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Alcohol level in Pinot Noir: a question of shifting fashion



Writer David Darlington makes the case, perhaps unwittingly, for how hard it is to explain why alcohol levels are higher in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir than they used to be, in his article, “Accounting for Taste,” in the April issue of Wine & Spirits. (Sorry, I can’t find a link online.)

After first positing that today’s wines are, in fact, higher in alcohol than, say, twenty years ago—an unarguable statement—David makes his position immediately known, calling “so many so monstrous.” At one point, he even calls them “dangerous.”

Now these are awfully harsh words: surprisingly so, coming from the guy who wrote what is possibly the best book on Zinfandel ever, “Angels’ Visits.” But let us grant that Pinot Noir is not Zinfandel.

After having slammed so many Pinots, David at least has the reportorial curiosity to ask why alcohol levels have risen. He phrases his question thusly: “Are the winemakers responsible, or is it attributable to something beyond their control?”

And then cannot answer the question. Which is, of course, beyond his own control, for the fact of the matter is, there is no one answer why alcohol levels have increased. David certainly did his homework, interviewing multiple winemakers in an effort to find out why. Here are ten causes they suggested to him:

  1. vertical shoot positioning, as opposed to the California sprawl of old
  2. the market
  3. ratings
  4. consumer preferences
  5. climate change/global warming
  6. Dijon clones
  7. longer hangtime
  8. super strains of yeast
  9. younger vines
  10. warmer fermentations

Well, that’s pretty much the whole nine yards! By article’s end, the reader’s impression can only be confusion. Why are alcohol levels higher now than they used to be? Who knows? Pick a reason—pick any reason—pick them all! But what does any of it have to do with Russian River Pinot Noir being “monstrous”? Well, with that remark, David at least is honest, if hyperbolic, about his bias.

The winery that David holds up for particular praise is Small Vines. I personally can attest to the quality of their Pinot Noirs: I gave them eight 90-points-or-higher scores over the years, and since I left, Virginie Boone has given them another four. With all this talk of low alcohol, I was curious to know what Small Vines’ levels have been. Google brought me to The Prince of Pinot; this article shows that alcohol levels in Small Vines Pinot Noirs varied between 13.2% and 14.5%, with seven of the 15 wines The Prince reviewed above 14%. This is not particularly low, and is in league with most of the Pinot Noirs I reviewed from coastal California, which were anywhere between 13.8% and 14.5%.

I’m glad David quoted the great Merry Edwards, who reduced the low-alcohol movement in Pinot Noir to incoherence. “The fashion norm is shifting now,” she told him; “people are listening to Raj Parr (the In Pursuit of Balance ringleader), and French marketing has convinced people that you should pay a lot of money for wines that are light and watery. I’m on the opposite side—we’re not in France, we’re in California”

Light and watery! You go grrl! When one has been in the arena as long as Merry (she’s been making wine since 1974), one sees “fashion” come and go with merry-go-round (excuse the pun) regularity—and one learns not to succumb to it.

It can be hard to resist fashion, if all you want to do is appeal to the latest trend. But winemakers who are dedicated to their art are not slaves to fashion. They stay the course; they know that style goes in and out, but that true quality in winemaking, as exemplified by Merry Edwards, remains undeterred by these perturbations in the critical aether.

  1. Interesting to see, right in the midst of David’s article largely bemoaning alcohol levels in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, an advertisement for what is probably the largest producer of labeled Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (and who’s Pinot Noir falls below 14% alcohol).

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    A Cali Pinot maker witheringly dismissing Burgundy as “light and watery.”

    And people wonder why so much of the market is witheringly dismissing Cali ego juice.

  3. Jerry Murray says:

    -Bill, interestingly a well known Burgundian producer has described California’s attempts to mimic Burgundy (or at least their tendency toward lower alcohol) with terms similiar to “light and watery”.
    -Focusing on alcohol or potential alcohol, neither of which correlate well to quality misses the larger point; structure is the common denominator among all great wines. Structure is about phenols and any discussion about “ripeness” that doesn’t discuss them is incomplete.
    -Interesting that the list of variables potentially resulting in higher alcohols makes no mention of yields.
    -Were the wines from the days of lower alcohols really, on average, better than they are today?

