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.

What’s the problem with 1996 Red Burgundy?

The Burgundians are not so prone as the Bordelais to call any good year the vintage of the century, but 1996 was widely acclaimed at the time as a great vintage in Burgundy for both red and white. Twenty years later, it is abundantly clear that it is anything but a great vintage. My particular peeve is that I was so pleased at the time to acquire a really good selection of Crus and producers for reds, in fact this was the first time I had been able to get grand crus from the likes of Rousseau and so on. Now this seems more like hubris.

Coincidentally or not, this was also the first year in which premox really took hold for white Burgundy. (Some people date it from 1995, but 1996 was the first year I saw the effect in any quantity of wines). This is a bit odd because my experience since then has been that premox is magnified in the richer years – which 1996 now is turning out not to be. Because of premox, I have finished up my 1996 white Burgundies, but I am still mulling over how the reds could have been so deceptive as I continue to explore them.

This is scarcely the first vintage in which everything seemed fair set at the time of harvest and a problem emerged later. 1983 comes to mind as the most striking precedent: the wines seemed lovely on release, but two or three years later, many showed unmistakable signs of grape rot, and to all intents and purposes rapidly became undrinkable.

I would love to have a proper scientific explanation of the problem with 1996. On the palate the wines universally show a medicinal acidity, sometimes verging on bitter. It’s not just that the wines have too much acidity – we have seen that in plenty of older vintages from Burgundy – but it’s the character of the acidity, more than a bit medicinal, sometimes even a touch metallic. What is responsible for this universal character?

It’s most noticeable at village level, but remains prominent at premier cru; grand crus have a better weight of fruit and richness to balance it, but it’s a rare grand cru that does not show it in the background. It is not entirely predictable: it’s less obvious in Jadot’s Ruchottes Chambertin than in Le Chambertin, for example.

It wasn’t evident at the time of vintage. My tastings of barrel samples identified strong tannins and good acidity, but these did not seem out of kilter, and over the first few years, the wines seemed to have a promising richness. For almost the first ten years after the vintage, acidity seemed high but reasonably in character. By 2006 it began to seem doubtful if and when the wines would come around, and by 2009 or 2010 the acidity seemed to be pushing the tannins on the finish. Tannins aren’t obviously punishing today, but must be contributing to the character that has become so evident over the past five years; virtually all my tasting notes since 2010 include the word “medicinal”.

While the vintage now lacks generosity, I’d be hard put to describe it as mean, since the underlying fruits often show a sweet ripeness – but they can’t get out from under that medicinal character. The puzzle for me is how this developed so uniformly several years after the vintage. Could it have been there all along but has been revealed only as the fruits lightened up? At all events, I don’t accept the school of thought that the wines need more time to come around: they are what they are, and this won’t change.

Is Napa Going Flabby?

I’ve been exploring differences between Cabernet Sauvignon (or blends based on it) from Napa and Bordeaux, and am wondering how much the acidity is a major factor in perception, as opposed to higher alcohol or extraction from the New World. In fact, acidity seems the most immediately obvious difference when I compared recent Napa vintages with the Bordeaux 2009 vintage.

A tasting  precedes the Napa barrel auction each February, and has an interesting format when wines from three successive vintages are presented blind, so that tasting focuses on vintage character and differences. At the end of the tasting, there’s a list of the producers. I tasted all three vintages, 2007, 2008, and 2009 from all fourteen Cabernet Sauvignon producers. (There was also a smaller tasting of Merlots.) The intention of the blind tasting is to indicate the general style of the vintage rather than focus on specific wines.

There’s a fairly clear line between the vintages: 2007 is more concentrated than either of the succeeding vintages. Differences between 2008 and 2009 are less distinct, although in general I’m inclined to agree with the conventional wisdom that 2009 is less intense than 2008, but both 2008 and 2009 tend to give a fairly flat impression, at least at this stage. Every producer in this tasting had a characteristic style that ran through all three vintages, but often the lighter fruits on 2008 and 2009 let the tannic structure show through more clearly, making the wine a little spartan. I felt that few of the wines at this particular tasting would be really long-lived, although the best will drink well in the mid-term (next five years or so).

At barrel tastings the same week, and allowing for the difference in age, the 2010s struck me as generally in line with the previous two vintages of 2009 and 2008. That makes three relatively indifferent vintages in a row. I did not feel, as has sometimes been suggested, that 2010 was a vintage more in line with Bordeaux, that is, lower in alcohol, not so rich, but with more finesse.

The 2009s provided an interesting contrast with a large tasting of Bordeaux 2009 just a couple of weeks earlier, where the wines had that characteristic lift of freshness, in spite of the reputation of the vintage for being unusually rich and alcohol for Bordeaux. Acidity in all three Napa vintages, by contrast, generally seemed a little low. On the best wines this makes the wines quite approachable, with a soft, velvety or furry palate, but in other cases the impression remains a little flat. There was a tendency to hollowness on the mid palate, especially with 100% Cabernet Sauvignons, but also even with wines that were also blended with some Merlot. Many of the wines cry out for some (or for some more) Merlot to fill out the mid palate. Perceptible alcohol was rarely a problem, although the level was often higher than would leave me comfortable after splitting a bottle at dinner. Overall, if I were to choose a wine to drink from these three vintages, 2007 would almost always be my preference, but in most cases I felt 2009 Bordeaux would be a better match for food.

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.

Why Not to Order Riesling in a Restaurant: the Problem of Trocken

It’s like one of those old riddles: when is a dry wine not dry? Answer: when it’s German Riesling. Or for that matter Riesling from Alsace and (less often) from Austria. The old question of perception of sweetness was brought back for me by dinner at the Setai Restaurant on Miami’s South Beach, where I felt that the Asian-dominated cuisine called for a Riesling. But I wanted a dry Riesling. Although there was range of choices, largely from Germany and Alsace, it was not immediately obvious whether the putatively dry Rieslings were really dry.

