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03.25.2008

Stop Whining About High Alcohol Wines

It's time for my fellow journalists, winemakers, and opinionated wine lovers to stop whining about high alcohol wines. Along with so called "green" wines, this bandwagon of opinions is the topic du jour for wine journalists and wine personalities around the country, and in addition to being tiresome, it is just plan silly.

Complaining about alcohol levels in wines is ridiculous for 5 main reasons.

REASON #1 - Alcohol is Not the Sensation People Dislike

Apart from the people who are just complaining that they want their wine to be less alcoholic so they can drink more (whom I address below), most people seem to be complaining about alcohol levels in wine as if the percent of alcohol by volume %ABV is directly correlated to a wine tasting good or not. Of course many put subtler points on their arguments and mention words like "balance" and "heat" but at the end of the day, most people seem to be blaming alcohol levels in wine for characteristics of wine that are only correlated with alcohol levels, not caused by them.

Of course some people dislike wines with a "hot" finish, or that are unbalanced in favor of ripe fruit. But that is not the fault of alcohol levels. In fact, it's quite possible to have those characteristics in wines that don't exceed the "sanity" threshold that so many "anti-high-alc" advocates set somewhere (you'd think all these people who are so religious about this issue could agree) between 14% and 14.5% ABV.


REASON #2 - "High Alcohol" Wines Can Be Great Wines

There are plenty of excellent, balanced wines being made by great winemakers that exceed the 14% alcohol levels that many deem too high for "good" wine. I've reviewed a lot of them favorably. So have a lot of other critics -- even those who are now complaining so loudly about alcohol levels in wine. The idea that wines "clocking in" at 14.6% or even 15% alcohol are all "monstrosities" is patently absurd, and also insulting to hundreds of talented winemakers around the globe.

Everyone also seems quick to slam high alcohol wines as not age worthy. Frankly, I haven't seen anyone provide definitive data on this subject, and there are plenty of higher alcohol wines (Ports, Sherries, etc) that might prove otherwise. Not to mention what some consider to be the single greatest wine in the world. The alcohol level of the "ageless" 1947 Cheval Blanc? 14.4% ABV.

REASON #3 - Most People Can't Tell

I'd bet good money that most (say 95% of) wine consumers, even those who buy wines in the "super premium" $20 and above categories pay absolutely no attention to the alcohol levels in their wine when they buy it. And furthermore, they couldn't possibly tell you, if tasting a bunch of wines, which ones had higher alcohol and which ones didn't. Which is to say that 99% of the time, they wouldn't even notice that a wine they happened to be drinking was 15.2% alcohol.

As far as I can see it, a large part of this "issue" consists of a minority of wine lovers proselytizing their own preferences for low alcohol wines (which they have every right to) on the rest of the world who, frankly, have about as much idea what they are talking about as I do when the Jehovah's Witnesses stop by my house on a Saturday morning.


REASON #4 - Most People Don't Actually Care About Food Friendliness

Even if most wine drinkers did know that their wine was high in alcohol, they couldn't care less. Have you ever noticed how many people drink martinis and mojitos and cosmopolitans with their food? Clearly Americans could give a rats ass about whether their drinks make their food taste better and vice versa. Clearly this is disappointing for those of use who enjoy the occasions when a great wine can make a meal that much more exciting, but we are a minority of the wine drinking public and the wine buying market.

Plus, don't get me started on all those who say high alcohol wines don't pair with food, and then drink port and sherry with their dinners. As I've said recently, dictates about what goes with what are a load of bunk.

Those who say they need wine to be less alcoholic so they can drink more wine need to simply stop buying higher alcohol wines. It's as simple as that. I have to scratch my head when I hear people complaining that they're drunk by the end of the bottle. If you don't want to get drunk people, the best way is to drink less alcohol.


REASON #5 - We're Not Going To Hell In a High-Alcohol Hand Basket

Alarmists like to cite the globally rising alcohol levels in wine. Some studies from Australia apparently pinpoint the average alcohol levels in wine there to be around 12.8% in the 1970s and now around 14.5%. Anyone used to consuming older wines, even occasionally, will certainly have anecdotal evidence that this is true.

OK. Well.... so what? The idea that the 1970's was the golden age of California (or any other New World region) winemaking is ridiculous, as anyone who actually tasted a lot of those wines will tell you. While there certainly were people making decent wine back then, a lot of it was crap.

I'm personally not sure why these alcohol levels are going up, but I am sure that it is probably due to a number of different factors, many of which were illuminated by winemaker Clark Smith in an excellent article on the subject this past September.

Chief among these, I believe, is simply the fact that most people (i.e. the market) actually are buying higher alcohol wines more, because.... wait for it... they like the way they taste. And no, it's not Parker's fault. As Smith correctly points out in his article, Parker rates low alcohol wines very highly as well.

Which is why winemakers whose wines are "big" (and often higher in alcohol) tend to sell better. People just want to buy them. And if winemakers want to feed their families and be able to afford health care in retirement, they need to make wines that sell.

Ah, the joys of capitalism. Wine lovers complaining about all those high alcohol wines in the world are sort of like smokers who like to bitch about the fact that they can't smoke on planes anymore. When the market demand gets high enough, things shift.

But that doesn't mean that just because there is preponderance of demand in the marketplace for bigger, boozier wines, low alcohol wines with finesse are somehow under threat.

To suggest as much would require you to also believe that just because the most popular wine in America is White Zinfandel that all those Cabernet producers in Napa are in danger of being pressured to make pink wines.

No, people just need to stop whining and go out and buy the wines they love. And expect everyone else to do the same. Trying to "educate" consumers by telling them they're wrong to like big wines is as stupid as trying to tell winemakers they're wrong for making wines that they (and consumers) love.

Sure it's fine to try to make better wine at lower alcohol levels if that's what you want to do. Sure it's fine to only want to drink wines like that. But for pete's sake people, let's find something better to whine about.

Any suggestions? While you're thinking about it, I'm going to go drink a nice 12.5% Chinon, and then finish my evening with a Turley Zinfandel.

