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Are High Alcohols a Trend?

by David on December 26, 2006

Tom Wark wrote an interesting post on the high alcohol trend. At the end of the post he wondered if the growing concern expressed within the industry will spread to the consumer. I think so. I certainly hope so. It seems like the topics that consume wine industry insiders eventually make their way to the consumer.

There was a fascinating article in Wine Business Monthly by George Vierra a year or two ago, that has stayed with me. He was voicing his concern about the high alcohol trend in relation to enjoying wine with food. If, for some reason, you have any doubt that things have changed all that much, take a look at these amazing statistics: “Everybody knows the style of wines being produced in California has changed drastically in the past 30 years. In the Napa Valley, in 1971, the grapes were picked at an average of 20.5 Brix. In 2001, the grapes were picked at a Napa Valley average of 24.2 Brix. Average alcohols rose from 12.5 percent to 14.8 percent in 30 years. In the wines, the acid fell and the pH climbed. But, the Robert Parker/Wine Spectator ratings climbed.” I don’t much care for the way he proposes to categorize wines. I think most of us can determine how the wine should be used on our own, but he makes some good observations.

pickers picking wine grapesTesting Brix

I remember talking with an excellent winemaker I admire very much about this article and the whole “hang-time” thing a year or so ago. She kind of tsk’d and said that George, a winemaking veteran, isn’t in step with industry evolution and indicated that if we pick grapes at more moderate sugars we’re going to have green, harsh characteristics. We need to wait for “physiological ripeness” and hang the sugar. So, a decade ago, we were all drinking green California wine? That’s not my recollection.

There are a couple of things at work now that weren’t in the picture a few decades ago. One is that we did so much replanting in the’80s and 90s, due to phylloxera, that we have younger, healthier vines that are more efficient at converting light to sugar and that all the vertical shoot positioning just encourages them.

And Bob Pepi reminded me that yeast strains have been “cleaned up” over the last few decades and are also more efficient in terms of alcohol conversion. A few decades ago about 51 or 52% of the sugar would convert to alcohol. Now, it’s more like 59-61%. I wish our conversation hadn’t been cut short before I got to ask him why we don’t select yeasts with a lower conversion rate. Are they otherwise inferior?

I enjoy a blockbuster red as much as the next person, but it’s just too bad that it’s gotten to the point that I can’t order a bottle of Zinfandel without checking the alcohol before the server opens it. I love Zin, but not with my baby-back ribs if it’s 17%! And it really bugs me to see cold-climate wines with hefty alcohols, presumably to score big with powerful wine writers.

A chef-friend told me that he sees the beginnings of a push-back coming from restaurateurs. Accomplished chefs are fed up with monster wines that out-shout their efforts when they reach the plate. That’s a good start.

Adding momentum: grower push-back. As this trend has unfolded they’ve watched their revenues shrink just as their grapes do on the vine while the winemaker “waits for the flavors”. Understandably, their patience is shriveling up along with their profits. Based upon recent discussion there’s a very strong possibility that winemakers and vintners may have to pony-up for these super-ripe grapes, at least in Napa Valley.

And just a day or two ago there was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a trend toward big, beefy Pinot Noirs with high alcohols. The sommeliers quoted seem to think that these big Pinots are pleasing to inexperienced consumers, but don’t taste very much like Pinot and aren’t nearly as versatile with food as the classic style with its characteristic elegance and subtlety. There were also comments about the sense of place diminishing as the alcohol and body of the wine increase.

I like to think we’re going through a phase, and I agree with Tom that it has a lot to do with wine ratings. And I’m inclined to think that this reliance on the scores is a symptom of our inexperience (relatively speaking) as new world producers and consumers (now don’t jump all over me -I know that old-world producers care about the ratings too!)

As wonderful as the wines are, the local industry is still finding its way, and I’ve seen the pendulum take wide swings regarding our attitudes and theories about how to grow and produce “world-class” wine in my 2-plus decades in the biz. Remember the “food wines” of the 80s? Those lean, elegant, “food-friendly” wines? Well, those wines weren’t any fun and went the way of the do-do bird pretty quickly.

In my humble opinion, the pendulum has swung too far and now, 2 decades later, we’re in this fruit-bombs phase. At some point, as we mature, surely we’ll strike a balance. They’ve had centuries to figure out this stuff in the old country, but even they’re still learning. That’s the thing about wine. You can never learn enough. But learn we will, and that’s great news because the wines can only get better and better as a result.

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