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Who's to Blame for Surge In High Alcohol Wines?
By Gerald D. Boyd
Mar 2, 2007
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Alcohol is an important component of any wine. Without alcohol, we would have unfermented grape juice. Which begs the question: Why is 'wine' without alcohol (alcohol-free, non-alcoholic) called 'wine' if it has no alcohol?

In recent years, the very presence of alcohol in table wines has skyrocketed into the stratosphere, going from an acceptable 12%-13% to 14%-15% and over. Back in those good old days, there was the odd high-alcohol wine, like Italy's Amarone or California's Late Harvest Zinfandel, but even knowing their over-sized character, wine drinkers puzzled over what to do with these vinous hot shots.

I must admit, though, that a glass of Amarone and a chunk of fresh Reggiano Parmigiano is a little bit of Italian heaven, but I never figured out what to do with Late Harvest Zin. The old Monterey Peninsula Winery, known for its high-alcohol esoteric red wines, once put this food suggestion on the side label of one of their Late Harvest Zins: 'Serve with Zen macrobiotic casserole!' I can hear you now: 'Only in California.'

Just when I thought these high-octane reds were fading into obscurity, along comes a string of reds, all over 15% finished alcohol. Recently, I tasted a variety of wines with alcohols beyond a sensible 13%, including a Barbera that topped 15%, a Viognier at 15.9%, Petite Sirah at 16.8%, and a handful of Chardonnays that finished between 14% and 15-plus alcohol. More recently, I was looking over a group of wines to be tasted and pulled three reds: a Sonoma Zinfandel perilously close to 16% and a trio of Spanish Priorat reds, all over 15% alcohol.

So, what's going on? There is no consensus, with the blame for higher-alcohol 'International-style' wines being laid at the feet of changing climate (global warming?), the insatiable consumer demand for riper flavor compounds in wine (seen by many wine drinkers as a questionable nod to changing fashion), the contention by some winemakers that if you got it flaunt it, and extended hang time, an industry buzz word heard more and more throughout New World vineyards and wineries. Let's take a closer look.

We've all noticed that worldwide climate is undergoing changes not seen in recent memory. Climatologists don't always agree, but it seems certain that changing climate patterns, with more noticeable extremes, have some affect on grape maturity and wine quality and character.

Olivier Humbrecht, of Alsace's Zind-Humbrecht, told me that the alcohol levels are going up in Alsatian wines and he blames global warming and the wine-drinking public's demand for riper wines. He said this with a wry smile, while pouring two Zind-Humbrecht Gewurztraminers, one 15% alcohol and the other topping out at 16.1%. But Humbrecht is quick to note that, all other things being in balance, high alcohol is not necessarily bad. That's easy for him to say, since he has to sell the stuff but I don't have to drink it.

Riper phenolics (flavor compounds) have been on the rise in recent years to keep pace with the demand for more intensely flavored foods. Restaurant menus today are overflowing with fusion foods, combining the culture, ingredients and flavors of Asian cooking with Western cuisine, to mention just one cuisine emerging.  Not many years ago, the only Asian restaurant in town was Chinese; now you can choose from Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese and others. All of these ethnic cuisines, with heavy emphasis on full flavor, come from non-wine cultures.  Yet, because of the rising popularity of wine in restaurants in the United States, the demand is for riper flavor-packed wines to match the Asian dishes. 

Close to the demand for riper flavors is the esoteric concept of fashion. I try not to put too much stock in fashion trends and changes pushing wine one way or the other, mainly because it amounts to a chicken and egg dilemma. Are winemakers pushing these high-alcohol wines on the public or is the wine-drinking public demanding that winemakers make more alcoholic wines?

Some California winemakers maintain that the days are long gone when wines are made from California-grown grapes, modeled on French wines from the same varieties.  California offers higher levels of ripeness, so why not make the most of what you have is a commonly heard position.

Brett Escalera, winemaker for Santa Barbara's Consilience Wines, says, 'In the last ten years I have slowly moved my winemaking in a stylistic direction of picking grapes at gradually higher levels of ripeness in an effort to create wines of greater extract, color, concentration, flavor, richness, roundness, body, density, texture and length.' He does admit that this stylistic direction is not for everyone, but then adds that 'I think this can be achieved in very select coastal areas of California.'

And then there's extended hang time, an American expression that has only entered the wine-talk lexicon in the last few years. It mostly means leaving the grapes on the vine for an extended time to achieve physiological (flavor) ripeness. Problem is, when the grapes reach that level, the sugars are usually so high that fermentation to dryness is unlikely without some winemaking manipulation, like the use of a spinning cone or reverse osmosis, to lower the alcohol to a 'more acceptable' 15% to 15.5%. 'Some wineries are currently engaging in a technique known as 'sweet spotting,' wherein the winemaker is de-alcoholizing the wine and then adding the alcohol back, on an incremental basis, until he hits the 'sweet spot' where they believe the wine is in optimal balance,' explains Escalera.

'If the wine has enough going on ('stuffing') in the right proportions (balanced), then the alcohol is typically not an issue,' says Escalera. He points out that wine drinkers don't talk about the alcohol levels in Port, Sherry and brandy, 'because this is what they (wine consumers) have come to expect in those grape-derived beverages.' Perhaps, but most people do not drink fortified wines with a meal. Typically, a single glass of a fortified wine, approximate four ounces, is consumed, while many wine drinkers have two or more 6-8 ounce glasses of table wine with a meal. You do the numbers.

Many of Escalera's colleagues are firm in their belief that climbing alcohols should be taken seriously, but not isolated, since other factors like longer hang time and extended maturation, are part of the equation. Escalera notes that legally a winery is allowed to state the alcohol level within 1% above or below actual alcohol levels, when above 14%, and to within 1.5% above or below actual levels, when 14% or below.  'It is my contention that many wineries are utilizing this 'fudge factor' to its fullest extent and, most likely, even a little bit more, understating their alcohols below what the law will allow with the knowledge that the likelihood of being caught is slim.'

No question that alcohol is a problem, but what about the overripe flavors that linger in the finished wine, often derived from very ripe grapes that have become dehydrated? The Sonoma Zinfandel mentioned earlier was overflowing with these over-ripe flavors and high alcohol, as are other high octane Zins I've tasted recently.

If that's what you look for in Zinfandel, so be it, but I'd like less heat and less 'in your face' uber-ripe flavors and a little more finesse.  Michael Cox, winemaker for Schug Wine Estates, dismisses the need for higher alcohols in finished wines, stating simply, 'We don't go for high readings and are only interested in alcohol balance.' To that, I say, Amen.

Photos: Cover, Alsace's Olivier Humbrecht; top, high-alcohol Amarones from Masi; center, Olivier Humbrecht in the vineyards; bottom, a Viognier from Santa Barbara's Consilience Winery.