Comments (50)

03.25.08 at 11:55 PM

Wait a minute, Alder?! Are you the new owner of Alban Vineyards?

Arthur wrote:
03.26.08 at 12:18 AM

Alder, Clark's article gives a historical account of picking grapes at much lower potential alcohols than is now the standard.
It makes no sense to cite an article that disproves your contention.

Rajiv wrote:
03.26.08 at 3:44 AM

I totally agree, Alder!

I've had 14.5% wines that carried it gracefully, and 12% wines that tasted hot. Alcohol levels are one dimension in the vintners' toolbox. Clamoring for lower levels is like musicians clamoring that too many F-sharps are being used.

Ok, that was a horrendous analogy, but the point is, there should be no absolutes. High alcohol by itself is not bad or unrefined (um... Port anyone?).

Now back to my 12.5 St-Nicolas-de-Bourgeil.

Erika wrote:
03.26.08 at 5:30 AM

I would also have to agree. Just finished a 15.2% Zin from CA. Couldn't have been more balanced.

Tish wrote:
03.26.08 at 6:58 AM

Alder,

THis is another hot-button issue that is bound to stick around for a while. I agree for the most part that high alcohol per se is not a bad thing. And in the past I have criticized critics who bash the alcohol level only. Yes, balance is the mutual goal of the wine maker and drinker, and alcohol alone can't

However, I disagree that alcohol is not a sensation. Forget about "heat." In my experience, a wine's heat can vary drastically based on context of a wine's own temperature and what else one is drinking and eating. More salient is the way hat alcohol is perceived as "fruit." I refer to George Vierra's experiement, reported in Wine Business Monthly a few years back, in which he set up a taste trial for walk-in customers in a Napa wine shop.

Visitors to Back Room Wines (who were presumably on the wine-savvy side in terms of experience) in Napa were given two samples of wine. The samples were exactly the same, except that one had been fortified with as dash of pure, 191-proof neutral grape spirits, raising its alcohol by volume from 13.1 to 13.6%. Participants were then asked one of two questions: which wine had “more fruit flavor” or which had “more body.” Among those asked the first question, 77% said the boosted sample was fruitier. Among tasters asked the second question, 94% said the 13.6% sample had more body. So, even though pure alcohol is essentially flavorless, even a relatively small difference has a significant, if subconscious, impact on drinkers, leading them to perceive higher-alcohol wines as having both more fruit and more body.

Again, this is not necessarily good or bad, but it is real. In the big picture it points out the increasing importance of discussing wines as a function of STYLE, asmuch as a matter of grapes, regions and technical composition.

It is also worth noting here, as I and others have before, that higher-alcohol wines consistently crowd the top tier of wines rated 95+ points. This is another chronic flaw in the 100-point system in general, as wines that are simply incapable of reaching high levels of extract and alcohol are relegated to second-class status, no matter how fine they are as examples of their type. As things work now, the upshot is that high-alc wines become deified as "better" than lower-alc, lower-rated wines. That's bunk and all of us in the industry who give more than lip service to the "trust your own taste" mantra need to dispatch of this nonsense.

Alder wrote:
03.26.08 at 7:02 AM

Arthur,

I'm not contending in any way that alcohol levels have not gone up in the last decades. It's clear they have, and Clark's article nicely reviews a number of factors that clearly influenced this.

Perhaps you're missing my point? There's a chicken little syndrome out there about high-alcohol wines that I think has very little bearing on the average consumer, and has very little utility for the wine world as a whole.

ryan wrote:
03.26.08 at 7:10 AM

Thanks for saying it...Last year when I posted on this I got some pretty nasty responses. Balance is key and if you don't like it don't drink it!

Alder wrote:
03.26.08 at 7:33 AM

Tish,

So... yes, alcohol influences the taste of wines. I've participated in what are known as "sweet spot" tastings very much like the "experiment" you site with George Vierra. For a given wine, all other things being equal varying the alcohol level only DEFINITELY changes the perception of the wine. Of course, that's a purely lab setting, and a single wine, and the results for tasters are not that they actually taste the alcohol, as you point out, but that other elements of the wine seem different.

This is tricky, and perhaps you're right to bust me for this one. Glycerine is certainly often higher in high-alcohol wines, and that is a sensation.... But my point is that alcohol level alone does not determine a wine's sensory qualities, nor its overall quality.

Arthur wrote:
03.26.08 at 11:04 AM

Alder, one of you contentions is that "we're not going to hell in a hand basket". I that were the case, Clark's Vinovation would not be in business.

I agree with Tish that alcohol can be perceived - not necessarily as a flavor per se. If it didn't make a difference, then, again, Vinovation would not exist (nor would they have the volume of work Clark reports they do).

I have tasted and reviewed wines with stunningly high alcohol levels. I agree that one wine can carry a 16% AVZ and another can succumb to a 12.5% ABV. But more on this later.

Alcohol levels DO affect a wine's food friendliness, they can make spices flare and deaden the senses to more subtle flavors. With high alcohol comes excessive ripeness and high amounts of oak which make the wine lack freshness and smother the food instead of creating a synergy. I also agree with people like Asimov who say that higher levels of alcohol limit the amount of a wine they can enjoy. I want to drink a wine for its aromatic, flavor and textural intricacies – with and without food. I can’t do that if I get bomber after a couple of glasses.

All this being said, the fundamental issue here is NOT %ABV. It is excessive ripeness. Attendant to that is: lowered acids (higher pH), higher must weight (sugar content, which results in greater %ABV and more RS, never mind stuck fermentations), greater uptake of oak vanillins which tends to happen with higher pH and %ABV, phenolic development that is verging on or past the peak and looses varietal typicity.

I have proposed before that since words and language frame our thinking, we use another word or term to refer to the wines at hand, which not only have high alc, but also low acids, high pH, are excessively ripe and lack typicity and do not age well. I proposed the tem “progeric wines” to a wine maker who has been a big proponent of wines which are the antithesis of the current style. The concept seemed to resonate with him.

