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Alcohol level: In a historic shift, they may be going down

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Throughout most of wine history—certainly from the Middle Ages in Europe forward to our own times—the challenge to vintners in most regions and years was to increase wine’s alcoholic strength, and thus its body.

We had, for instance, Burgundians and the Bordelais blending into their own stuff, not just wines from the more southern regions of France (where warmer temperatures let the grapes get riper) but even from Northern Africa, particularly, following the phylloxera disaster, from Algeria, in order to—as the Globe and Mail says“surreptitiously…pump up anemic bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy.” Bordeaux was called “claret” [“clear red” — my interpretation] by the Brits for a good reason: it often was “a dark rosé” rather than a true red wine.

Why “surreptitiously”? Because tinkering with wine has always been a no-no, and the notion of terroir, however it was thought of a thousand years ago, always has been integral to man’s appreciation of wine. I don’t know who first uttered the cliché, “Wine is made in the vineyard,” but something similar seems to have been understood, at least tacitly, long ago.

Well, the French don’t have to pump up their wines anymore, especially with global warming. Now, for the first time in human history, the problem is exactly the opposite: How to lower the alcohol in wine. As this scholarly article from South Africa confirms, the issue isn’t just limited to here in California (where some groups, such as In Pursuit of Balance, have made it controversial). The article, from the trade journal WineLand, assesses that, “Over the last few years, pressure is internationally applied to produce wines with lower alcohol,” stimulated in part by a U.K. study that found that “28% of the respondents were concerned about the alcohol content of the wines they buy.” The writer made the further distinction—vital, from a production point of view—that, while consumers want to drink lower alcohol wines, they want them made “without the addition of water or using alcohol reduction technology.”

Now, it is patently difficult to make low alcohol wines—let’s say, the “12.5 to 13.5% [that] have…become popular,” according to the WineLand article—in wine regions, like California, that are sunny and warm. You can do it—but then you run into the problem, as Esther Mobley, the wine columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote about last Sunday, of green, pyraziney wines. And whatever else consumers want, they don’t want to drink wine that smells and tastes like cat pee, asparagus, boiled broccoli, green bell peppers or any other of those veggie traits.

What then are these warm areas to do? The WineLand article suggests “certain policy decisions” that have to be made, beginning with a shift away from varieties, like Chardonnay, “which require high alcohol concentration,” to be “replaced by cultivars like Riesling and Malvasia Bianca.”

Beyond that, the article recommended fairly standard viticultural and enological practices, among them terminating the fermentation process “to leave sufficient residual sugar for better balance in the wine with a lower alcohol content.”

These would be pretty drastic steps for a winery to take, especially in America, where Chardonnay is and long has been the top-selling variety. Americans have voted with their dollars that they are not willing to substitute Riesling, much less Malvasia, for Chardonnay. They also don’t want (for the most part) residual sugar in their white wines, at least, any more R.S. than they’re already getting. As for reds, what varieties would compensate for Cabernet Sauvignon, the other top seller? We all know Cabernet needs a certain degree of ripeness to succeed—especially if the winemaker vows not to use intrusive alcohol reduction methods, such as the spinning cone. It’s all well and good to celebrate, say, Corison, but let’s face it, Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles or most other places is not going to be achieved lower than 14.5%–and in general, if that’s the number on the label, you can assume it’s higher. (I always make that assumption.) So I’m not sure how helpful it is for arguments like this to be put forward. It puts winemakers in an insanely impossible situation: literally between a rock and a hard place.

My hunch is that this “pressure internationally applied to produce wines with lower alcohol” is a temporary phenomenon. Consumers are rightfully concerned about the amount of alcohol they put into their bodies, but they also want (or say they want) fruity wines. And fruitiness comes, in California, at a cost. So, as sometimes happens when you poll consumers (or voters), you get mixed, contradictory and conflicting messages. Politicians can split the difference using rhetoric: winemakers, who must actually make wine and not just talk about it, can’t. Their wine either will be ripe, or it won’t: one taste (or sniff) will tell all.

I do think the moment of pushing the high alcohol envelope has been reached. Winemakers have gotten the message: This high and no higher. I also think vintners should be thinking of ways to get lower alcohol while still preserving ripeness. But I don’t think Malvasia or Riesling (or Beaujolais) are wave-of-the-future wines in America, good as they can be. The taste of consumers goes in cycles. Wineries that pander to the cycles usually don’t survive. Wineries that stay the course, do.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    “The tincture of time” should offer vintners a solution.

    As California vineyards replanted due to phylloxera mature, and their vigor declines, we should see realized alcohol levels falling with time.

