Why Everyone Has It All Wrong About Alcohol Levels

No issue is so polarizing as the increasing level of alcohol in wine. On one hand are people who feel that wine should stay below a limit that leaves no risk of confusing table wine with fortified wine. On the other hand are those who say alcohol levels are completely irrelevant, the only question is whether the alcohol is balanced in the wine. I think they are all missing the point, because it is equally misleading to consider alcohol as a component in isolation (meaning you can completely divorce it from everything else) or to conclude that because it is “balanced” (meaning presumably that it does not obviously stick out) a higher level doesn’t change the wine.

First the facts. Alcohol levels are increasing worldwide. Red wines in Australia averaged around 12.5% alcohol in 1985 and are close to 14.5% today. The trend is the same in Bordeaux and in Napa, although California has consistently run more than a percentage point above France; in 2008, average alcohol levels were 13.15% in left bank Bordeaux, 13.7% in right bank Bordeaux, and 14.65% for Napa Valley Cabernet. But the dramatic increase in the recent vintages in Bordeaux has brought many wines over 14%, well into the territory previously reserved for the New World.

The situation in Bordeaux brings me right to my point. Until the end of the 1990s, chaptalization was common in Bordeaux. The famous ampelographer Pierre Galet calculated that in the second half of the nineties, alcohol levels in Bordeaux were increased by about an average of 1% by adding sugar before fermentation. The alcohol in 2009 was all natural, of course, so the real increase in Bordeaux has been from about 11% potential alcohol prior to 1982 to 14% potential alcohol today.

And what do you think the grapes have been doing while the sugar level has been increasing by more than a quarter before harvest? They have been getting riper and riper, accumulating phenols and other components in addition to the sugar (and in the case of Cabernet Sauvignon, losing pyrazines and gaining blackcurrant aromas and flavors, which means a significant stylistic change extending beyond mere increase in ripeness). Couple the presence of those extra components – tannins as measured by the index of IPT have increased roughly 20% in Bordeaux since 1982 – with increased extraction during vinification, and you have a major change in style of the wine. Yes, there is more alcohol, but there is more of everything else too.

I submit that alcohol is merely a symptom of a much wider change in style, and this is what the critics are really objecting to, rather than alcohol per se. For most wines, when alcohol rises over 14% or so, there’s a concomitant loss of elegance and finesse. The wine may show wonderfully well at a tasting, in fact the plushness of the alcohol may well give it an advantage, but try splitting a bottle with a companion for dinner. It rapidly becomes too much.

Note that I said: for most wines. There are some wines where higher alcohol has always been part of the style, because the grape variety simply accumulates more sugar at the right point of harvest. Barolo is the perfect example, often at 14% but still balanced and delicate. And anyway you can see from the case of Fino Sherry that it’s not just the alcohol. What’s the most common descriptor for Fino? Delicate. And that’s at 15-16% alcohol. But the alcohol fits in with the flavor spectrum, it’s not accompanied by increased extraction of everything else. (Before the wine is fortified, alcohol level is usually less than 12%.)  Take classic Bordeaux from the seventies or even from 1982. There is a refreshing elegance. Will you find that in today’s wines at 14% or even 15% or will they just impress with weight and power; they may be suave and full now, but what will happen over the next two decades?

The point is not simply that high alcohol can become fatiguing , but that it is inevitably accompanied by increased concentration of other factors. Yes, higher alcohol may be in balance with higher tannins – but does the wine as a whole have the same style and balance as one where (natural) alcohol is a percent or two lower? The argument about “balance” simply evades the real issue: what style do we want? The case of Fino Sherry shows that delicacy and refinement are not at odds with alcohol per se, but I would be interested to see examples of nonfortified wines with 15% alcohol that could be described as delicate or elegant or to have precision in their fruits. As much as alcohol, it’s probably the sheer density of the palate that pushes a wine into prominence at a tasting.

And let’s have more transparency. Surveys show that alcohol levels are consistently understated on labels, because consumers shy away from high alcohol in principle, but producers feel they like it in practice. “The marketing department doesn’t want to put anything higher than 14% on a label, but the wine is 16.1% because that’s what gets high scores,” one producer said. I suggest that producers who believe that high alcohol levels are appropriate in table wines should put their money where their mouth is, or at least put their label where their alcohol level is. Instead of hiding behind astoundingly lax regulations that require the alcohol level to be given within half a per cent in Europe or 1.5% in the USA (up to 14%; above that 1%), put the actual level on the label to within 0.1%. The argument that this is a problem because you can’t print labels in time for bottling no longer holds any water: with modern technology it’s perfectly feasible to have the alcohol level (or any other timely information)  printed as the labels go on the bottling line.

But all this is really besides the point. Everyone has their own perception of alcohol, and people should be enabled to decide for themselves whether alcohol levels are important to them and what limits they want to set. This requires more accurate information than is available at the present. I’d certainly like to see alcohol levels included on restaurant wine lists. And more power to Decanter magazine for deciding that alcohol levels should be stated in tasting notes, but instead of just repeating what’s on the label, how about getting an infrared device to measure alcohol, and giving the exact level. I’ve been looking for a portable device that would work on bottles, but haven’t found one yet. Unless and until we can get better regulations into place, much of the argument is going to be conducted in the dark because there’s such uncertainty as to real alcohol levels.

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3 thoughts on “Why Everyone Has It All Wrong About Alcohol Levels

  1. As always great observation.
    In a great year would an earlier harvest to take advantage of lower sugar and less ripe tannins every take place in a Bordeaux Chateau to produce a more elegant wine or are they all chasing the “International Style”?
    I know RO is used throughout the world, knocking 1.5% of the alcohol out of a very ripe vintage may unbalance the wine. If Wine Secretes is to be believed much of Napa is using spinning cones and RO and they still have 14-15% labelled wines. I like to see the Brix at harvest published for a wine that give me the ability to do the mental math to understand what the alcohol should be in the finished wine.

    • Alcohol data aren’t very reliable as the biggest source of information is what is stated on the label. But even allowing for the fact that labels aren’t accurate, the trend is clear, if you just average the stated levels year by year. In California there is reasonable data available on Brix levels at harvest, so you can actually see the effect of increasing ripeness on the berries. There are also limited data from test plots in Bordeaux. In Australia there’s official data on alcohol levels in finished wines, presumably based on collecting information from producers. So it’s a bit spotty, but even allowing for a certain level of misinformation, the trend is pretty clear.

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