Arthur wrote:
03.26.08 at 11:17 AM

Oops, typo, make that: "I agree that one wine can carry a 16% ABV"

Morton Leslie wrote:
03.26.08 at 11:36 AM

I think people only started whining when the Wine Spectator crowned a 16% alcohol Merlot with residual sugar and VA "Wine of the Year." The whining came from the fact that it had become virtually impossible to get a high score on a 13% alcohol Cabernet unless you were a "rock star" winemaker and Parker was tasting the wine out of the barrel next to you in your cellar. Unfortunately people buy and try what they are told is good. And people learn to appreciate what they are told is good even if their senses are saying the opposite. We learn to appreciate Scotch and Bourbon though our first inclination early on is not to swallow the stuff. We work at it and finally learn to appreciate it. Same with high alcohol wines that we are told are superior. They are sipping wines like spirits.
This is not a problem for people who are newer to the wine business do not realize the diversity in wine that has been lost over the last three decades. You probably have never tasted a 13% alcohol Zin, bright and briary, aged in neutral cooperage and given some bottle age. Many like you say this is good. For my part, I have just lost interest in these mainstream wines and seek out obscure wines from obscure regions and obscure varieties. At least I get a degree of diversity.

I blame score focused journalists who have far more say in what we drink than they deserve for their knowlege and experience. They don't educate about diversity. Instead they publicize their tasting contests where size always matters. Few would even know what a contrast error is.

Recently I enjoyed a bottle of 1968 BV Private Reserve, 12.1% alcohol. Beautiful color, distinctive Cabernet aroma, soft succulent finish. A wine that would receive little attention today if tasted in its youth, but few of today's wines will match forty years from now. I know this because I made 15% alcohol Cabernets in the 1970's and I know how they have developed in my cellar. Yes, they do age like port. They smell a little like port... bad port... without the silky sweet finish or the complex aromas of the pot distillate.

When I tell this to people like you, you look at me like I am a dinosaur. I take that as a complement and I can say that this dinosaur has a cellar that is lot more interesting than your closet of today's high alcohol wines.

Arthur wrote:
03.26.08 at 11:52 AM

Morton,

You have put the evolution of the American palate in very succinct terms.

How do you feel about the notion that Parker (and laube) not so much dictate tastes (er... preferences) as they validate th neophyte's preference for bigger, softer wines?

Paul Sharp wrote:
03.26.08 at 1:46 PM

Morton’s made a very good point. While High alcohol wines don’t worry me, blind tasting and large-scale comparative tastings do. This is for the reason they favour a bigger, high impact wines (often high alcohol). Not that there is really anything that wrong with these wines but, these judging methods do significantly favour them over more delicate and possibly more complex wines.

The additional issue is these competitions despite being subjective are presented as authoritative and while helpful don’t encourage consumers to develop their own tastes

Jeff wrote:
03.26.08 at 2:02 PM

What bugs me, personally, is when a wine just tastes like vodka dumped into an unbalanced wine.

High alcohol or low alcohol, both can be good. Aren't most things a matter of perspective anyways?

Arthur wrote:
03.26.08 at 2:56 PM

Jeff: "Aren't most things a matter of perspective anyways"

The answer is "Yes", but only if you have a lot of wine to move or don't want to be held to account for the recommendations you make.

Alder wrote:
03.26.08 at 3:39 PM

Morton,

The problem I have with the points you make, which I hear a lot of wine connoiseuers make (many of whom are close friends) is that they really are just your particular preferences. This is my main problem with all the highly vocal folks who are pushing this issue today. There are lots of people out there who feel completely the opposite, and this whole discussion VERY quickly gets into the sort of insinuations you are making in your comments, which is essentially that you know more about wine than I do (which may very well be true) or than most critics and journalists do (which is quite a claim) and that your taste in wines is better/more sophisticated/right and anyone who enjoys 15% alcohol wines is wrong.

I wasn't a wine drinker 30 years ago, so I can't argue with your opinion, but for every person like you who bemoans "a loss of diversity" I know a wine professional who will say just the opposite -- that there are many more variety and styles of wines being made in California (and around the world) than there were 30 years ago. Not to mention that the average quality of those wines, even the crappy $8 ones is much much higher than it's ever been.

I don't consider you a dinosaur - your point of view is shared by several of my closest wine drinking buddies, and my wine reviews here should indicate that we certainly have some overlap in our tastes in wine (e.g. my review of a 1974 Krug Cabernet, recently). I'd appreciate you avoiding insinuations about my experiences and my cellar, which you know very little about.

LV wrote:
03.26.08 at 3:54 PM

I'm amazed that no one has commented on hotter growing seasons and overall rise in global temperatures as a reason for higher alcohol. I don't think winemakers want to make higher alcohol wines - but truth is, if the fruit in the vineyard isn't ready at 24 degrees bricks - you have to weigh alcohol vs. physiological ripeness. Would people rather have winemakers water-back or add more processing by using reverse osmosis? And if a wine is balanced - no matter what the alcohol is - why should it matter? It just means people need to drink less. Over-consumption by the American public isn't anything new, but I have faith that people can limit themselves.

Alder wrote:
03.26.08 at 3:54 PM

Paul,

The fact that consumers prefer to be told what to drink rather than figure it out themselves is most distinctly not the result of journalists, critics, or big wine competitions. There is ONE and ONLY ONE reason that any of these people can make a living, that wine contests can actually make money and continue to be put on, and that numeric scores exist for wines. Because wine drinkers want them.

Unless you're prepared to claim that marketplace economics is a figment of imagination, then you must admit that all of these things can only continue to exist, and can only have the influence they do because people are willing to pay for them.

None of us can change that any more than we can affect the tides. Which means railing against the scoring system, contests, journalists, and critics is useless.

Incidentally, these same forces (i.e consumer desire) are responsible for the increased production of high-alcohol wines. Which is the point of this whole commentary.

Alder wrote:
03.26.08 at 3:58 PM

Arthur,

Actually, unless you are claiming a monopoly on the truth, then things are most certainly ALWAYS a matter of perspectice. Doesn't nueroscience tell us as much? Our perceptions are determined not by "reality" but by our own neural structures and how they are (or are not) capable of processing the sensory data which flows through them.