    The planting of “field blend vineyards” in which a spectrum of grape varieties are intermingled amongst the rows and picked at one time (resulting in some grapes being slightly under ripe, some optimally ripe, and others overly ripe — with the last category of grapes reduced or eliminated through sorting tables) should lead to lower realized alcohol levels.

    A shift in canopy management and trellising practices increasing the shade of the grapes should lead to lower realized alcohol levels.

  2. Bob Rossi says:

    Very interesting post, as always. Over the years, in our visits to france, I was often amused at seeing wins at many wineries being sold “en vrac” out of big vats, with higher prices for higher alcohol levels — say 11%/11.5%/12.0% at slightly increasing prices per liter. I never bought such wines, as we never stayed in any one place long enough to drink a vrac of wine, plus we always wanted to drink as many wines as possible. Now I see places like the Southern Rhone with California-like alcohol levels.

  3. We’ve had 3 successive vintages (’13,’14,’15) in which, because of very low soil moisture content at the onset of ripening, we’ve seen advanced ripeness at low Brix levels. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard from vintner colleagues marveling at the amount of flavor, and phenolic content in their grapes at between 19 and 21 Brix. The white wine we produce at Edmunds St. John has been under 12% for all three of those vintages. Patently difficult? Is anyone out there willing to actually think about that?

  4. Brian Newberry says:

    I’d like to page somebody in the yeast department. It seems like there should be a lazier yeast on the market, one that converts sugar to alcohol at a lower efficiency (more CO2 emission). This would allow winemakers to produce lower alcohol wines, but also allow their fruit sources to achieve physiological ripeness more often.

    Anybody know if this option is in play?

  5. Fascinating subject. In a new book “The Winemaker,” I go into this is some detail, explaining how we solved the “greenness” in cold-climate Monterey wines in the 1970s, and excessive alcohol which lowers the drinkability in too-alcoholic table wines that are now being foist onto the public. It turns out, judicious addition of small amounts of water (to Grapes, not Wine) to correct natural field dehydration almost always IMPROVES the taste, enjoyment and aging ability of table wines that are made from grapes picked ‘over-ripe.’ But you have to know what you’re doing: you need to increase the natural acidity along with the small amount of water to the grapes.

  6. Insert the word “added” between ‘water’ and ‘to’ in the last line.

  7. Thank you, Dr. Peterson. I’m looking forward to reading your new book!

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Steve Edmunds:

    “. . . because of very low soil moisture content at the onset of ripening, we’ve seen advanced ripeness at low Brix levels.”

    If I interpret your comment correctly, it suggests that dry farming proponents like Bill Dyer are on the right path.

    (Bill, chime in here with anecdotes about your own experience.

    Complemented by this Los Angeles Times article:

    “Drought Revives ‘Forgotten Art’ at Wineries: Farming Without Irrigation”

    Link: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-dry-farm-wine-20141123-story.html)

    Brian Newberry:

    Slothful yeast might be achieved through genetically-modified means . . . but that would put resulting wines in opposition to the “Non-GMO movement.”

    Such wines — if the fact were publicized — would be at risk of being shunned by wine retailers such as Whole Foods Market.

  9. Bob Henry says:

    From the Napa Valley Register (Section Unknown)
    (August 27, 2015, Page Unknown):

    “Richard Peterson’s ‘The Winemaker’ chronicles California’s tumultuous wine revival”

    Link: http://napavalleyregister.com/lifestyles/food-and-cooking/wine/richard-peterson-s-the-winemaker-chronicles-california-s-tumultuous-wine/article_65c0a47f-6fda-511b-867c-b0b0711130f8.html

    By Sasha Paulsen

  10. redmond barry says:

    Terrific comments from everybody. I hope Bob Henry is right about maturing vines.

  11. Brian Newberry…Yeast Department
    D21 is a commercial yeast that has some research attached to it that suggests it will mitigate “green flavors” with regards to Bordeaux varietals used in the United States.

    Trials have been conducted using a couple commercial yeasts D80 and D254 in combination with D21 to combat that green flavor profile.

    2011 in Sonoma County was a year when a winemaker could make a Cabernet at 13% alc and let it hang till late October (thanks to the rain). We started picking Cabernet the first week of September in 2015.

  12. Bob Henry says:

    Redmond, et. al.:

    A brief bibliography on truly old vines.

