One of the hot topics of debate within the wine industry today relates to the overall increase in the alcohol levels of many wines. Wines that were commonly 12.5% alcohol twenty years ago, now routinely register 14.0%. It would be easy to dismiss this dramatic change in wine as yet another result of global warming, but there are a number of other factors behind this trend as well, and everyone in the industry plays a role in this. The increase in alcohol is merely a result of producers pursuing riper grapes, in an effort to make better wine.
Grape growers today have access to cleaner, virus free vines and rootstocks (viral problems in vines can delay, or prevent ripeness). They are employing better farming practices, sophisticated trellis systems, canopy management, and deficit irrigation. They have become very efficient at growing riper grapes with higher sugar levels. The higher the sugar levels, the higher alcohol levels.
The growers are not solely to blame, however. Winemakers are harvesting grapes much riper than in the past. They no longer look at just sugars levels; they look at color, acidity, pH, and the seeds and stems as well. Known as phenolic ripeness, this is the change in the color and flavor of the seeds and stems. When the seeds change from green to brown, phenolic ripeness has occurred. A lack in phenolic ripeness results in green, unripe, astringent flavors. Producers today often err on the side of over ripeness to avoid unripe flavors and tannins. Winemakers are also using more efficient yeast to deal with these higher sugar levels. Yeast usually die when the alcohol levels exceed 15.0%. With the isolated, cultured yeasts available today, wines of 16.5% are not out of question.
Even wine writers have played a role in the increased levels of alcohol in wine. Several wine publications have continued to reward riper, more flavorful wines with higher ratings and scores. These scores have enhanced the sales and prestige of many wineries. It should come as no surprise that these wineries have adopted winemaking practices intended to duplicate these results. Higher alcohol levels are just part of the collateral damage incurred in chasing 90 + scores. Consumers have endorsed this stylistic change by subscribing to these opinions and buying these wines.
Seemingly everyone laments the fact that wines are higher in alcohol. The truth is most consumers enjoy wine more as a result of this trend. Wines are less tannic and astringent, acid levels are lower, flavors are brighter and fewer wines have vegetal characteristics. Higher alcohols are just a consequence of pursuing riper grapes. If you want lower alcohol wines, drink German Riesling; if you’re worried about the effects of alcohol, drink more water.
Jay Youmans, MW