I recently came across a piece written by Felix Salmon that really rubbed me the wrong way. In the article, the author attempted to explain why alcohol levels have risen in wines, and how that effects their quality. Not only did I find his information misleading, but he also broke a major rule I hold dear. If you don’t have the stats to back up your argument, don’t make it. Mr Salmon is correct, we are seeing wines with higher alcohol levels on the market. However, they are not rising fast and winemakers aren’t going to extreme measures to prevent them.
In order to break-down my argument, we need to focus on the basic differences between Old World wine, and New World wine. More specifically, I will focus on French vs Californian. France is widely considered to be the birth place of modern wine making, modern being 18th/19th century. French varietals remain the most widely planted grapes in the New World. California is the largest producer in the New World, outside of China, and has been France’s rival since 1976.
Up until 1976, French wines were the undisputed champ. French wines are governed by tight regional laws and their winemaking has had centuries of refining. Most of the wine produced in France sits in the 11%-14% range. Without getting too much into the Judgement of Paris, it was that historic tasting that woke people up to California wines and their higher alchohol levels. California wines have higher alcohol levels, (12%-16%) because they are generally produced from riper fruit. Ripeness can be measured in many ways, but Brix (measurement of sugar to water mass) provides a clear picture to final alcohol levels. During fermentation, yeast cells convert sugar into alcohol. More sugar, more alcohol.
After veraison, winemakers constantly run numbers on their fruit. Some winemakers live and die by their lab numbers, only picking when they have the numbers they want. Others watch the numbers, but commit to older ways, harvesting when the fruit tastes right. Arguments can be made on what is a better method, but trained winemakers are never in the dark. They know what type of harvest they have when the fruit comes in. Some years everything aligns creating banner vintages. Other years, Mother nature doesn’t play nice.
In off years, winemakers need to put on their chef hats and play with their recipes. This is where France and California greatly differ. As any Californian knows, our summers are long, very dry and feature numerous heat spikes. With this weather, winemakers rarely worry that their wines won’t ripen. They worry that the fruit will ripen too quick, creating a less complex wine or that the heat spikes will raise the Brix levels without the fruit fully maturing. When this occurs, some winemakers chose to let their fruit overrippen giving it time to develop the tannins, acidity, etc. Then during fermentation, water is added to prevent the alcohol level from rising to unacceptable levels and eventually killing the yeast before it can convert all the sugar.
This is where I have a problem with the 18% Australian shiraz Mr Salmon used as an example of winemakers glut for ratings. First it is very hard to produce an 18% wine. Once the alcohol level reaches 16.5% yeast cells are destroyed by the alcohol they so lovingly created. If there is any remaining sugar that hasn’t been converted, you now have a very sweet, alcoholic wine. In order to complete the fermentation and create a dry wine, various techniques have to be employed. While this happens, especially in very warm climates like Australia, it is rare.
The climate in France rarely threatens to overrippen fruit, but winemakers have an entirely different problem, unripe grapes. Summers in France can be plagued with heavy rains, wind, cool temps and earlier autumns. In less than ideal years, winemakers are forced to harvest before maturity. To counter this, winemakers use a technique called chaptalization. Chaptalization is a very simple process of adding sugar to increase the wines alcohol content. It is illegal in many areas, including California and Italy, but widely practiced in cooler climates. Just like adding water can be affective when placed in the right hands, so can chaptalization.
This brings me to the second hole in Mr Salmon’s argument. When he informed his readers to simply pick the wine with the lowest alcohol level on the wine list, he could be instructing them to pick a flawed wine. 11%-12% is a great range for light delicate whites, but most reds in that range are produced from under-ripe fruit. They will lack the lively, bright character the wine should have expressed. Just like the 18% bomb, these flabby wines are out of balance.
The final point I would like to make is that Mr. Salmon is wrong to assume that winemakers are hiding this information. It is well known that we add water to some wines, and that the French add sugar. There is no “dirty little secret”, most winemakers are proud to proclaim their wines maintain a consistent balance year after year. He is right to mention that wine critics, such as Mr Parker and Wine Spectator have had an immense impact on the wine world. Young upstarts have risen to fame due to a single rave review, and the opposite is just as true. I would be lying not to acknowledge the growing trend to appease their tastes.
He is wrong to assume this is the main factor in causing the rapid rise in alcohol levels. Truth be told, I just went through our Library and found wines produced 15 years ago from the same vineyards with the same alcohol content. I would also like to add that as long as the wine has balance, forget the alcohol percentage. Give it a try, never judge a bottle by its label.