    ~~ Bob

    From the Press Democrat newspaper
    (published January 28, 2009):

    “Ravenswood Winery’s Joel Peterson Preserves a Part of Sonoma’s Heritage — One Vineyard at a Time”

    Link: http://www.pressdemocrat.com/csp/mediapool/sites/PressDemocrat/News/story.csp?page=1

    By Virginie Boone

    — AND —

    From the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper
    (published October 29, 2012):

    “Saving California’s Heritage, One Vine at a Time;
    Historic Vineyard Society’s mission is to stop uprooting the past and to start protecting it”

    Link: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/thirst/article/Saving-California-s-heritage-one-vine-at-a-time-3984682.php

    By Jon Bonné

    — AND —

    From Food & Wine magazine
    (published October 2013):

    “The Battle for America’s Oldest Vines”

    Link: http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/the-battle-for-americas-oldest-vines

    By Ray Isle

    — AND —

    From Wine Enthusiast magazine
    (published November 2013):

    “Four California Innovators: These innovative California vintners are crafting groundbreaking wines from ancient vineyards.”

    Link: http://www.winemag.com/November-2013/Young-Winemakers-Old-Vines/

    By Virginie Boone

    — AND —

    From the San Jose Mercury News newspaper
    (published February 17, 2014):

    “Wine: ‘Old Vine’ Zinfandels”

    Link: http://www.mercurynews.com/libations/ci_25135950/wine-old-vine-zinfandels

    By Laurie Daniel

  13. redmond barry says:

    Thanks, Bob.
    Since cabernet can make big good quality wine from young vines, it isn’t surprising that many newbies are high in alcohol. OTOH, when winemakers are producing 15%-ers from To-Kalon….

  14. Redmond,

    You’re welcome.

    I have experiecne drinking “late harvest Zinfandels” from folks like Ridge and Mayacamas dating back to the 1970s.

    Some clocking in at near Port-level ABVs (16 to 17 percent) . . . and they weren’t fortified!

    And yet . . . they didn’t taste “hot” like some/many of today’s wines.

    (The contribution played by truly “old” vines and dry farming?)

    I turn to veteran observers of the California wine scene such as Charlie Olken and Bill Dyer for an explanation.

    ~~ Bob

    ERRATUM.

    Correcting for a non-functioning link . . .

    From the Santa Rosa Press Democrat newspaper
    (published January 28, 2009):

    “Ravenswood Winery’s Joel Peterson Preserves a Part of Sonoma’s Heritage — One Vineyard at a Time”

    Link: http://www.pressdemocrat.com/csp/mediapool/sites/PressDemocrat/News/story.csp?cid=2260755&sid=555&fid=181

    By Virginie Boone

  15. If there is one thing I have learned in my career as wine taster, it is that each wine is unique and just because one wine at 14% alcohol in not hot does not mean that all wines at 14% will not be hot. Indeed, had a wine in a blind tasting the other night that we all called “hot” and it was under 14%.

    By the same token, there are wines in the 16% range that do not taste as hot. But, lots of wines at that level do, and, Bob, that is true also for the late harvest wines of the 1970s.

    I could cite lots of reviews of those wines where words like pruney and hot appear–same as today.

  16. It is the wonderful dichotomy of great vs popular.

    There is no doubt that the most popular wines will always be high-alcohol. And they should be. Full flavored, ripe fruit, and a little sweet, will always please the majorities.

    On the other hand, complex wines of terroir tend to emphasize lower alcohols and tend to come from colder places. Complexity and not-fruit flavors will never been everyone’s cup of tea, but you do see some wine drinkers gravitating towards it.

    It is why classical or jazz music will never get the popularity of pop music. And it doesn’t have to.

  17. Bob Henry says:

    Charlie,

    My tasting of Late Harvest Zins were limited to the best known/best respected at that time: Ridge and Mayacamas.

    I have no doubt that your broader and deeper contemporary sampling for the magazine exposed you to quite a number of wines aspiring to be “the next Ridge” that evinced just the characteristics you mention.

    ~~ Bob

  18. Bob Henry says:

    As the late Louis M. Martini observed: “Memory is a wine taster’s best asset.”

    [Source: http://articles.latimes.com/print/1986-09-07/magazine/tm-12047_1_california-pinot-noir ]

    And sometimes one’s memory of distant events fades . . .

    Mayacamas (in the range of 17%):

    From Wines & Vines magazine
    (January 2009):

    “WINES THAT CHANGED THE INDUSTRY”

    Link: http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=features&content=61190

    “Handling extra ripeness 1968 Mayacamas Late-Harvest Zinfandel

    “Robert Travers was in the process of buying Mayacamas Winery in 1968, when he and then-winemaker Bob Sessions (who later moved to Hanzell) made what he believed to be the first wine to be labeled late-harvest in the U.S. It wasn’t a Riesling or a botrytized Sémillon, however, but a red Zinfandel. This accidental wine made waves with critics, such as ROBERT BALZER, and the wine trade. It showed other California winemakers for the first time how attractive full-bodied, ripe-flavored wines could be.