  4. Why are alcohol levels higher? The reason is simple: because they should be. And because winemakers who care about true California terroir now recognize that.

    All it takes is the understanding that at our latitude the California growing season is significantgly different than Burgundy, so trying to apply Burgundian norms is absurd. Once you throw out the artifical attempt to be a clone of Burgundy (pun intended) you arrive at the truth, which is that ripe fruit in California necessarily requires having higher sugar levels, which leads to higher alcohols. Sure, you could water back more, or de-alc the wines to get to lower alcohol levels, but that’s still trying to make California Pinot into something that it’s not. Something that it’s not supposed to be.

    That doesn’t mean that everyone has to like true California Pinot Noir. And that’s fine. But trying to make it into something else, or lamenting that it isn’t like something else, is folly.

  5. I totally agree with Mr. Loring. More heat units = riper fruit = higher sugars = abv’s pushing 15%. Is that horrible? No! But does it enhance the delicate, nuanced textures and flavors of this ultra-finicky grape? You can debate that, but I would argue it obliterates them. A bit further north – Willamette Valley, Okanagan – the grape ripens differently. More phenolic ripeness at lower sugar levels. More Burgundian if you will. I won’t argue that those are better wines than the Cali fruit bombs, but I think you can make the case that they are more complex, more subtle, and probably more likely to age well.

  6. Wow, wow, wow. How is it that I find myself agreeing largely with Bill Haydon and taking (some issue) with Brian and Paul.

    First, Bill, assuming the quote is correct, I have to agree. The idea of taking shots at Pinot Noirs made in other areas is unnecessary. We all benefit more if more people in this country drink more (and better) wine. Denigrating one area doesn’t help that, IMO.

    To Brian and Paul, I think my issue is painting California with one brush. I remember being on a panel discussing Clos Pepe grapes where one person said that he couldn’t believe that some producers waited 4 weeks after he did to pick their Clos Pepe Pinot because his grapes were already in the mid-23s when he picked and they must have been raisins by that point. I was one of those producers that waited,and pointed out that my section was down by the pond, far different than the hillside, and that my brix were virtually identical to his when I picked. His section and my section from the same vineyards were radically different (different clones as well) and to put down another without walking their rows and tasting their grapes and seeing their numbers was unwise. Which is why I think that some parts of California don’t necessarily need the higher sugars that Brian mentions. While other parts do. But its not one location that is easy to generalize about.

    And the same goes to Paul’s comments about Oregon. I’ve been making Oregon Pinot Noir for 20 years now, and one thing I often notice from sites in the Chehalem Mountains (and I saw them in cooler years in the Dundee Hills as well) is that while the acid levels are often good, they are also often very high in malic acidity. So once the wines go through ML the acids are lower than what we get in the Sta. Rita Hills and also the Santa Lucia Highlands. Perhaps that is “more phenolic ripeness” at lower sugar levels, but it is also a problem, if your desire is to produce more complex, subtle, ageable wines.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  7. David Rossi says:

    Bill- That quote from Merry Edwards did not call Burgundy “light and watery”. I re-read it after your comment. My guess is that she may be referencing some producers trying to make a lower alcohol Pinot in California just for the sake of a low alcohol claim, only to find the wine a bit light and lacking interest. At least that is what I inferred.

    You have to have the right site for any grape to make the style you want(fuller or leaner). Burgundy hasn’t had a choice in the matter, but California’s diverse climate means that some winemakers are still tinkering with site and style to get the right match. So you will get some Pinots that are out of balance on one side or the other of ripeness. Give it some time.

  8. my experience making pinot noir in the Willamette Valley has led me to believe that the weather is the biggest determining factor in alcohol levels. In 2011, we waited until November to harvest grapes above 12% ABV, and in 2014 we were harvesting in September to keep ABV below 15%. In California, where the weather is hot and dry (and getting hotter and drier), I would be surprised to see anyone making pinot noir below 14% ABV without some serious manipulation, although I imagine there are a handful of choice AVA’s that are cool enough to try.

