Can High Alcohol Wines be Balanced?

You sniff a glass of wine: it has a bouquet of aromas characteristic of its variety, promising an interesting palate. The palate is full of the anticipated flavors, rich and perhaps a touch exuberant, but not yet multi-dimensional as this is a recently released young wine. This is a beautifully crafted wine, representing its region and grape variety, but then a sense of warmth hits you on the finish, sometimes running into an impression of overt heat. The wine would be perfect if only it had a percent or so less alcohol. I have had this experience many times on this visit to Napa.

When asked about alcohol levels, a small minority of winemakers in Napa say it’s a concern, but most say this is what the climate gives you, and the wine is balanced, so there is no problem. Well, my response is yes and no. Generally the wine is balanced, and at a tasting you may not always notice the high alcohol, although it may express itself more forcefully in the course of drinking a bottle with a meal. But even when alcohol is not obvious, I believe the reason is that the balance that is necessary to hide it involves more extraction. It’s the combination of high alcohol and extract that makes the wine fatiguing rather than the alcohol alone—after all, fino Sherry is 15% alcohol and can be delicate and elegant. Indeed, some wines are getting into fortified territory. My companion, the Anima Figure, who is less tolerant of high alcohol than I am, commented on a Chardonnay at dinner, “This winemaker should be working in a distillery,” because the sense of raw spirits entirely hid the fruits.tokalon10

Napa Valley viewed from the To-Kalon vineyard.

Balance is surely a compromise, and the problem, I think, is that achieving phenolic ripeness is regarded as the ne plus ultra, so all other aspects of balance are pushed into the background. Okay, in the old days balance used to be regarded as basically getting enough sugar to achieve 12% or 12.5% alcohol; next a slightly more sophisticated approach was to look at sugar/acid ratios: it was assumed that if the ratio was about right the wine would be good. Those wines would be regarded as seriously unripe by the criterion of phenolic ripeness (although that is not so new: in ancient Rome, Pliny recommended tasting the seeds to judge when grapes were ready for harvest).

But does making phenolic ripeness the single criterion for harvest achieve balance? What if phenolic ripeness is achieved at punishing alcohol levels—Pinot Noir at 15% or more, Cabernet Sauvignon at 15.5% and up, Zinfandel well into the 16%s. Doesn’t “balance” imply making some compromise between sugar, acid, and phenolic ripeness, in which the first two count for something, if perhaps not as much as the last? Is it heretical to ask whether the wine might actually be better if the grapes were picked at slightly lower ripeness, but with better balanced sugar and acidity?

I question whether it’s a true balance if grapes are picked solely for ripeness and then acidity is added, alcohol is adjusted, or water is added to get to more acceptable parameters. (I have not found a single winemaker in Napa who denies needing to use watering back at some point: adding water when the sugar level is too high is now legal, but it seems a dubious means for achieving balance.) Part of the problem is that the current generation of winemakers is not really conscious of the great change in alcohol levels. “This vintage is quite moderate, alcohol is only 14.5%,” one winemaker said, “sometimes we have been pushed up over 15%.” Another said, “As long as I’ve been making wines, I have never seen alcohol below 14%.”

When 14.5% alcohol can be regarded as moderate, we are in big trouble. Even if I enjoy it at a tasting, it is too fatiguing to share a bottle over a meal. My own rebellion against this is not to purchase any wine for my cellar which is over 14% alcohol, and to look at the label before opening a bottle at a restaurant: if it’s over 14% I send it back and make another choice. I recognize that a one man consumer rebellion won’t get very far but you have to start somewhere.

The mantra in Napa Valley is that the Cabernets can be enjoyed more or less on release but will also age well. How soon you can drink them depends largely on your tolerance for tannin in young wine; for my palate most of these wines really need four or five years before the tannins calm down enough to let fruit flavor variety show, but more to the point is that alcohol is likely to become more evident as the tannins and fruits lighten up. With lower alcohol, many of these wines would have great potential for classic longevity; but with alcohol around 15%, I suspect they are Cheshire Cat wines: the grin of the alcohol may be all that is left.

What can be done about this? Part of the problem is that the current combinations of rootstocks and cultivars are generating higher sugar levels in the grapes. One change came when AxR1, widely planted in Napa, had to be replaced because of its sensitivity to phylloxera: the rootstocks that replaced it give higher growth rates. Another is that the ENTAV clones introduced over the past decade or so were selected thirty years ago in a cooler period specifically in order to ripen sooner to avoid past problems with insufficient accumulation of sugar. We need new clones and rootstocks designed for the era of global warming. But that takes time: right now winemakers need to start regarding balance as something where reasonable alcohol and acidity are part of the equation as well as phenolic ripeness, and not ancillary factors that you either live with or adjust artificially when they get completely out of control.


4 thoughts on “Can High Alcohol Wines be Balanced?

  1. I agree your points. Furthermore your taste buds can be fooled a while but your central nervous system is foolproof. No matter what it tastes like a 15% wine is 15 not 14 and your brain and motor control etc don’t care they melt down faster.

  2. Smith and Madrone the Spring Mtn producers of Cult cab would agree that alcohol levels have risen over the years. However, they retell the story of throwing “Montrachet” yeast into a 23.5 brix must back wine in 1985 with the resulting wine being 12.5%. Years, later they would harvest this 23.5 brix wine….throw in the Montrachet yeast and get 13.5% or even 14%. The yeast are better at converting sugars into alcohol today. Rootstocks play a role. And canopy management. In the old days a cluster of grapes wasn’t as evenly ripe from top to bottom as it is today. So…many factors…..the winemaker is the last to blame.

    • It defies the laws of physics to suppose that yeast are so much better at converting sugar into alcohol that the conversion ratio could change enough for alcohol to go from 12.5% to 14%. I would buy a change of perhaps 0.1%, but more than that and you are going to have to argue with the second law of thermodynamics. The carbon atoms have to go somewhere. There are really only two possibilities. The most likely is that some yeast continue fermentation longer than others, so more sugar is converted to alcohol, leaving less residual sugar. The corollary in the Smith & Madrone story would be that the wine with 12.5% alcohol had 1-1.5% of the potential alcohol still as unconverted sugar: Montrachet yeast converted that residual sugar into alcohol. A much less likely possibility is that there was a change in the destination of the carbon atoms: previously they had gone into something else, with Montrachet they turned into alcohol. But the “something else” would probably imply a significant change in flavor. For example, recent attempts to develop yeast that make less alcohol got the level down by about 1%–but the amount of acetone went up to compensate!

      I agree that the change is not due simply to winemaking, it is due at least as much to viticulture, with a range of factors from rootstocks to canopy management. Andy Beckstoffer says alcohol went up significantly when AxR1 was replaced by better rootstocks. In vinification, changing from open-top fermenters to closed adds another 0.5%. Bill Blatch in Bordeaux says that better sorting of the grapes adds another 0.5-1% (I expect this is enhanced by optical sorters), but choosing to harvest later when sugar levels are higher may well be the single most important factor.

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