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Robin Garr

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High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Robin Garr » Sat Oct 07, 2006 8:59 pm

The topic of wines in general drifting toward higher alcohol levels has been with us for years, and it seems to me that the consensus has been that the influence of random and chaotic climate change is hard to overlook ... or if you don't want to go there, at least the influence of unusually hot summers like 1989, 2000 and, in particular, 2003.

It's also easy to blame the preference of the ParkerSpec crew for blockbuster wines for pressing the industry to make more powerful wines, although if you don't have ripe grapes, you don't get high alcohol, and all the critical acclaim in the world can't alter that, can it?

Lately, though, it seems to me that I'm seeing more and more wines in alcohol ranges that we just didn't get even a few years ago, and not all of them from the obvious regions or producers. Looking over my notes, within the past few weeks, I've had a 2003 Chateauneuf, 2001 Vino Nobile, 2003 Napa Chardonnay and a 2002 Stags Leap Merlot that all came in over 14 percent - the Merlot was a stunning 14.8. A bunch of cheap Spanish reds from Jumilla and environs all around 14.5, and fer heaven's sake, a 14 percent 2005 Cotes du Rhone! Not Chateauneuf, not even Villages, just a simple table wine from a summer that was supposedly "normal."

What the hell is going on here? As I said, it's hard to blame all this on the critics, but the results don't really seem to track the weather either.

First, is anyone but me noticing this, that the high alcohols of the '90s are getting even higher and hotter in the '00s.

And, if so, does anyone have a cogent theory as to what might really be going on here?
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Isaac » Sat Oct 07, 2006 9:03 pm

I don't know enough about it to say, but I've read that new yeast strains are pushing this. Of course, as you say, if the sugar isn't there...

Another thing I've read is that the newer rootstocks put the vines out of synch, such that the sugar levels get higher than they used to by the time the grapes get properly ripe.
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Bonnie in Holland » Sun Oct 08, 2006 2:13 am

There's a promotion going on here this month at Holland's major wine chain (quite a good selection even though it's a big chain) for DeLoach Russian River Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (one bottle of each for a total of 20 euros). So I thought it would be a good chance to try some California wines, which are usually pricey and of lower quality here so I don't have much experience with them. But in taking a look at the Chardonnay label (the Pinot Noir wasn't yet in), I just about fell over -- the alcohol level was 15.5%!!! Good grief, right now I am deep into fortified wines for an upcoming WSET test - and those are 17 to 20%. It's shocking stuff. Is over 15% abv usual for a California wine now?
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by TimMc » Sun Oct 08, 2006 2:22 am

Zinfindels with a 14-15% alcohol percentage are very nice wines, IMHO.

But I have to wonder...is this a problem of some sort?
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Peter May » Sun Oct 08, 2006 8:53 am

Robin Garr wrote: And, if so, does anyone have a cogent theory as to what might really be going on here?


Alcohol level is a result of the amount of sugar in the grapes and the effectiveness of the yeast in converting it to alcohol.

Since the most important (until recently) wine producing areas for centuries were in cooler regions, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Germany and Champagne, yeast companies have continuously been breeding more efficient strains that would create more alcohol from sugar. German wine laws are based on sugar level, there is a Bordeaux appellation - Bordeaux Superieur - used for wines with at least half a percentage point extra alcohol. So it was in everyones interests to get more alcohol from the grapes.

But what, I think, has really caused high alcohols, is better viticulture, new clones, a greater understanding of when grapes are ripe, and a determination to wait to pick grapes until they are really ripe.

The Bordeaux reds I drank 30 years ago were quite green. Now they are riper, fruitier.
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Jeff Yeast » Sun Oct 08, 2006 10:33 am

Of course the real answer is a combination of all these things, but I believe newer strains of yeast are probably most responsible. Not wine, but take for instance Sam Adams' "utopia's." They claim to have the highest-proof, non-distilled, naturally fermented product on the market at 25.6% alcohol. That's a 51.2 proof beer, and it's due to a propriatary strain of super yeast that they have deveoped. While not to this extreme, wine strains cutured and refined in a laboratory are healthier and more consistant that even a few years ago.
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Bruce Hayes » Sun Oct 08, 2006 10:38 am

I agree Robin. In concert with this "alcohol creep" I have noticed that many wines simply can't handle the higher alcohol levels. So one experiences a very nice wine at the front, but then a hot and shrill finish.

