The puzzle of high-alcohol wines

By Felix Salmon
January 5, 2010
this was news to me:

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It’s well known that alcohol levels in wine have been rising fast. But this was news to me:

Rising alcohol levels have appeared despite winemaker efforts to keep them low. The dirty little secret of California wine is that a great deal of it goes through some form of de-alcoholization, where at least part of each vintage has alcohol removed to bring down the overall level.

Another approach is to “just add water” to the fermenting must to literally water down the potential alcohol. A friend calls this technique “adding Jesus units” because water is turned into wine instantly; he says that it is a common practice, if not one that anybody admits using.

How is it that even in the face of these extreme measures, red wine nowadays tends to cluster around the 14.5% mark, with some wines, such as the 2008 Marquis Phillips Shiraz, coming in at more than 18% alcohol by volume? Most wine-lovers I know prefer it when wine’s in the 12% range: those wines might not do very well in blind tastings, but they go much better with food, they are much more likely to express terroir, and — not to put too fine a point on it — you can drink much more of them without waking up in the morning feeling as though a cat is trying to claw its way out of your head through your eyeballs.

I don’t believe that this is a global-warming thing. And if it’s a function of winemakers feeling pressured to make high-alcohol fruit bombs because those are the wines which get high ratings on 100-point scales, then why would those winemakers overshoot like this and find themselves forced to de-alcoholize or even simply dilute?

In any case, I recently had a very good experience at one of my favorite NYC wine bars, Tarallucci e Vino, by simply asking them for the lowest-alcohol red on their list. If you’re stuck for what to drink, give it a try some time. If the place in question has a good wine buyer, you’re likely to find something pretty interesting and off the beaten track.

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Comments
9 comments so far

i have an appointment at taralucci e vino tomorrow and may do exactly that.

Posted by q_is_too_short | Report as abusive

As the article says, the key parameter is the initial sugar level. If your initial grapes are too sweet for whatever reason, there’s no “traditional” method that would let you make a 12% dry wine from them without resorting to extreme measures. The choice is between making a sweet wine by aborting fermentation before all sugar is converted (by using yeast with lower alcohol tolerance), de-alcoholizing, or diluting the must with water.

Viticulturists are obviously interested in maximizing the sugar content of grapes without sacrificing aroma – it’s better to make a gallon of 18% wine and dilute it down to 14%, than to make a gallon of 14% wine from the same quantity of grapes.

Posted by Nameless | Report as abusive

Do winemakers have the choice? I don’t know much about making wine, but a bit about beer. With beer you can easily adjust the amount of fermentable sugars (the largest variable determining the alcohol in the end product) to start with by adjusting your malt bill, but presumably the fermentable sugars in a must depends on the quality of the grapes? If consumers want a certain grape, and a certain balance of residual (unfermented) sugars and alcohol to give a wine a particular sweet/dry character, the only way to adjust the alcohol is by some sort of artificial means, either by watering down the must or by removing alcohol from the finished wine. But maybe I am missing something; as I said I know little about wine making.

Posted by egh | Report as abusive

Thanks, nameless, I posted before I saw your message. You answer my (implied) question as to why the sugar level in grapes would have been rising.

Posted by egh | Report as abusive

There is some thought that yeast strains are implicated. It has long been known that yeasts vary with regard to their efficiency — some strains convert more ethanol per gram of sugar. One theory is that DNA from the more efficient strains has infiltrated standardized yeast DNA, although the mechanism is not understood yet. The increasing popularity of wild strains, some of which may be more aggressive alcohol producers, may also be a factor.

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

Who says it’s better now?

Also, how are rising sugar levels in grapes not tied to longer, warmer growing seasons?

Posted by wcw | Report as abusive

“Most wine-lovers I know prefer it when wine’s in the 12% range: those wines might not do very well in blind tastings, but they go much better with food, they are much more likely to express terroir, and — not to put too fine a point on it — you can drink much more of them without waking up in the morning feeling as though a cat is trying to claw its way out of your head through your eyeballs.”

Maybe most wine isn’t bought by wine lovers, but by people who want to get drunk. On wine.

Posted by GingerYellow | Report as abusive

of course it is a global warming thing. look at regions on the climatic margins of grape production like the Mosel. for the last 200 years the pattern has been a great year or two when the weather was unusually warm and dry each decade. that the climate was warming quickly became obvious in the 1980s and 1990s via the behavior of glaciers + sea ice, shifts in maximum ranges of various organisms, etc. at the same time, it became obvious in the Mosel. from Robert Parker’s vintage chart; years rated 90 and above:

1971, 1975, 1976, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007.

see a pattern? same phenomenon visible in many other wine regions. warmer weather, longer growing season, riper grapes.

Posted by N.Mycroft | Report as abusive

I could not disagree with you more Mr. Simon. Please read my rebuttal,

http://tavolarosso.com/2010/01/higher-al cohol-levels-shouldnt-be-a-concern/

I would love to hear your comments

Posted by nbenz1 | Report as abusive
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