Alder wrote:
03.26.08 at 4:02 PM

Mar,

While pretty much no one disputes that global warming is occurring, there's a lot of debate as to its effects on grape ripening and alcohol levels. Global warming doesn't mean everywhere that grows grapes is getting hotter.

A lot of people think that new farming techniques, including rootstocks, etc. are actually much more influential than climate.

Arthur wrote:
03.26.08 at 4:16 PM

LV

Yes, global warming exists. However, when I see winemaker X make a Bien Nacido Pinot Noir from one block and Winemaker Y makes a Bien Nacido Pin to Noir from an adjacent block and in the same year and the main differences are the picking dates AND the wine picked later is hotter, it becomes clear that global warming is not all to blame.

This issue of potential alcohol extends into not only picking dates but the way the grapes are grown and the way the canopy is managed. CERTAINLY you will see vintage variation. But to blame the rise of alcohol levels on 1-2 degree increase in DAYTIME temperatures in coastal regions subject to marine cooling effects at night is just making excuses.

Arthur wrote:
03.26.08 at 4:53 PM

Alder, I am not claiming a monopoly on the truth. I am asserting, however, that certain things are invariably true and absolute – whether one decides to acknowledge them as such or not.

Neuroscience tells us two things (and it seems that you are not seeing the distinction between them): there is an absolute and objective nature of things and there is a subjective assessment of things. The two can be separated and the key lies in being an informed sensory observer.

So if one tastes a Cabernet and reports that is smells of plums and chocolate and oozes vanilla and calls its mouth feel or texture soft and rich, then one is objectively recognizing the characteristics of the wine, as they are inherent to the wine and do not change. Neuroscience tells us that we can reproducibly do this. There is not this variability between people that would prevent two people from arriving at the same sensory findings from the same wine. Furthermore, neuroscience tells us that we can be *trained* to recognize smell we initially could not detect.

When one fails to acknowledge that those aromas and textures (above) are the hallmarks of overripe fruit, low acidity and excessive use of new oak and that these do not bode well for longevity and give the wine a high score/recommendation, one is not only making a personal subjective judgment (on an enjoyment basis), but one also fails to tell their audience that the wine is over-ripe and over-oaked and that, while it may have its appeal in the immediate, it is not going to do well in the cellar. The full text of a recent CalTech study which I sent you (and about which you later blogged) actually points this out. The authors say that activity in the primary centers associated with smell and taste was not affected by the suggested price of the wine and the only area to be affected was one which is associated with a multitude of function, only one of them being general enjoyment. The authors then discuss this and say that there is a supervening process that [unless one is aware of it] modulates our [somewhat emotion-related, enjoyment and preference based] response to the raw sensory information [which we are all capable of perceiving and understanding] delivered to our brains and ultimately our consciousness. The implication here is that one CAN separate personal enjoyment from objective findings in a wine and then make a judgment about the wine based on standards not based on their personal preference. This was my contention in a discussion to at least two previous topics you wrote about.

Whenever we get on this topic, it seems people think that those with my position are trying to bully people into liking the same wines we do. That is not the case. By contending that we are not all that varied in our physiology, I am telling people that they CAN learn to assess wine on their own and they also CAN learn what their sensory findings mean about the wine at hand. This also means that we can consistently and reliably communicate about a wine’s character and, armed with an understanding of the implications of the wine’s character, make far better and independent decisions. So in the end if one decides to blow $100 or more on the super-ripe, over-oaked cult Napa Cab (or Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir), they will know how long they can expect to keep it in their cellar (whatever shape that may take). They will also know what to expect when they pair that very wine with oysters or with chocolate cake and why each of the pairings gives its respective experience.

Paul Sharp wrote:
03.26.08 at 4:54 PM

You should also add to that list of factors affecting alcohol, improved trellising techniques, reduced crop loading, green harvesting, better disease control, etc

Alder, I think your furiously agreeing with me.

Consumer demand for simple choices (understandable as wine is exceedingly complicated with a huge degree of choice) leads to competitions shows, medals 100 point scales etc, to simplify the choice, which leads to wines that do well in these events.

You might want to argue that this leads to people acquiring a taste for these types of wines in the first instance but I think that would be assuming too much.

Generally most people I meet go through stages of evolving their wine taste. I have rarely seen anyone who has stuck too one particular style throughout there life as a wine buyer. Often people get very keen on the big alcohol, big fruit, and competition wines in the beginning, but gradually move into other things over the years as they get to experience a broader array of styles. This of course benefits the producing community as whole.


Mark Fisher wrote:
03.26.08 at 5:30 PM

Sorry, Alder, not buying it. I've had too many palate experiences lately that contradict your defense of high-alcohol wines. A very recent Araujo full-vertical tasting for starters, in which the high-alcohol 2003 and 2004 stood out like sore thumbs compared to all of the vintages from 1991-2002 in their hot, short finishes. Too many central-coast syrahs and pinots of high alcohol levels that fell apart quickly rather than aging gracefully. Too many high-scoring wines that admittedly taste broad and powerful at first sip, but grow tiresome quickly, and devolve rather than evolve in the glass. Right now, I'm firmly in the anti-high-alcohol camp, not because of peer pressure or because I want to be trendy, but because that's what my palate is telling me. No doubt, I'll find exceptions -- these wine debates are never black-and-white, no matter how hard we try to make them so. But the pendulum has swung too far, and it needs to swing back. I think winemakers know it, and consumers know it, and I think that correction has already begun.

kevin phillips wrote:
03.26.08 at 5:34 PM

wow. a knowledgeable wine drinker who actually knows whats he is talking about. how refreshing. something alot of people may not know is that alcohol percentages are directly related to grape sugar content which is directly related to crop load. basically if you propertly thin and control your crop you can ripen easier and faster obtaining optimum level sugars. the new reich wine writers suggesting that big alcohols are bad are basically advocating sloppy farming and high crop loads which lead to low sugars and therefore low alcohols. its a conspiracy to advocate bad french and napa wines.

