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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.

  1. It’s not just wine. I was upset to find Woodford Reserve bourbon sold here in the UK has a lower alcohol level than “the real thing” sold over there in the US. It was so surprising, I wondered if it was actually a fake, or a change in distilling. No, they confirmed in an e-mail, it was simply that a lower alcohol level was “preferred” by customers in Europe (of which we are ostensibly a part). Of course, it tastes different.

    Ironically, we are the area of the world most highlighted for binge drinking – which you might think would popularise higher alcohol levels?

  2. I do believe the survey which points out that certain important groups of customers would prefer having less alcohol in the beverage that accompanies their meal. They want tart and juicy wine that they can quaff in quantity, not a cold, gassy malt product.

    As a winemaker, I would consider this to be the greatest of all challenges. We know that if you pick grapes earlier, you have to deal with more acidity and less alcohol to cover up it and the astringency. Also the wines can taste thin. On the plus side, you get fresh, not raisined fruit aromas. Problem is, the answer to satisfying the consumer’s ideal probably lies in breaking the many rules on wine processing and additives put in place by regulation. You might not be able to call it wine.

    But I know that there is an answer out there other than “educate consumers that their expectations are unreasonable.” After all, they are the customer, we need to listen to them.

  3. Morton – if you are running a retail store, you listen to the consumer and stock what they are liable to buy.

    If you are a producer of a million cases you “listen to the consumer” by testing your new products with focus groups.

    But most producers are far better off completely ignoring the wants of the consumer. I think I’m paraphrasing Steve Jobs here, but if you listen to the consumer you will just keep re-inventing what they already know. We do best when we produce something the consumer doesn’t know they want – yet.

  4. The argument that grapes should only be harvested at “full” phenolic maturity, especially in climes with high solar radiation levels (and late season high temps) like California is disputable. These grapes will (most likely) have low acidity and excessively high Brix levels, due to the extended hang time and dehydration.
    Interestingly, Linda Bisson in her working paper “In Search of Optimal Grape Maturity” notes that “a historical index of ripeness suggests that optimal sugar/acidity balance is achieved if the product of the Brix value times the square of the pH is in the range of 220 to 260. For example, a 22† Brix juice at pH 3.2 would yield a value of 225.3. Late harvest fruit at a higher pH (24† Brix at pH 3.6, for example) would yield a value (311) outside of this range”.
    In addition, flavor does not depend entirely on its primary constituents. Flavor development continues throughout the fermentation and aging phases when phenolic compounds interact with oxygen and barrels. These compounds will also protect the wine, improving its ageability and extending its life span.
    Although most grape imbalances can be masked during winemaking (with additives and/or heat/pressure processing), CA winegrowers that only harvest when grapes have achieved “optimum flavor” might be missing the fundamental point of winegrowing which is to produce (naturally balanced and complex) wines that taste good in the bottle.

  5. Kurt Burris says:

    With sugar to alcohol conversion rates pushing 60% to have 10.5% ETOH wines the grapes would have to be picked at around 18 degrees Brix. I don’t think you can make much besides sparkling wine at that level of ripeness. But, I have had a couple of dry rieslings that had alcohol levels at under 10 that were pretty tasty. It can be done, but not very often.

  6. Can we agree to disagree? I mean by that can we purposely allow wine to diverge into two product categories to suit the opposing factions? We can call them vin d’ effort and vin de terroir if you like, although I don’t like those terms. My point is that with modern industrial food processing technology, I believe we can make a “wine” with the desired fruit flavors and alcohol content, however, it will not appeal to a true wine lover as it will lose all the characteristics that tie it to its place of origin. Maybe then the harsh critics of high alcohol can allow winemakers to produce balanced wines that will appeal to true oenophiles.

  7. ‘The West Coast has the sunshine and those grapes all get so tan..’

    Dr. Patrick McGovern notes that wine’s reputation as the world’s most important beverage comes from the fact that grapes can make the highest ABV beverage in the natural world.

    And the history of winegrowing sinc e the late Paleolithic is an attempt to make bigger, richer wines.

    The question is when to say when. Maybe now? 🙂

  8. Well put, Steve. This is a complex issue, where methodology is everything. Consumers’ understanding of the relationship between alcohol and wine style, consumer choice models based on alcohol % on the label and actual sensory preferences are three completely distinct studies, requiring different approaches. I’d have more to say, but (perhaps fortunately your readers) the link is not working, so I can’t comment on the study per se.

    FWIW, some consumer research we did in 2005 for the NVGG found that consumers seemed to regard alcohol as an independent variable, not really linking it with wine style, echoing your 2nd to last paragraph.

    That said, Riesling fans will certainly dispute your statement “do they understand that a table wine of 10.5% or less would taste acidic and horrible?”

  9. “I think I’m paraphrasing Steve Jobs here, but if you listen to the consumer you will just keep re-inventing what they already know. We do best when we produce something the consumer doesn’t know they want – yet.”
    True for many big hits and the ground breaking products. But there’s a perception bias at work here. We all hear endlessly about the iPads and Sutter Home White Zins of the world, but no one talks about the thousands of new products introduced that the consumer couldn’t conceive of in abstract…and it turns out they didn’t want them in reality either.

  10. Christian – it’s not a perception bias. I think what Jobs was saying is that if you believe in what you do, and you are good at it, you don’t turn over the “design” of your product to your customers.

  11. John – I didn’t mean Jobs’ quote as an example of perception bias. Just our ongoing notion (and I include myself here) that success is the result of completely original thought, unfettered by prosaic customer concerns. It’s often a characteristic of breakthrough products and big hits, but there are many successes that are the result of incremental improvements on existing concepts, and many totally original failures.

  12. Grape maturity parameters vs alcohol is a complex subject. In the recent vintage in the Russian River I called in 5 Chardonnay lots that had been rained on and were developing botyritis. Of course, there was lots of selective picking and sorting. That said, the brix levels ranged from 20.7 to 22.0, way low compared to normal parameters. I was cringing at the possibility of telling the client that maybe there would be zero Chardonnay from this vintage that would make the cut. Now my perceptions are very different, tasting the wines post ML. The finished lots are fabulous–perhaps more delicate and subtle than some of the proceeding blockbuster vintages, but very seductive nevertheless. Alcohol levels range from 12.9% to 13.8%. Perhaps what we experienced was a vintage more like Burgundy, with long hang times occurring to reach these brix levels. And maybe next season we are back to normal, i.e. requiring brix levels of 22 to 24 to get ripe characters because of rapid sugar accumulation. We all know by now that brix and flavor/aroma maturity are not necessarily on the same curve, but it takes a vintage like this to underscore the knowledge.

  13. For the large number of consumers who drink “supermarket” wine under $25, the high alcohol dilemma (if there really is one as I do not believe the majority of consumers give a rat’s ass about alcohol levels) will be solved by wines treated with technology such as that developed by Cone Tech where bottled wines have 8-10% alcohol but still retain enough flavor to satisfy consumers of the type that drink Charles Shaw Wines (over 600 million btls sold in 10 yrs). Look for a flood of 8-10% wines arriving in the US over the next few years, not for connoisseurs, but the average wine drinker.

  14. Rusty, I can believe it. I recently read an article in Wine Business Monthly about making wine from unripe grapes that’s high in acidity and low in alcohol. It is then blended into “regular” wine, to lower the alcohol level. Apparently the wine tastes pretty good.


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