So I had a discussion with the sommelier. I liked the look of the Zind Humbrecht Clos Hauserer, which comes from the foot of the Hengst Grand Cru and should have that quintessential mix of richness and minerality. The sommelier assured me that it would be completely dry and went off to find the bottle. After a  few minutes he returned to say that in fact the wine is not dry. I wondered how he had discovered this without opening the bottle, but decided to move on to avoid any possible problems.

Most of the German Rieslings on the list were clearly sweet, but there was one Grosses Gewächs, so I felt safe ordering that without much further discussion, as the whole idea behind Grosses Gewächs is that first the wines should come only from designated top vineyard sites, and second, they should taste dry (more of this in a moment). The wine was Georg Mosbacher’s Forster Freundstuck (Freundstuck is a relatively little known vineyard close to the famous walled Kirchenstuck vineyard in the town of Forst).

This turned out to be a nice wine, inclined to richness rather than minerality, but palpably sweet. If it had been labeled as a halbtrocken (where up to 18 g/l residual sugar is allowed) I would not have blinked, but I found it hard to accept that any reasonable person could describe it as dry. Perhaps it has residual sugar right at the limit for the trocken classification, with low enough acidity to let the sweetness dominate the palate. The sweetness was far too evident for the wine to be a good food match, although it did make a nice aperitif. I suggested to the waiter that the sommelier might like to come back and taste the wine so that he could avoid telling future clients it was dry, but for whatever reason he did not reappear.

When it was time for another bottle, I asked for the wine list, and the waiter, perhaps reacting to my earlier comments, said that he would fetch another sommelier. So I went through the list with head sommelier Dwayne Savoie, and we decided that there really wasn’t another completely dry Riesling. But an excellent alternative was found in the form of F. X. Pichler’s Loibner Berg Grüner Veltliner (Smaragd). I’m usually rather cautious about Grüner Veltliner outside of Austria, because I’ve had so few that have been truly expressive (as opposed to some interesting wines, especially older ones, in the Wachau region. Also, the Smaragd classification is based on ripeness/alcohol and so does not guarantee dryness). But I trusted Dwayne’s judgment on this, and wine turned out well, showing much the same quality as Riesling in ability to match Asian cuisine, although I would say it showed less refinement than Pichler’s Rieslings. My only complaint was that this wine is really too young now – but as I agreed ruefully with Dwayne, restaurants can no longer afford to hold the wines for ripe old age.

But I was left with the feeling that perhaps I should go back to my old rule: never order Riesling in a restaurant because you can’t tell whether it’s dry or not. With the exception of a small number of producers whose wines are always absolutely dry, it’s a pig in a poke. My experience in trusting sommeliers to know whether the wine is dry has not been great either. For years I never ordered Alsace Riesling because of this uncertainty, and I only abandoned the rule for German Riesling when the Grosses Gewächs classification was introduced. But it turns out this has the same flaw as the old system: trocken can allow up to 9 g/l residual sugar, on the assumption that acidity will be high enough to hide the sweetness. But it takes only one case, such as my recent experience, to throw the whole system into doubt; I’m not sure I will take the risk again. Uncertainty is completely lethal in a restaurant, especially given the prices on wine lists these days.

I will certainly concede that the playoff between sugar and acidity can give quite misleading results. Take a series of Rieslings that are supposedly trocken and try to place them in order of sweetness or in order of acidity. Often enough, the order conflicts with the numbers, because of the way in which high acidity disguises sweetness. But there is really no guarantee that a wine will taste dry unless its sugar level is below the level of perception. As Armin Diehl, of Schlossgut Diehl, former editor of the Gault-Millau guide to German wines, said when I asked him about the 9 g/l limit for trocken wines, “This is a nonsense: internationally dry is less than 4 g/l.” If they are really serious in Germany about persuading consumers that they make dry Rieslings that are suitable for matching food, trocken needs to be limited to 4 g/l residual sugar. That’s the level at which almost no one can detect sweetness. As I’ve suggested before, there should be another classification for wines that have more than 4 g/l but less than 9 g/l, and which are intended to taste dry. I am sure the German language is up to producing some very complicated compound adjective, which means, “has some residual sugar but actually tastes dry.”

Tasting Notes

Forster Freundstuck, Grosses Gewächs Riesling, Georg Mosbacher, 2007

The first impression is richness rather than finesse: not surprising for the Pfalz. The nose is fairly muted but gives more of an impression of stone fruits than citrus. The palate follows the same spectrum, but with more of an edge of citrus on the finish, and just a touch of petrol to identify the variety. But the wine is palpably sweet: it does not taste as though residual sugar is below the 9 g/l for the trocken designation. The soft richness of the wine attests to relatively low acidity, which presumably lets the sweetness show through so clearly. Alcohol at 13% attests to the ripeness of the grapes. At all events the balance of sweetness to acidity does not justify the trocken label. This is not what Grosses Gewächs is about, and betrays the whole principle.  87 Drink now-2016.

Loibner Berg, Franz Xaver Pichler, Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, 2007

Very dry is the first impression on nose and palate, almost spicy, although not as finely textured as Pichler’s Rieslings. The fruits show as citrus, inclined towards grapefruit, but with a spicy edge (some might call this white pepper). The citrus fruits give a strong impression of minerality, which again brings an almost Riesling-like note to the finish. The overall impression is that the wine is very young, it really needs some time to integrate and rub off the rough edges: it’s a shame to drink it so soon, it seems to be made for aging.  89 Drink now-2017