    “It also demonstrated that standard yeasts could tackle higher sugars than previously believed. Travers, who still runs Mayacamas with his sons, said he and Sessions were processing the other grape varieties and couldn’t bring in the Zinfandel when they wanted to. A week or 10 days later, the sampling showed 28ºBrix. The true level was closer to 30º, he said, after the raisined berries soaked. The final alcohol level was 17%. In those days winemakers didn’t wait for ultra-ripeness, and no one knew if the must would ferment dry before it killed off all the yeast. But after six months of slow bubbling on 505 Montrachet, rather than the usual six days, the Zinfandel went nearly dry and retained surprisingly good acidity, Travers recalled. ‘I thought it was tasty and enjoyable right away. To me it was significant because it made an interesting wine with a different character to it–jammy, PRUNEY, you could say RAISINY, but very attractive.’ ”

    1968 vintage label photo:

    https://www.winebid.com/BuyWine/Item/4417517

    1968 vintage CellarTracker comment:

    http://www.cellartracker.com/wine.asp?iWine=160302

    1978 vintage label photo [showing 17% ABV]:

    http://biggerthanyourhead.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/maya-label.jpg

    Ridge Late Harvest Zins labels (taken from the Web):

    Clocking in at 14.5% ABV:

    http://ct-static.com/labels/368789.jpg

    http://biggerthanyourhead.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/ridge.jpg

    https://c1.staticflickr.com/3/2165/2443107855_caebe66afd_b.jpg

    http://www.gangofpour.com/underground/2009/feb/images/77_geezer_lh.jpg

    http://s1.postimg.org/u1mj1586n/022.jpg

  19. The idea of finding an inefficient or “slothful” yeast that would convert less sugar to alcohol has been around a long time. In the late ‘80’s when I was making wine for Sterling I approached a biotech company also owned by its corporate owner of the day (Seagram). We discussed the possibility of creating a yeast that would produce more glycerine, leaving less carbon to convert to ethanol from sugar. They indicated it would be easy, just requiring a few million dollars. Luckily this was not in anyone’s budget, as the resulting wines would have been called “Frankenstein wines” in today’s anti-GMO climate.

    Some people say indigenous fermentations yield less alcohol, but I have not observed this to be the case—at least when these fermentations go all the way dry. It should be possible to find naturally occurring yeast among these indigenous populations that yield less alcohol. Selecting for traits and then breeding them has long been accepted in food and beverage production. There are commercial strains on the market that are said to produce less alcohol, but so far in my trials they are not significantly different—maybe 0.2% alcohol lower.

  20. In the 70’s grape maturity was pretty much expressed as brix, end of story. Now we understand that phenolic maturity, and accumulation of flavor and aroma compounds are not necessarily rising on the same curve as brix. Back then vines often had more viruses that inhibited sugar accumulation such that often long hang times gave more mature characters at lower brix. Post phyloxxera plantings with clean stock tended towards more vigor, with sugar accumulation rising faster than maturity. Vines planted on deep rich soils seem to also accumulate sugar at a faster rate than other desirable characters. So, yes, vines that are dry farmed or at least farmed with deficit irrigation reach physiological maturity at lower brix, especially on soils that are weaker (gravelly, rocky, sandy, etc.) leading to lower alcohol levels. We should also consider climatic conditions, for instance, a vineyard with lots of sun exposure, such as a south facing slope tends to gain brix quite fast, such that harvesting at relatively low brix, with short hang-time, may result in green characters. Often these vineyards are given longer hang times, reaching high brix levels in order to approach physiological maturity. Brix is a proxy measurement for sugar content, and now actual glucose/fructose content is often also measured. I note that when grapes go to high brix levels due to dehydration, the gain in glucose/fructose is on a steeper curve than the gain in brix. Location, location, location: grow winegrapes in conditions where they are not very vigorous and need to utilize the entire season to ripen. Water them as little as possible (if at all).

  21. Bob Henry says:

    “So, yes, vines that are dry farmed or at least farmed with deficit irrigation reach physiological maturity at lower brix, especially on soils that are weaker (gravelly, rocky, sandy, etc.) leading to lower alcohol levels.”

    Thanks, Bill.

    Your reply underscores my earlier blog comments about rising alcohol levels following the replanting of the North Coast due to phylloxera.

    A phenomenon that seems to go beyond correlation to putative causation.

    Those ’70s and ’60s era Cabernets and Zinfandels are still out there for interested enthusiasts/collectors at wine auctions:

    From the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (published April 23, 2008):

    “Older California Cabernets Are Within Reach at Auction”

    Link: http://www.latimes.com/style/la-fo-wine23apr23-story.html

    By Corie Brown
    Times Staff Writer

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