Alder wrote:
03.26.08 at 5:49 PM

Arthur,

It's not physiological variability in sensory apparatus that results in two people interpreting the same sensory inputs in completely different ways, it is our own particular experiences and biases (which have physical manifestation in our neural structures) that do.

Cabernet doesn't TASTE like anything, right? Cabernet has lots of molecules in it of a certain kind. THAT is the objective truth. Those molecules fit into certain receptors in people's sensory organs. THAT is objective truth. But what we "SENSE" after that is completely dependent upon our own personal neural structures. Someone who has never had chocolate or vanilla in their lives will most certainly NOT think that a Cabernet tastes of those things. Of course, our senses can be trained, but the very fact that they are trainable should suggest that they are so inherently subjective that for anyone to assert with certainty that a wine is "Good" or a wine is "Bad" is ridiculous.

Perspective is all there is. Sure, we can share it, and we can change it, but that's all there is.

Arthur wrote:
03.26.08 at 5:53 PM

Kevin

But you are not entirely correct. Things are not that linear. Firstly, most of the current wine farming methodologies are adaptations of those that work best in France - which is 'sun-starved' (let’s just use that general term for the sake of the discussion). California is not and thinning a canopy (as you would in Burgundy or Bordeaux) shifts the respiratory burden to the grape skins (all in a mad effort to avoid pyrazines, the boogeymen of modern wine) lowering their TA, increasing pH and pushing phenolics to a stage of development where they begin to loose varietal typicity in the finished wine. It also exposes the grapes to burn and raisining. Sugar content has a limit - an osmotic gradient. That is why red must weight bumps a point or two in the fermenter as raisined grapes release their sugar into the solution. These factors, along with putting scion on rootstock whose vigor does not balance the vine as a whole plant, contribute to the emrgence of ‘monster wines’.
Another unspoken cause is the fact that wine grapes are typically sold by the ton. Grapes left longer on the vine will weigh less owing to dessication. Thus you get more bang for your buck (in so many ways). It’s only convenient that the critics and the public tend to respond positively to the resulting wines as the cost to produce has been lowered and, thanks to the hype, the prices have gone up.

There is still much to be learned about tannin management and physiological maturation of grapes and I suspect the notion of “physiological ripeness” will be greatly revised if not completely redefined or abandoned.

Alder wrote:
03.26.08 at 6:04 PM

Mark,

I'm actually not attempting to defend high alcohol wines, many of which I dislike intensely. I'm merely pointing out the silliness of attacking them as some sort of blight on winemaking culture, and implying that they portend some looming doom for the wine industry unless people stop producing them.

Arthur wrote:
03.26.08 at 6:09 PM

Alder,

You are re-phrasing my argument with the general sense preserved, but I see, by the conclusion you reach, that you do not realize it.

I am able to see your philosophical reference, but I do not agree with it. Unfortunately, the wine is itself - invariably. To characterize it in terms of one’s enjoyment of it focuses on the enjoyer and not the wine and, by that filter, prevents one from knowing its true essence.

Tish wrote:
03.26.08 at 8:51 PM

Fascinating bunch of ideas. Proof again that your blog attracts the wine world's best and brightest. Two points to add:

1) I think the biggest danger, as alluded to by Morton, is that the trend toward highe alcohol is robbing our overall universe of diversity. I have no quibble with consciously built high-octane "sipping" wines; but I pause before buying table wine that is 14+% ABV.

2)At the risk of stoking up conspiracy talk, does anyone recall the proposition Randy Dunn issued last summer in his "open letter" re high-alcohol wines? He basically said that wine magazines should list alcohol in their reviews. For me, this is a nugget of genius. Is there any possible reason why Wine Spectator and all the others shouldn't do this? I raised this very point to James Laube, commenting on a post he made re Dunn's letter. He ignored me, so I made it again. Next thing I know, I was booted off the Spectator boards (an odd badge of honor, to be sure).

Laube's point in his post was that listing alcohol levels would be unfair because they are by nature imprecise (variance of up to 1.5% under 14% Abv; 1% over 14%, if I recall correctly). I said (and still say), SO WHAT? THe numbers on the labels are legal measurements and they are all we have to go by as consumers. Given that magazines list various other data, why not the ABV percentage?...

Here is why: doing so would bring sunshine pouring down on the fact that the highest rated wines are often at the high end in alcohol. And that would make them look less like critics of magaical palate acumen and more like humans who favor bigger=better, high-impact wines. And it would cast aspersions over the entire scoring mess.

Back to the conspiracy theory, does anyone out there think American wine mags are going to start showing alcohol percentages any time soon?

Arthur wrote:
03.26.08 at 8:57 PM

Tish,

I agree 100% with you on both of your points.
I include ABV and price point in my reviews.

Alder wrote:
03.26.08 at 9:28 PM

Tish,

I would love for someone, just once, to provide hard facts about this "homogenaeity argument." Because I think it's B.S.

I'm going out on a limb here, but I'd be willing to bet that if you look at today compared with whatever date between 1930 and 1990 someone chooses as their "golden age of California wine" that:

1. There are more wineries
2. Making many more different varietals
3. From many more different locations/terroirs
4. Of a higher quality

And I secretly wonder that there might even be more individual wines produced under 14% alcohol today than there were in that year.

Can someone actually dig up facts to prove that once upon a time in Napa during, say, the 1970s there were hundreds more producers making wines of distinction under 14% alcohol than there are today?

03.26.08 at 11:06 PM

Some things about this strike me.

First, you say alcohol isn't a sensation, but you only cite heat and fruit, which I view as orthogonal. Alcohol adds weight and a sense of sweetness: You recommend Peynaud's book, and he argues that point with lab results.

Most consumers don't notice or don't care. True dat, but then shouldn't we all stop whining about great wines that the average consumer may not care about or may never taste? Critics serve a role, though the box office results for Spider-Man 3 might make one ponder the role they play.

