Low alcohol trend in California? I don’t think so.
Oz Clark has it just about right when he says the big California style is here to stay.
The British wine-writing wordsmith, one of the world’s most successful wine book authors, accuses the “wine chatterati” of getting it all wrong in their mistaken conclusion that there’s a revolution in California away from high alcohol wines [back] toward the lower alcohol, less ripe wines that they–the chatterati–consider more balanced and elegant.
I’m glad the word finally has filtered across The Pond. I’ve been saying it for years: this supposed “trend” toward lower alcohol wine is largely a fiction invented and perpetuated by writers who (a) wish it were true and (b) need something sexy to write about in their columns and on their blogs.
You, dear readers, would be surprised and appalled to learn about the pressures on writers to discover trends and report on breaking developments in the world of wine. This pressure comes from editors, who want to put the word “new” or “trendy” in every headline and on every front cover. A headline like this:
NEW LOW ALCOHOL TREND CATCHES WINEMAKERS BY SURPRISE
is much catchier than this:
MOST WINES CONTINUE TO BE MADE IN THE USUAL FASHION,
but the latter headline, while true, happens to dull and un-newsworthy. What’s a writer to do when the trend he wishes were happening isn’t? He just goes ahead and cites it anyway, and is able to trot out enough examples to make his claim sound credible (often by the popular but suspect practice of “quote shopping”).
In the case of a “trend” toward lower alcohol, the names of Cathy Corison and Copain are often cited as proof that wines–at least, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir–are being made lower in alcohol. But these writers almost never point out that Corison and Copain are outliers. The reason we single out their wines–justifiably, for they are incredibly good–is because they’re so different from 90% of the other high-scoring Cabs and Pinots that are not low in alcohol.
I myself haven’t done a scientific analysis of the approximately 10,000 wines I’ve reviewed in the last 2-1/2 years (I have no way of doing so), but I can tell you, as someone who has to double-check the alcohol-by-volume level (according to the label) of every one of those wines before it goes into Wine Enthusiast’s database, when it comes to Cabernet and Pinot Noir, the number “15” is a lot more common than the number “13” (as in 15.4% vs. 13.5%). The number “14” marks the highest quantity of these wines, but in my opinion most wines labeled as 14.5% alcohol (the majority) are higher than that, often considerably so, given the TTB’s rather slippery allowance of a degree of difference. So let us dispel the notion that California wines are getting lower in alcohol. They’re not.
Now, having said that, there are complications. Coastal California is undergoing a cooling trend. The temperature in Napa Valley is not getting hotter (and if you have data to contradict me, please send it). The last six vintages have been cool, 2009-2010 severely so, and 2011 may be following suit; the upshot being that a cooler vintage will, overall, result in lower alcohol wines. But not by much, “cool” in California being a relative term; and even in cool years, we have heat spikes that raise brix by several degrees overnight. Then too, we have no idea whether or not many Cabs and Pinots are actually being produced at 15%-16% and then having their alcohol reduced through a variety of means. Your 14.1% Cabernet may have started life out considerably higher, and then gone to see the equivalent of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon for a tummy tuck and facelift. Do you consider a manipulated 14.1% wine “low alcohol”?
Bottom line: Be wary of predictions that California wines are getting lower in alcohol; certainly not Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. Consumers (and critics) have stated over and over that they like the big, voluptuously ripe style (I certainly do, if it’s balanced). That gives producers absolutely no incentive to change, which is why they won’t. Kudos to Oz Clark for telling it like it is.