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The Alcohol Problem, Three Ways

Rising alcohol levels in wine is one of the hot-button issues of the wine world. Many wine lovers, including many readers of Vinography, think this is one of the most pressing problems with wine today and bemoan the fact that fewer and fewer wines can actually be drunk with dinner (as higher alcohol levels make it more difficult to pair wines with food). This concern is based in solid fact. Alcohol levels in California wine in particular have risen several absolute percentage points in the last two decades, and perhaps even up to 20% relative to earlier levels.

Today the San Francisco Chronicle's W. Blake Gray takes a three part look at the alcohol levels in wines that is worth reading for anyone interested in the issue. In the first piece he summarizes the debate about higher alcohol wines.

In the second piece he looks at ways that California winemakers are managing alcohol levels in wine, from the low tech methods of adding water to the fermenting grapes to higher tech methods such as reverse osmosis and centrifuges.

Finally, he highlights one of the most interesting theories I have heard in a long time about high alcohol wines: it's all about the rootstock. Some recent research at UC Davis has pointed to the possibility that the newer Phyloxerra resistant rootstocks that were widely planted in the mid-1980's are partially responsible for higher alcohol wines because of their tendency to produce grapes with higher sugar content at ripening.

I'm sure Robert Parker is sighing in relief to know that the trend in higher alcohol wines isn't his fault after all, and is merely a matter of plant biology. In all seriousness, though, this is a pretty intriguing theory. Unfortunately the article doesn't have enough information about the specific rootstock clones that might contribute to this effect and whether these clones are also in use, say, in Australia, which also has seen massive jumps in alcohol levels.

Comments (7)

brett wrote:
04.20.06 at 9:37 AM

Well unfortunately (for many, apparently) I'm one of those people who enjoy high-alcohol, food-fiend wines (as opposed to food-freindly).

When I spend say $30 for a bottle, which to me is a significant chunk of change, I want it to be something rich and thick that I can just sit down and drink without accompaniment. I sip wine with a meal, then drink the rest of my glass or two AFTERWARDS. For the price I'm paying, I want the wine to be it's own experience. To dilute its flavors with food is to waste my money and time spent selecting the bottle.

I realize the perfect food and wine pairing can be magical. But I prefer to just find a wine that by itself is magical and enjoy it by itself. Having the right PEOPLE around to share it makes it exquisite. Having the right FOOD around is fairly meaningless in my book.

Alder wrote:
04.20.06 at 9:43 AM


Thanks for the comments. It's all about what YOU like. I think there are probably a lot of people out there who share your taste and your preferences. While wine snobs may raise their noses at such sentiments, there's nothing wrong with them.

Brett wrote:
04.20.06 at 11:07 AM

Agreed Brett (as one Brett to another), at that price I don't like to risk losing the nuances that make the wine special. In fact I find that wines of $30 and over are often imbued with flavors that don't co-exist with food so well anyway.

lars wrote:
04.20.06 at 12:10 PM

Fascinating series, especially the second article and its coverage of Vinovation. Their process of "tuning" seems very similar to craft of blending. Actually, I'm not sure why there is a stigma attached to alcohol removal given the amount of processing and manipulation that already takes place in the wine industry. Gray says that minor differences in alcohol content make for big differences in taste; wouldn't it be interesting to sample a flight of the same wine at different alcohol percentages?

The Vinovation website itself is full of inside info. A quote: "We consider the distinction between viticulture and enology to be a sad and foolish invention of 20th century academia."

Trish wrote:
04.20.06 at 8:40 PM

I thought this was a pretty great series of stories, too. The one about rootstocks caught my eye, and I posted about it, too. I think your first comment here from Brett is pretty indicative of how most people (Americans, anyway) feel about high alcohol levels.

As evidence, I've served Toad Hollow's Risque at several parties, and people always love it, but once they get ahold of the bottle and see the alcohol content (6 percent), they scoff. Well, not scoff really; they're more polite than that. :) I don't get it, but it's got this stigma as a kiddie wine.

Raaj wrote:
02.05.09 at 9:10 AM

Alcohol recovery for the alcoholic is possible and it is important to know that alcohol abuse is a symptom of an underlying problem and it is good to know that getting an individual to stop drinking alcohol many times is the easy part of the recovery process. When a person is in alcohol recovery the most difficult part can sometimes be learning how to be happy once again, without the use of alcohol.
Alcoholism Information

11.21.14 at 11:03 PM

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work and coverage! Keep up the amazing works guys I've included you guys to our blogroll.

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