Most people don't care about wine and food. That's true (though that argues against your earlier point that they've been trained to care), but then you say "Even if most wine drinkers did know that their wine was high in alcohol, they couldn't care less. Have you ever noticed how many people drink martinis and mojitos and cosmopolitans with their food? " So are you arguing that cocktails aren't good with food? How does that tie into your argument about alcohol not being a sensation? Doesn't that argue for critics to whine about high-alc wines if they don't go with food? And if cocktails aren't the best match, as you imply, doesn't that suggest that there are rules for pairing, despite your earlier post?

Tish wrote:
03.27.08 at 5:48 AM

Arthur, bravo! I have have visited redwinebuzz.com before but had forgotten you always include the ABV.

Derrick, very succinct and logical. The wine critic's role is still a shapeshifter; critics can and should say what they think is "the right way," even when there are obviously many ways to skin the wine cat.

Alder, your point is well taken, but I think comparisons would not work because there are simply so many more SKUs today, and the global selection available here is so much broader. You may well be right about the homogeneity argument, but surveys of both Napa and AUstralia (those are two I know of) have found higher average alcohol levels today vs. 10/20 years ago.

FOllowing one of Derrick's points, people absolutely do care about alcohol. It will be interesting to see how the ABV level issue shakes out once formal FDA-style nutritional labeling evnetually reaches wine bottles (within two years, I'd guess). ABV will no longer be semi-hidden fine print. I think it is going to raise mainstream consciousness about alcohol faster that you can say "60 Minutes."

In the meantime, I still think any magazine that purports to have a buying guide owes it to readers to include ABV data in their reviews. That is a no brainer.

Erwin Dink wrote:
03.27.08 at 5:50 AM

Citing high alcohol is a kind of short hand - it isn't just the alcohol content that we're complaining about but also the accompanying heavy fruit, sugar, etc. It's a style of wine that has lost any sense of subtlety.

I read labels when shopping. I often look at alcohol content when buying wines. Why is it that it's become difficult to find any red wine that has less then 14% or higher alcohol? Whites, too, seem to be consistently above 13.5%. I used to be able to buy French for something more moderate in temperament but even those are now tending to be bigger and heavier than I recall.

You can say it's not the alcohol, per se, that's the problem but it's a convenient focal point as a dominant characteristic of a modern style. I've never written a creed about this (not qualified by any stretch) and I don't have any of the few I've seen handy but I'm pretty sure it isn't only the pure alcohol content that is being lambasted but a broader range of characteristics with high alcohol being a resulting factor - not so much a cause as an indicator.

Alder wrote:
03.27.08 at 7:16 AM

Derrick,

Thanks for the comments.

See my comments to Tish regarding alcohol and glycerine. My main point was that the qualities of high alcohol wines that most complain about are not solely due to alcohol, but perhaps I need to just retract that whole #1 reason altogether.

Yes, consumers don't notice or care. Yes, the "critic's" job is to get them to care, or to talk to them as if they care. But the critic also has the responsibility to understand WHY Spider Man 3 is so popular, and not simply whine about how movies with lots of special effects are ruining Hollywood, to continue the analogy.

I don't think I said people have been trained to care, I said people's sensory skills are trainable.

I'm certainly not arguing that cocktails aren't good with food. I'm making the point that one of the chief objections of the anti-alcohol camp is that a high alcohol wines don't pair well with food, simply by virtue of their alcohol level. I cite cocktails as an example of how people seem to drink high levels of alcohol with their meals frequently and have a perfectly good time, which seems to me to undermine the notion that for most people these higher alcohol wines mean a less enjoyable dinner. For some people, that may be true, but that's much more a personal perspective than it is a universal truth. I've found personally that SOME high alcohol wines don't enhance SOME things I eat (e.g. Beef Vindaloo) but I don't extrapolate that to the notion that somehow it's becoming harder for me to pair wines with my dinner these days because so many wines are higher in alcohol.

Alder wrote:
03.27.08 at 7:43 AM

Erwin,

Thanks for the comments. Here's the rub. If you're prepared to admit that alcohol isn't the problem, then you're prepared to admit that it's possible to make high quality wines at higher alcohol levels that are perfectly enjoyable. Once you're able to admit this, then really all you have to argue about is that some winemakers make imbalanced wines, and this isn't some massive trend that we all need to be scared about, it's just some people who need to learn to make better wines, which is ALWAYS true.

Steve wrote:
03.27.08 at 8:40 AM

I drink a bottle of wine everyday with dinner for years. The type of
wine all depends on what I'm eating. In France and Italy, it's
very common and children see wine as just another food at the dinner
table.

With experience, high alcohol wines do have their place at the table,
but they are the least flexible when it comes to enjoying wine with
food. People like Darrel Corti and Adam Tolmach got it right.
Corti understood this with his visits to Italy and now won't carry
the big wines in his store. Tolmach says he
got his Parker scores with his monster wines, but now wants to make
wines like the ones he actually collects and drinks... Burgundy.

Morton Leslie wrote:
03.27.08 at 2:30 PM

Sorry about my comment on your cellar. I was only angry at you calling me a whiner. Let me make it a little clearer.

When I was a young winemaker learning about the nuances and difficulties of dealing with weather, grape composition and fine winemaking and making table wines...table wines defined by the range in alcohol and qualities of the fine wines of Europe that had graced tables for centuries... I was the winemaker for a small Napa Valley winery taken over by a large corporate spirits company. They hired a brand new head of R&D/Quality Control formerly a similar position at Pepperidge Farms. After learning all about the wine business in a month or two he called us all together and announced his epiphany. The biggest problem we faced, he said, was that we were making wine from grapes. All of our problems in creating uniform wines to numerical standards (his vision of wine quality) were caused by the wide range and fluctuation in compositon of the raw material. As idiotic as this sounds, we're talking the about the view of an intelligent person from a good company that made a quality product to very tight standards. Naturally I battled with this idea. I liked diversity. I loved the fact that wines were not the same every year and they were unpredictable in many senses. Quality to me was a variable and there were many attractive facets to wine and the challenge to me was controlling it just enough to always put something in the bottle that represented the region, the vintage, and the grape variety.