  9. I am not a believer in using name calling or out of context quotes to make an argument. I suspect the timing of this post is to take another poke at IPOB which is happening in SF today. I think the argument mostly misses the point.

    I think most winemakers are trying to match not fight terroir. The movement by some to coastal areas or the deep end of the Anderson Valley are efforts for winemakers to find the climate and soils that help them make wines that are appropriate for those areas. Why we have to argue about what is “California” wine when the climate is so different across the AVA’s is beyond me. If you are near the Healdsburg end of RR but are trying to make wine like Littorai does from their Mays Canyon site I would say you are barking up the wrong tree. But when I taste something made from cooler sites that match what Mother Nature provides, I do not find the wines watery or tasteless.

  10. Mary Burnham says:

    Interesting discussion. Questions of fashion in wine style aside, one factor in higher alcohol levels in modern California wines that I don’t see discussed anywhere is the possible effect of all the clean rootstock grapes are growing on these days.

    As I understand it, in decades past a significant percentage of vines were affected with viruses, including red leaf types such as grape leafroll (GLRV) and red blotch. Both GLRV and red blotch delay ripening and yield fruit with significantly lower sugars and higher acids.

    As the obsession with super-clean rootstock has greatly reduced the levels of these viruses in wines, it would stand to reason that alcohol levels would more routinely reach higher levels, then–though I’ve never heard the question addressed (or even raised) in the various seminars, forums, panel discussion etc. I’ve attended which cover this hot-button topic (of alcohol level in wine). I’m curious as to others’ thoughts on the subject…

  11. As Coco Chanel said, “Fashion fades, only style remains the same.” Merry Edwards has it right.

  12. Dylan Sheldon says:

    The thing Adam touched on is what I feel IPOB has missed the point on entirely. It’s not about picking early to hit 22 brix, it’s about finding a spot that you can pick much later that only reaches 22 brix. I’ve made Pinot from the SLH, Marin, Russian River, Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley. Without question the best came from the longest hang-times yet lowest sugars. Wine making technique can affect final alc a great deal as well. I can take the same fruit as winery X and turn out a 13.2 % alc while they turn out a 14% from the same fruit.

  13. Bill Haydon says:

    David, As I read the quote (and assuming the quote is accurate), she says that “French Marketers” have convinced people to drink wines that are “light and watery.” Clearly, she is talking about French wines and since both the subject at hand and her specialty is Pinot Noir, it is a safe assumption that she is talking about Burgundy specifically.

    John Kinney, You’re right about fashion’s transitory character. I just think that both you and Merry Edwards are mistaken as to what is fashion and what is style. Is it the 25 year blip (roughly 1992 to 2007) of over-ripe, over-oaked, overly-pretentious fruitbombs or, converseley, is it the more balanced and elegant styles of wine predominant for over a century prior? Could what you consider the market’s latest “fashion” really be a fundamental shift back to historical norms and away from a temporary dalliance with excess–an oenological return to classic suits after a brief leisure suit period.

  14. Bill Haydon,
    I am not saying whether I like a certain style, only that it is important for a designer to remain true to themselves. When I see Chanel, I see a style that remains through the ages, even though the designers change. When I experience a Merry Edwards or an early Paul Draper, I see the winemaker in the wine. I like to see people remaining true to themselves, that is all.

  15. Bill,

    Prior to the period you mention (predominant for over a century), producers generally sought to make bigger styled wines as these provided for a level of stability that was not otherwise easily achieved (especially important pre-widespread-SO2 usage, pre-modern transportation methods). What changed the style in a semi-permanent way was essentially science and technology.

    A decent argument could be made that science and technology have once again changed things in what might be a semi-permanent way (nothing lasts forever). Average brix levels are going up, yet alcohol levels are falling. That’s a product of science and technology. The basic understanding of the process of fermentation are far greater now than just a few decades ago.

    Perhaps we are seeing a movement towards something different, rather than a return to anything.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  16. Bob Henry says:

    Steve writes:

    “. . . there is no one answer why alcohol levels have increased.”

