Recently, alcohol levels in wine have gotten quite a bit of attention. Alcohol content in wine has increased dramatically in the last few decades. Besides global warming (which could be affecting alcohol levels, depending on political views) other factors include wine consumers’ tastes, wine critics’ evaluations, winemaking technology, vineyard management advances and choices made on which vines to plant in particular regions.
Wine critics taste many wines. Robert Parker admits to tasting between 75 to 100 in one day of reviewing wines. I stop being able to properly analyze wines at about 40. When tasting so many wines, the more intense the wine, the more it stands out, meaning more oak, fruit and weight resulting in a higher rating. Ratings are important to a wine producer’s economic picture, so they work to produce wines to critics’ palates. Wines with higher alcohol contents tend to have more palate weight, are more powerful and less subtle. As alcohol in wine increases, it becomes difficult to balance with fruit, tannin and acidity.
I asked several of my favorite winemakers (Mia Klein of Dalla Valle, Ric Forman and Dan Gehrs among others) to weigh in on this discussion for the article, as the subject can be quite controversial. Only Kareem Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards on the North Fork gave me some quotable material: “If the wine offers the necessary frame to support all that alcohol…these (sic) can be most impressive wines, not only for their size, but for their balance. It’s like a ballerina balancing on a tightrope versus a dinosaur doing the same with equal aplomb.”
In some regions (Germany & Champagne), the struggle is getting the grapes ripe enough. In others (Central Valley of California and much of Australia), the struggle is acidity levels. Sugar becomes alcohol during fermentation, so the more sugar, the higher the alcohol in the finished wine. Wine from a cool, but sunny climate, results in higher alcohol and higher acidity. Examples include parts of New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Italy, Washington State and many others. Lots of sun and cool-to-cold nights are needed for high acidity and high alcohol. Since not all wine regions have this combination, there are some controversial technologies being implemented to create the desired alcohol to acidity balance. The simplest “fixes” are to add sugar during the fermentation (know as chaptalization) or add acidity. A recent development is the use of reverse osmosis machines to reduce the natural alcohol content in finished wines. This is used more often than most would dare believe. Another less advanced way to lower alcohol content is to add water, which will water down the other components in the wine as well (also used more than we would assume).
So what’s the big deal with all this? One reason is the simple fact of drinking more alcohol than you planned. But also important is the whole vibe of wine being a natural beverage without manipulation. The consumer should have a right to know which wines are natural and which are not.