Fast forward thirty years. Fine wine is a different thing and that VP of Quality Control from Pepperidge Farms turned out to be right. The solution for the winemaker was to let the grapes sit on the vine until they were partially raisined. The phrase "hang time" was given to this practice. This guaranteed several things.

1. There would be no green or "undesireable varietal characteristics.
2. There would also not be distinctive and desireable varietal characteristics, but who would notice this? Parker? Laube?
3. Everything from the grape would be extracted and since the grape was raisined some of the bitter elements from the seeds would be less dominant.
4. Though acids would be high and pH's low in the raisined grapes, when water was added back acids would be as low as possible and pH's much higher.(When adding water back you would pay close attention to the alcohol-acid-tannin balance..often finding higher alcohols covered up and excessive extraction of phenolics.)
5. If adding water wasn't your bag, or the acids and tannins weren't out of line there was the cone or RO. (Note how huge and successful the companies selling this equipment or offering custom "adjustments" have become.)
6. What to do about the missing varietal character? Well, if it is young there are some fermentation esters, and a fruity, pruney grape character, and ethyl alcohol has a nice sweet smell. Compliment that with a lot of oak and you have a nice "fruit forward" wine aroma that the critics love.
7. The more alcohol you leave the "softer" the tannins appear, the sweeter the finish, and the stronger the ethanol aroma.
8. Since Parker made a name for himself by tasting 1982 Claret out of the barrel a claiming it a vintage compared to other critics who prefered to wait until the wines aged...all critics have been falling over themselves to taste and proclaim quality at the earliest date.

So what is so wrong with this. Rock star winemakers do it and critics love the wines. I can't talk because I did it and I got raves, and WS scores 95 and above for the wines. Who cares? It's just a matter of taste and all the whiner is doing is just saying they like this better than that?

When I got in the business you could taste blind and sort out wines from Bordeaux by appellation. Key indicators were varietal aromas, color,structure, and finish. This is virually impossible today because the wines are made to one model often using RO before fermentation in the same way Californians let the grapes hang. Similarly this was possible in California...and even within the Napa Valley. I recently tasted eight $100 plus Cabernets from Bordeaux, Napa Valley and Tuscany and not one tasted of Cabernet Sauvignon. Guessing origin was just that ...a guess. But they had all rated the top scores by the major critics.

That's what I am whining about and the only people that understand why I whine are those who understand what has been lost.

Arthur wrote:
03.27.08 at 2:49 PM

Amen, Morton.

Besides the diversity, varietal and regional distinction, it is the opportunity for the US wine culture to evolve past the "yummy wine"/"yucky wine" mentality of today.

Arthur wrote:
03.27.08 at 3:12 PM

Correction:

Besides the diversity, varietal and regional distinction, it is the opportunity for the US wine culture to evolve past the "yummy wine"/"yucky wine" mentality of today that is in peril.

Morton Leslie wrote:
03.27.08 at 3:34 PM

I remind me of that John Mayer song "My Stupid Mouth" where he keeps saying he's going to shut up, but doesn't. Anyway one notion that you have is that there is more variety today than ever before. There are more labels, certainly, but there is much less diversity. There is less diversity in what we grow and how we make wine.

In the 1970's Napa Valley produced over a 1000 tons a year of Gamay. I bet the number is nearly zero today. Similarly, there were equally large plantings of Riesling, Petite Sirah, Gewurztraminer, Carignane, Barbera, Zinfandel, Grenache, Mondeuse, Burger (yuck), Sauvignon Vert (spicey aroma, bees loved it), and Grey Riesling. There was Muscat blanc, Semillon, Malvasia Bianca (what a delight), Red Traminer, Pinot blanc, Red Pinot, and Charbono.. I even had a grower with a block of Furmint and one grower with the port grapes, Tinta Madiera and Tinta Cao. Except for a tiny bit of a few of these they have been replaced by a select few of the "noble grapes." Even Zin and Pets, then considered a "commons" are becoming a rarity. They didn't make the money (or inherent quality) of a Cabernet, so they were pulled. Many were losers, of course, but several "lost" varieties made pretty nice wines.

Instead of planting diverse and new varieties, we have only focused only on the big money grapes. Bordelais, Burgundian, and Rhone. For much of the rest of the world local varieties are being replaced mostly by Bordelaise grapes. Like Italy.

Of course, all this might not be bad if we all made entirely different tasting wines from these varieties. We could learn to appreciate the nuances of the vineyard and microclimate. Or even the peculiarities of the winemaking. But we rarely are given that opportunity.

Paige wrote:
03.29.08 at 1:26 PM

As a retail buyer, the only time I ever bother to look at the alcohol level of a wine is after I've tasted it and found it porty, hot, or unbalanced in a way that points to over-ripeness.

Like Alder mentioned, I have been surprised by wines with too much heat that are much lower in alcohol than I suspected. Likewise, I've been blown away to discover a high alcohol level in a wine that was perfectly balanced and enjoyable.

For those who believe higher alcohol levels are only the result of stylistic changes in winemaking over the years, consider that more efficient yeasts have also been developed, making it much easier to convert sugar into alcohol. Critics preferences aside, that too has changed a few things about modern winemaking.

Arthur wrote:
03.29.08 at 2:14 PM

Paige,

You make a good point about different yeast strains. Must pH and things like potassium content have been said affect the conversion ratio. In most instances we are looking at a 0. to 0.6 conversion ratio but I am not sure that I have heard of any instance of it being 0.65.

The question remains: WHY were these new yeasts developed and introduced?

Arthur wrote:
03.29.08 at 10:22 PM

Correction:
"In most instances we are looking at a 0.5 to 0.6 conversion ratio "

I had a 5-year od talking my head off.

Julian wrote:
03.31.08 at 2:12 PM

Great post - especially points #2 and #5.
I've never really understood the "high alcohol brouhaha" from the beginning. "Don't like it? Don't buy it!" seems simple enough to me, and I've never been convinced that any large number of people really dislike wines simply due to the high alcohol content.

