoning your food, to blending your dough by hand, to chopping everything with a knife. How many make fire the old-fashioned way–with sticks rubbed together rather than relying on those nasty fossil fuels.

    Whatever happened to standards like “it tastes good”, “it has no harmful additives (other than SO2, of course)”. I do get the lower alcohol thing when folks say they are cuttng back on total consumption, but when they simply want to drink an ounce more, well that is just as silly as drinking a less good wine because it was fermented with native yeasts.

  34. To Mongo — I don’t supply pH, TA and other such info for two reasons:
    1) the customer (in this case, people ITB who are buying wine for re-sale to the public) don’t show much interest in such a fine level of detail. The issue of ABV may be a ‘tempest in a teapot” but it *is* a current tempest and *some”of them (not all) are paying attention, even if it is cursory at times.

    The really nitty-gritty details have yet to catch their eye. If they are *truly* interested, they will look up that info for themselves. I have to draw the line at giving them *too much* info, for fear of “paralysis by analysis” and them not making a buying decision. It’s my job, after all, to sell the product.

    2) Quite often, that level of info is not readily available. Unlike ABV, most producers do NOT place that info on the label. Yes, as we’ve seen from the above discussion, there is some leeway in the accuracy of the number — but I’m going with what is on the label, as that’s what is legally required.

    Both of the distributors I represent have mostly small production wineries in their relative books. The level of expertise or time available for these small wineries to have current technical detail on their wines posted to a readily available web page is challenging, and quite often just doesn’t exist in a readily available format that I can access easily when preparing my tasting sheet. With most of the French and Italian wines that I rep, the producers don’t seem to care to reveal that info — guess they figure those wacky Americans don’t need to know such facts.

    Being an independent sales rep (not an employee) does have its perks, one of which is that I don’t have many sales meetings to attend. Also, I’m a few hundred miles away from the center of the wine world in Oregon (the Willamette), as I live and work in southern Oregon.

  35. To John Kelly,
    Thanks for taking the time to bring in you absolutely accurate observations, as a winemaker, I find that I have grown tired of trying to tell folk that reading a few books does not qualify them to make a scientific conclusion. The problem I see with ANY law system is that it rarely leaves room for future generations to correct for changing times. It is the case with the ten commandments (I stopped coveting my neighbor’s slaves eons ago..) it the case with the US constitution (If I had to rewrite it, my first article would say that every 100 years it expires and needs to be re-written) and it definitely is the case with CFR 27. Anyone who ever did enough alcohol measurments by ebuliometer knows how inacurate they are, especially with changes in barometric pressure and when the effects of any RS in the wines are considered. Many of the wines that came from Europe stating an alcohol level of 12.5 were not(and aren’t) so. For those of us with a scientific background – it doesn’t friking matter! We know this is a RANGE and we know that VA is more important. How about Raj Parr not allowing wine with high VA in his restaurant… now there’s something I can stand behind! I’d love to see someone with data on how VA has increased in CA wines in the past years, some of the cultiest of wines are the biggest offenders and that (plus high pH) is why they don’t age nicely. But we already knew that….

  36. This may be an interesting perspective on high alcohol wines, written by an Australian winemaker on a site I frequent called BoozeMonkey.com.

    G’day Folks
    I commenced making wines commercially in 2007 for Caught REDHANDED wines. The 2007 year in South Australia was a hot year and the end of a 5plus year drought, the 2008 (my second wine) was picked during a 14 consecutive day period during which the ripening period was 35 degree Celsius + weather and the 2009 had much the same conditions.

    I am an advocate for lower percentage ALC wines but BALANCE is the key. If you can make a wine that still exhibits a balance with the components for acid, fruit weight, tannin structure, palate weight and alcohol, then fine.

    I would hope my wines were less alcoholic but when climatic conditions determine the level of fruit ripeness and picking is determined by the winemaker when the fruit is physiologically ripe, then you sometimes get stuck with over-ripe fruit.

    Personally I do not find my wines porty, but I do find them spirity where there are others on the market that show more balance.

    In Australia, it is legal to add acid (tartaric, malic, citric acids) to wine to achieve balance of both total acidity and pH. In the 2008 heat wave year, in the McLaren Vale based contract winery I worked at, we had fruit that came in at levels of 32plus Baume (roughly equivalent of 32% ALC v/v if you could ferment it that high, pH levels of 4.2 matching and sometimes having Total acidities of under 4. Generally a healthy pH range for wine sits between pH3 – 3.5 and TA’s of 6g of Total acids and above at the least to maintain balance. This means that the grapes came to winery totally out of balance, so the winemakers had quite a challenge just to make wines that were sound; let alone balanced.

    So in short ,the climate dictates the sort of wines that are made. The picking date dictates the type and style that are made. When wines are jumping 1-2 Baume in a day when normally achieve this in a week, there are going to be problems for the winemakers at the end of the day. Big alcohol is great , but balance is key.
    I did a tasting the other day with 3 Syrah wines of which 2 were French Rhone wines and the other was a Mornington Peninsula syrah\\

    The over-riding leveller was their 13%alc and their overall balance. I loved the fact that they all were individual, Very tasty but above all were very drinkable and really balanced.

    So in short lower alcohol table wines make better balanced wines, bigger alcohol wines may make more generous wines in flavour and fruit weight.

    Cheers RED

  37. Steve, i just came back from a long tour in Italia willing to share great experiences i had there with my friends, all locals. Long story short i loved the enormous (time-wise) lunches and dinners i had there having always wine on the table. I was on the east coast (damn, what a beautiful place the state called Le Marche) and the dieta mediterranea is served 6 days a week. Sea food and wine basically. And then comes the alcohol content:

    The wines are so light in alcohol that half bottle per capita doesn’t hurt anyone during the meal. 12, 12.5 tops % is something i was craving for in a while. It sucks to drink those alcohol bombs that put zombies to sleep. We can’t afford to drink 16% all the time everywhere. Well, glad to have had that experience.

    Now i understand why the old timers in Europa miss the good times so much… high altitude wines in France are having their alcohol raised, thanks to the global warming too.

    Again, i’m sorry for those who just know and drink 15 plus % alcohol wines. They don’t know what they’re missing out.

    Salute.

  38. You also don’t know how many potential wine drinkers you are losing because “wine gives me a headache”. I hear that a lot, and my usual answer is “try a Beaujolais, or Burgundy, or a Loire valley red or white, or maybe a white Burgundy instead of a CA wine. You would be surprised when they come back and say “you were right, no headache”. Obviously people that like alcohol have no problem witb the higher alcohol in the modern wines, but a lot of people do.
    I like to think that alcohol starts at 8% (it is the marginal alcohol that gets you), so a wine with 14% versus 12% doesn’t have 2% more, it has 50% more. There is the culprit. Remember 80 proof Smirnoffs vodka vs. 100 proof Smirnoffs, ever wonder why the latter gave you a headache, even after only one drink? It is the same with wine. Some people are not sensitive to the alcohol, but it is there, and it is costing you customers.

  39. Carlos, I envy your experience. I wish I could drink more great Italian wine.

  40. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve, much more than drinking the great italian wines comes the awesome experience from pairing each local meal with each local wine. In all states i went to there were tiny cities who used to be state-cities (remember history classes?, hence they have their own ‘private’ original recipes…). Here’s the trick: Go the restaurant previously chosen by some local friend and ask the typical food with the local wine. Presto. Che delicia!

    At the wineries they are not willing to give discounts for export. It seems the recession didn’t hit them. In Spain they’re doing any deal one wants, though.

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