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08.11.2005

Lowering The Octane

OCTANE.sm.jpgCertain readers *you know who you are* like to harp on the alcohol level issue a lot. And to be honest, it is a rising concern, no pun intended. Average alcohol content for some wines has risen as much as 4% in the last 20 years (resulting in wines that are on average 15-20% more alcoholic than they used to be), and more and more people are starting to talk about it.

Some people say that it's not an issue, really, and that it just reflects changing tastes.

Some people say well, the tastes are actually for fruitier wines rather than stronger ones, so finding some way to reduce the alcohol will help us all be able to drink more wine without getting smashed so quickly.

Some people say you can get fruit forward wines without high alcohol.

Some people say fruit forward wines suck, and less fruity, higher acid wines are better for drinking with food, which is what we should be doing with wine anyway.

Well regardless of where you sit on the issue (I think I straddle several of those points of view) some people are trying to figure out interesting and new ways to use technology to lower the alcohol in wines, so that whenever someone finally decides that they do want that 16.7% Zinfandel to have the same flavor but clock in at around 13%, science will be ready.

Jancis Robinson talks about some of the newer techniques for lowering the octane.

Comments (4)

Dan wrote:
08.12.05 at 8:09 AM

Here is an interesting article about watering down wine in California from The Economist:

http://www.economist.com/intelligentlife/luxury/displayStory.cfm?story_id=3930545

boyd wrote:
08.12.05 at 10:26 AM

Unfortunately wine in terms of taste and quality are measured in mostly subjective terms and thus beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Toe-may-toe, to-mah-toe. For instance you may love the same wine I despise. The amount of alcohol in a wine is just one of the attributes on which we may disagree.

Focusing on alcohol, neither Janis Robinson, the Economist nor you touch on, at least in this instance, the fundamental problem that the wine industry is still struggling to figure out: Which grapes to grow where and how to grow them so that the desired flavors and textures are achieved with the least amount of effort.
To the vineyards and wineries credit it is difficult to adjust agricultural practices as quickly as consumers and wine writers change tastes. It takes time, a large amount of money and good bit of trial and error to establish and maintain the 'ideal' vineyard. This makes prefermentation water additions and wine de-alcoholizations desirable if not necessary for wineries and vineyards to survive while still making the best wine possible. The exception being when it is done solely to avoid the penalty of extra excise taxes levied against wines with alcohols levels of 14% or greater (I am not totally naïve).

The industry will continue to change and evolve its winemaking practices as new techniques and innovations are developed. It has for centuries as training techniques were developed to reduce mildew and inrease quality and, as glass bottles replaced wood casks as the prefered form of shipping and storage. I imagine that we will soon be hearing of some new innovation to remove the excess sugar prior to fermentation as yet another way for people to get the flavors they want while avoiding the excessive alcohol they do not. While this would be another tool for the winemaker to make the greatest wine possible from the grapes given, this would still be in reaction to growing the wrong grapes in the wrong place incorrectly.

But, maybe I've got it all wrong. Maybe one can not get the flavors one want no matter how well suited the vineyard and growing conditions are to the varietal.

Alder wrote:
08.12.05 at 11:24 AM

Boyd,

Great comments, and I'm sure some of my readers who are winemakers may have some perspectives on your last point.

Jamie Kutch wrote:
08.13.05 at 11:59 AM

Matthew Hejna on the West Coast Wine Chat Board posted Rod Berglund of Swan vineyards recent mailer. In the mailer Rod talks about Pinot Noir, alcohol levels, grape ripeness, and trends. The letter is very well written. I hope my html is correct below.

Jamie Kutch

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