One other point is the people who say it's better for the drinker to have a lower alcohol wine (so you get less drunk or whatever). I think I may have even seen an ad about this, perhaps for some other type of alcohol, I forget. In any case, you have to look at the extremes to get much of a difference. 4 glasses of 12% have the same alcohol as 3 glasses of 16% ...

Keith wrote:
04.01.08 at 12:33 PM

These high alcohol wines are made because its what the wine reviewers and writers like. Most of the winemakers that I have heard from don't care for the over-ripe high alcohol wines they are having to make to suit the palates of reviewers and get through to the judges palate in a wine competition. Personally, I think most of them either have burned out palates and these wines are what gets through to their taste buds, or they are being trained to look for that by the trend and other reviewers opinions. A lot of uninitiated new drinkers like it because they are like the old home winemakers they get off on very high alcohol, with slight residual sugar, and overly fruity one dimensional wines. Also, ones I have tasted listing 14% alcohol, which if complex is OK, are actually more like 16% ABV from the taste of them. I personally have quite a problem finding California wines I like. The tendency is to skew flavors of character of wines to the extreme. Making one dimensional wines often if like chardonnay skewed towards heavy diacetyl flavors or oak covering everything. Since these are made with fairly high pH and low acidity they never have agability long enough to have the dominant character diminish enough to be drinkable before the wine falls apart. Same goes for the high pH reds, etc. made for immediate consumption. Another trend is the exceedingly insipid Sauvignon Blancs being made in a mimic of NZ style or Pinot Grigio styles. Cold pressed, one dimensional grapefruit laden and with no body at all. I don't think eliminating phenolics in a white wine is what it is cracked up to be. I have tasted several of these from 2004 era(usually with a plastic cork) that are oxidized now. Back to the original point, if you want 15%+ alcohol then go for a port or a sherry styled wine. Leave it out of table wines. Time to start looking for balance, complexity, and finesse in wines again. If it takes more than a few months aging to get there, then fine, tell the bean counters they can wait a few months for a return. Also, time to start educating the consumer on what is really good, like 30 years ago when I was learning. Maybe its all new styles I can't become accustomed to in your book. When I learned, these new styles are very much like the amateurish winemaking styles that were very much looked down upon as being high alcohol, clumsy, simple, and having excess residual sweetness for dry red wines.

Alder wrote:
04.01.08 at 4:08 PM

Keith,

Thanks for the comments. One of the things that really rankles me about this argument (in general, not yours specifically, though you bring up the point directly) is the assertion that somehow a large number of winemakers are making wines that they think actually taste bad, but they make them anyway just to please "the critics" or "the judges."

I think this is somewhat insulting (none intended, I'm sure) to most winemakers. Do people honestly believe that all these folks are wincing every time they taste their own wines? That they're saying to themselves, "hmm, tastes like overoaked, steroid enhanced crap, but Parker will LOVE it?"

Making wine you think tastes bad is like staying in a loveless, sexless marriage, yet never having a fight. Or to use another analogy, being a solo musician and making an album of songs you detest, that you think sound really lousy once they're recorded. It's REALLY hard to do. Maybe impossible.

Winemakers taste their wines every day. They spend 60 hour weeks fretting over the tiniest details, trying to craft a product that they, more than anyone, need to feel is actually good. Only in the case of people making wine on a truly industrial scale, have I ever heard of winemakers shrugging and saying, "enh. It's good enough."

Almost every winemaker I know drinks their own wines. Regularly. Like, as in, every night with dinner. Not the behavior of people who "don't care for the wines they are making"

GregP wrote:
04.01.08 at 5:16 PM

Tish, Keith et al,

I am willing to bet that in a double blind lineup you won't even come close to calling the actual alcohol in wines. Been there, done that. Case closed. And I am willing to set one up again, if needed. Your arguments got old real fast long time ago and many a consumer walked away embarrassed. Let's stop assuming things and face reality: too many people claim too many things (their palate’s ability for one). The only reason anyone ever “tastes” or “detects” supposedly high alcohol is when a wine is out of balance. And this applies to low alcohol wines as well, let’s make sure we are all on the same page.

That Dunn letter brouhaha, no big deal. I would happily agree to reviews listing alcohol levels if reviews on Dunn’s wines list the (stupidly high) astringency levels, all related to him picking fruit when it is not physiologically ripe (those tnannins are the unripe, green seeds, that got broken during fermentation/pump overs). But no other winemaker seems to criticize Dunn’s palate nor winemaking preferences, they make wine the way they like it and move on. Dunn better check his own palate before releasing green tannin extract (seed and oak) with little fruit underneath to support it. It’s a real shame he pulled what was probably best Zin vineyard in Napa to replant to Cab.

I would love to see Brett listed as a component of a wine, too bad Laube is the only one making the stand. And Brett, at least to MY palate, is a much worse offender than high alcohol. Do people buy rotten food? Yet, highly regarded wines are (very positively) reviewed without ever listing a problem of Brett infestation (read it anyway you feel like, but personally I KNOW such a reviewer has no palate to speak of). Add in other obvious faults such as oxidation and TCA and the list of reviewers one can trust shrinks dramatically. And yet, consumers demand to know “alcohol levels”. Why, if so many obvious faults should be higher on the “check list”?

Alcohol levels. You can’t even begin to imagine how wrong all your points and arguments are. When was the last time you had a recent vintage of Pegau? Do you know the REAL alcohol numbers on those despite what the label says? Obviously not. I just wish importers were made to play by same ABC rules local producers are, ABC should start pulling some licenses to clean up some obvious consumer fraud, this has been going on for too long. But the point here is, the number on the label means absolutely nothing.

Problem with reviews listing alcohol levels is there is no way for a reviewer to verify one. Save for sending each and every sample to a lab. And as I said above, the number means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. BALANCE is key and the only real measurement stick.

07.28.10 at 6:44 PM

You might want to argue that this leads to people acquiring a taste for these types of wines in the first instance but I think that would be assuming too much..

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The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.