Yuck.
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Bruce K » Sun Oct 08, 2006 3:08 pm

You're not the only one noticing it and I don't like the trend one bit. It is worse in New World wines -- during my trip to Walla Walla in August, it was hard to find wines below 14 percent -- but they do seem to be inching higher in Europe as well. For example, a Domaine Viret 2000 Cotes-du-Rhone-St.-Maurice Cosmic recently opened was listed at 14.5 percent alcohol -- and it hardly fits the description of a "modern" wine. My solution is to drink as many Loire wines as possible since most of them still seem firmly rooted in the 12-13 percent range. My preference for lower-alcohol wines is because 1) they're more acidic, less ripe and less likely to taste hot; and 2) I can drink more without feeling the effects.

Unfortunately, I have no particular insight as to why this is going on beyond the theories you and others have already expressed.
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Bob Ross » Sun Oct 08, 2006 3:40 pm

Mike Havens had an insight, Robin, as told to Jancis Robinson last year:

"The problem with modern vineyards in a hot summer is that sugars build up in the grapes much more rapidly than the phenolics, the complicated compounds responsible for tannins, colour and, most importantly, flavour. So growers find themselves with sky-high sugar readings, dangerously low acid levels but a distinct shortage of potential character and mid-palate in the wines."

I've read that there are some experiments in which some sugar is removed from the must before fermentation by reverse osmosis. The belief is that flavors in the wine made from this must will not suffer.

There are some vine keeping techniques -- thicker planting, etc. -- that some growers are adopting to avoid manipulating the finished wine -- for example, adding acid to the higher alcohol wines in an effort to achieve better balance.

As a personal matter, I hope these and other techniques are successful. High alcohol wines may smell great and taste good in the early going, but the hotness and sharpness often destroys the complexities and joys of the finish, at least to my taste.

What I enjoy most about wine is drinking it with food, and sipping it for an hour or two afterwards. I like more and more mouthfuls, but high alcohol levels means I have to have less wine. Not a pleasant prospect. :-(

I'm shopping more and more for wines based on the alcohol level.

Regards, Bob
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Robin Garr » Sun Oct 08, 2006 6:11 pm

Bob Ross wrote:"The problem with modern vineyards in a hot summer is that sugars build up in the grapes much more rapidly than the phenolics, the complicated compounds responsible for tannins, colour and, most importantly, flavour. So growers find themselves with sky-high sugar readings, dangerously low acid levels but a distinct shortage of potential character and mid-palate in the wines."


But that's not really a "modern" issue is it, Bob? And it doesn't entirely explain why we're seeing high alcohols even in vintages not as hot as 2003.

As a personal matter, I hope these and other techniques are successful. High alcohol wines may smell great and taste good in the early going, but the hotness and sharpness often destroys the complexities and joys of the finish, at least to my taste.


On this I agree completely, and it prompted my original question: Very high alcohol wines tend to be out of whack, although they do seem to be to the taste of the Usual Suspects.

high alcohol levels means I have to have less wine. Not a pleasant prospect. :-(


Do you really think that's a significant factor though, Bob? The difference between 12.5% and 14.5% is certainly perceptible in the wine's flavor, unless it's very well handled. But only two percentage points? Assuming you're not drinking more than half the bottle, that doesn't seem like it adds up to a significantly large amount of additional ethanol ingested. Anyone want to do the math?
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Bob Ross » Sun Oct 08, 2006 6:56 pm

Temps seem to be rising, Robin, not just in Europe but also in Europe. I'm obviously not a winemaker, but I do have great respect for Havens.

The math is interesting, actually. There's 16% more alcohol in a glass of 14.5% wine than in a 12.5% wine. In practice, labels have leeway of 1% plus or minus.

My experience has been that wines labelled 12.5% are probably close to that -- there is no tax incentive to understate the percentage, and many people like the higher percentages. But, a wine labelled 14.5% might very well have 15.5% alcohol -- if so, a 14.5% glass could contain 25% alcohol than a 12.5% glass.

That makes a big difference for me personally, but I don't care much for alcoholic drinks generally, so that may just be a matter of personal preference. And ability to handle alcohol I suppose -- I feel much more light headed after two glasses of a zin than I do two glass of a red burgundy, for example.

