The debate about high alcohol sometimes verges on insanity
I was surprised to read that “consumers care about alcoholic strength, and are seeking out wines with lower alcohol levels than before” in four countries: the UK, US, Germany and China.
That’s what a new study found. It was reported online on this South African website.
It’s bizarre, because today (Tuesday) I’m flying up to Washington State to deliver a 30 minute talk on alcohol levels: are they trending up or down, what do consumers want, are high alcohol wines better, etc. etc.
In preparing my remarks, I went over my own attitude toward alcohol levels in wine. I think I’ve said many times on my blog and elsewhere that I don’t particularly care if they’re high or low. As long as the wine is balanced and offers pleasure, ABV can be anything at all. That’s my take; it may not accord with yours or anyone else’s.
Here’s what I wonder. We don’t know exactly what the authors of the study asked consumers. If it was an open-ended question like, “Do you wish your wines were lower in alcohol?” I’m sure people would have said yes. I would answer yes to that question.
But I doubt if that was the context. If consumers were asked this question: “Do you wish your wines were lower in alcohol, even if that made them taste worse?”, I bet the answer would be an unqualified no. Obviously, people wish alcohol levels were lower because they want to be able to drink and drive without getting busted, and they may not want to get buzzed after a glass or two. I hedged that comment: “may not want to get buzzed” because I think most wine drinkers like getting buzzed. Do we really need to overlook the inconvenient truth that wine gets you buzzed? I don’t think so. One of the reasons I like wine is because it makes me high and it’s legal.
But consumers like fruit. We know this from every metric available. They vote with their wallets: if it’s Chardonnay they want pineapples and pears. If it’s Cabernet they want blackberries and cassis. If it’s Pinot Noir they want cherries. And on and on. The report stated, “[consumers’] ideal wine would have an abv of 10.5% or less. In China, most consumers favour wines with 8.5% to 10.5% abv.” Do these “consumers” have even a remote idea how wine is actually made? Do they understand that a table wine of “10.5% or less” would taste acidic and horrible? In fact it would probably have so much residual sugar that it might as well be a dessert wine, and a bad one at that. Is that what people want?
I don’t think so. This debate over alcohol levels is a good one, and I welcome it. Wine quality advances by fits and starts; winemakers need to strike a balance between what they themselves want to make, what their terroir permits them to make, and what the consumer expects. No easy task. But they must be scratching their heads and banging them against the wall when they read that consumers want richness without ripeness, flavor without alcohol, fruit before the pips are brown. My take home lesson is that we have got to educate consumers–not only in this country but in China–that their expectations are unreasonable, verging on insane. If they want alcoholic beverages below 11 or even 12 percent, may I suggest beer.