    I think Mary is on the right track.

    There may not be one answer, but as I have posited on this and other wine blogs, I believe there is one catalyst for the trend in high alcohol wines in the North Coast: the replanting of vineyards due to phylloxera.

    That covers a whole host of issues addressed by David Darlington in his article, “Accounting for Taste,” in the April issue of Wine & Spirits.

    [Article link: sorry, I couldn’t find it either.]

    Among them: the loss of old vines mixed clone “field blends”; the introduction of French clones not ideally planted in areas of California known for their non-Burgundian climate; greater vineyard density; new trellising and canopy management techniques; the abandonment of “dry farming” and the widespread adoption of drip irrigation; the vigor of young vines; green harvests; later picking based on “physiological ripeness” instead of brix; the abandonment of native yeasts and the introduction of highly efficient inoculated yeast strains.

    And finally changing tastes among the American wine reviewers and the drinking public, who preferred riper wines.

    (‘Cause let’s face it: those with l-o-n-g memories recall many of those 1960s and 1970s and 1980s era Pinot Noirs were fairly tart.)

    Check out the alcohol levels of “old school” mountain fruit producers such as Chalone and Mt. Eden. Have they been rising over time? Rising as fast as newly-replanted or first-time planted vineyards down on the valley floors?

    Check out the alcohol levels of sparkling wine region Anderson Valley. Have alcohol levels been rising over time? Rising as fast as Napa and Sonoma?

    Steve, sounds like a project for a Jackson Family Wines intern from UC Davis or Fresno State this Summer.

    ~~ Bob

    Aside: Here’s another article from David Darlington worth cogitating over:

    “The Chemistry of a 90+ Wine”


  17. Adam,

    Do you recall the CIA Napa Pinot Noir New World against Old World tasting set up by the “world’s best palate”? Can you remind us how this “palate” scored the ROAR Pinot bottle, CA or Burgundy? Where any half decent palate will easily pick ROAR as New World, blind, double blind, triple or whatever. How about the Raj tasting when you switched the bottles? Was that not a clear indication that alcohol is just a “perception” propagated by so called professional wine reviewers and self deluded sommeliers? How about that 2003-2005 Cal Pinot tasting we all did in East Bay where TRUE BLIND TASTING through wines was so contradictory to prior reviews in well regarded publication, but this time we all KNEW this is TRULY BLIND. Conducted in front of these “professionals” and with them present, to inflict even more pain. Originator of this blog included where his scores so contradicted a HUGE majority of those present.

    This alcohol level horse has been so beaten up by now its not just dead by now, its been vaporized, many a time. Who cares about alcohol levels when people CAN’T PERCEIVE it? And what about all those EU wines that abuse our ATF system and openly disregard the LAW? Should I name names? Vinquiry lab results included? Not that at least one highly visible importer publicly admitted to it.

    Same importer, BTW, posted glowing reviews of Napa reds that he called extremely well balanced and “properly grown”, when, in fact, they are deliberately picked at 33+ Brix year and year out. Should tell anyone enough about growing, picking and wine making. Not that Old World is any different, last time I checked RO was developed on request of Old World, no?

    Its bad enough when so called professional wine reviewers can’t tell them apart, we now have rank amateur wine drinkers chiming in without any understanding of the subject, not that they haven’t joined in discussions in years past. I personally observed a good number of them, at your open houses no less, where they picked much oakier wines while claiming online they dislike oak. OK, then, let’s go with that premise…

    Entire wine review system needs a huge revamp, in more ways than one. Not that ATF is not in dire need of a revamp itself, and be way more diligent when taking EU wine labels at their word. Labels do not really reflect reality, sadly so. And yet, wine reviewers, somms and rank amateurs take them for granted. SHAME!

    Anyway, I am sure we will be discussing alcohol levels 20 years from now, and same as now, wine reviewers’ as well as somms’ and amateur wine drinkers’ opinions and “proof” will be based on faulty premises. Same as they are today.

    Good seeing you and Brian posting. Keep up the good work.


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