Same thing for beer -- I generally prefer beer in the 5% range to those in the 8% range -- the difference isn't 3% per glass, but really 60% more.

Regards, Bob
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by David M. Bueker » Sun Oct 08, 2006 8:28 pm

One example...Melville Viognier at 16.2%. Blech! I quit their list after that wine.

Decrying wines in the 14s is to ignore current weather trends. It's the "overproof rum" syndrome of wines in the upper 15s and 16s that has me truly disturbed.
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by ClarkDGigHbr » Sun Oct 08, 2006 8:42 pm

Robin Garr wrote:First, is anyone but me noticing this, that the high alcohols of the '90s are getting even higher and hotter in the '00s?


Sure ... plenty of us have noticed this. In fact, I listed this as my choice for the most annoying wine trend in a Forum Survey that ran earlier this year. I shudder when faced with a lighter red wine, like Pinot Noir, boasting almost 14.5% alcohol. At that level, I may as well find a fuller bodied Syrah that can handle that elevated ABV content.

-- Clark
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Graeme Gee » Sun Oct 08, 2006 10:37 pm

Robin Garr wrote:
Bob Ross wrote:"The problem with modern vineyards in a hot summer is that sugars build up in the grapes much more rapidly than the phenolics, the complicated compounds responsible for tannins, colour and, most importantly, flavour. So growers find themselves with sky-high sugar readings, dangerously low acid levels but a distinct shortage of potential character and mid-palate in the wines."


But that's not really a "modern" issue is it, Bob? And it doesn't entirely explain why we're seeing high alcohols even in vintages not as hot as 2003.


Time to stop cutting all those leaves off the vines? I think the balances are getting lost in the heat of the alcohol. And I also think it's time that these labelling leeways were tidied up. 1% or 1.5% tolerance on a figure of 14% is plain madness. It does seem to have been universal - even the conservative Tahbilks and Penfolds' of the world have seen red wine alcohols creep to a standard 14-14.5, which I believe can only truly be otherwise structurally supported in occasional vintages.
cheers,
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Robin Garr » Sun Oct 08, 2006 11:11 pm

Bob Ross wrote:a wine labelled 14.5% might very well have 15.5% alcohol -- if so, a 14.5% glass could contain 25% alcohol than a 12.5% glass.


A standard "serving" of wine contains 5 ounces, about 150 milliliters.

At 12.5% alcohol by volume, that's 18.75 ml of pure ethanol.

At 14.5% abv, it's 21.75 ml.

At 15.5% abv, it's 23.25 mil.

The difference from top to bottom is just 5 ml, or only about 1/6 of an ounce. It's true that this is a 27% increase, but the dosage is so small that unless you're having quite a few glasses, it just doesn't seem to me to be a difference that most people would perceive. You're obviously the best judge of your own capacity, Bob. I wouldn't question that. But we're dealing with an awfully small amount of additional pure ethanol per glass here.
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Bob Ross » Sun Oct 08, 2006 11:57 pm

We get the same basic numbers, Robin. There's 25% more alcohol in the 15.5% compared with the 12.5%.

Your first post in this thread indicated you thought 14.0% was high and 14.8% was "stunning". I supposed you were comparing those numbers with the 12 to 12.5% those wine might have carried in the past.

I suppose one could dispose of your first post pretty easily; the "dosage is so small that unless you're having quite a few glasses, it just doesn't seem to me to be a difference that most people would perceive".

I'm virtually certain that almost all readers of WLDG can easily tell the difference between a 12% and a 16% glass of wine no matter what the size: 2, 4, 6, or 8 ounces.

My "standard" size glass is one quarter of a 750 ml bottle, or six plus ounces -- two a night. Since the 16% has a third more alcohol, I drink two four and a half pours of 16% zins and two six plus pours of 12% burgundy. Result: a mild, pleasant buzz, and no headaches the next day.

But it's more fun to drink the bigger glass with food and much more fun to sip the bigger glass afterwards.

Regards, Bob
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Victorwine » Mon Oct 09, 2006 2:49 pm

In line with what Peter M stated;
I think that because vine growers have a tighter handle on the disease state of their vineyards (careful selection of clones best suited for their site, better suited plant material for grafting) we are seeing healthier vines and thus ripper fruit. (Hence wines with more alcohol.). IMHO the quality conscious winemakers are doing an excellent job handling the high sugar (choosing the proper yeast strain to deal with the must conditions, and creating wines that IMO are nicely balanced, the structural components of the wine are held in check- fruit and bouquet aroma/flavor, concentration, complexity keep the higher alcohol content at bay.

Salute
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Ben Rotter » Mon Oct 09, 2006 2:54 pm

Robin,

I think this shift is much more to do with the philosophy of winemakers and viticultural practice than it is to do with yeast strains or climate change. There has been a popular shift in winemaking philosophy over the last 10-20 years which has incorporated phenolic ripeness into the holistic ripeness model. In many climatic conditions that means that the grapes are being left longer on the vines for the desired phenolic profile, thereby increasing sugar to levels not previously the norm. Improved viticultural practice has certainly made an impact too, though I'm not convinced that the effect of rootstock or clonal selection is as great in this regard as many give it credit.

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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Robin Garr » Mon Oct 09, 2006 3:00 pm

Ben Rotter wrote:I think this shift is much more to do with the philosophy of winemakers and viticultural practice than it is to do with yeast strains or climate change. There has been a popular shift in winemaking philosophy over the last 10-20 years which has incorporated phenolic ripeness into the holistic ripeness model. In many climatic conditions that means that the grapes are being left longer on the vines for the desired phenolic profile, thereby increasing sugar to levels not previously the norm. Improved viticultural practice has certainly made an impact too, though I'm not convinced that the effect of rootstock or clonal selection is as great in this regard as many give it credit.


Ben, it's a pleasure to see you in the forum after your frequent participation in Chat! Glad you found your way here.

I certainly can't entirely disagree, and it's hard to object to the quest for phenolic maturity in fruit, although that said, if the proof is in the tasting, some of these very powerful wines don't work for me even with physiological maturity included in the equation.

It does seem, though, that the reality of having something like seven of the 10 hottest global years of the century occurring during the '90s (and a similar pace continuing in the '00s) can't be overlooked.
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Oliver McCrum » Mon Oct 09, 2006 3:01 pm

I think this shift is 10% due to global warming, and 90% due to critical approval of 'fruit-forward', 'jammy' wine. There have been a series of articles in Wine Business Monthly about the hardship for growers and vineyards when wineries are asking for super-high brix levels.

Many wineries are using de-alcoholisation to reduce the flavor impact of picking at such high sugars, but not all.
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Victorwine » Mon Oct 09, 2006 3:20 pm

Hi Ben,
Welcome to WLDG. Being an amateur winemaker I truly enjoy reading your articles on Improved Winemaking.

Salute
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Bob Ross » Mon Oct 09, 2006 4:42 pm

"I think this shift is 10% due to global warming, and 90% due to critical approval of 'fruit-forward', 'jammy' wine."

Thank you very much, Oliver. It's great to read a winemaker's perspective.

Regards, Bob
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Robin Garr » Mon Oct 09, 2006 5:35 pm

Oliver McCrum wrote:I think this shift is 10% due to global warming, and 90% due to critical approval of 'fruit-forward', 'jammy' wine.


A nuance, if I may: I hear you, and don't doubt it insofar as the California wine industry is concerned, although I might take a deep breath and scale it back to 60-40. But in Europe I think I might turn that ratio around. If you think about it, 2004 is the only really hot recent California summer, and California is also (my opinion) much more likely to be quickly responsive to the SpeckParker model. The record-hot-summer phenomenon has been more consistently striking in Europe, and the influence of the Usual Suspects might be a little less (not that it doesn't exist, of course). It just seems intuitive to me that warming is more of a factor in Europe and manipulation perhaps more of a factor in the New World.
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Re: High alcohol wines ... is this getting worse?

by Oliver McCrum » Mon Oct 09, 2006 8:21 pm

Bob Ross wrote:"I think this shift is 10% due to global warming, and 90% due to critical approval of 'fruit-forward', 'jammy' wine."

Thank you very much, Oliver. It's great to read a winemaker's perspective.

Regards, Bob


You've promoted me above my station, Bob, I just sell the stuff.
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