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.

Cru Bourgeois in 2014: Fresh and Lively

A presentation of twenty Cru Bourgeois châteaux in New York gave a view of the 2014 vintage that will be an interesting contrast with the forthcoming tasting of the UGCB (grand crus).

Perhaps I was biased by the first few wines I tasted, but the first single word that came to mind to describe the vintage was “acidity.” This is perhaps a bit unfair, but continuing on it certainly seemed that fresh and lively would be a reasonable description. These wines are a far cry from the exuberant style to which the grand crus have been moving.

The wines are mostly well balanced in the traditional style of Bordeaux, which is to say showing fresh fruits with a lively palate. Traditional may be a bit misleading if you think back to when Bordeaux was bitter when young, as one impressive quality is that virtually all are ready to drink now. Tannins are light and never obtrusive, there isn’t an overt sense of structure, but there’s enough to stop the wines from becoming simple fruits. None will be especially long lived, but most should last well for six to eight years. What does this suggest about the vintage? More classic than modern would be fair comment.

These are definitely food wines. I suspect they wouldn’t show so well at a tasting with wines in a more “international” idiom, because you have to look for flavor variety rather than having it thrust at you, but the restrained quality puts them into a class where they should offer a refreshing counterpoise to a meal.

Alcohol is a surprise: it is not noticeable on any of the wines. Given the impression they offer of traditional Bordeaux, you would expect the level to be around 12.5%, but in fact it is usually 13.5%. It’s the first time I’ve been able to accept that 13.5 is the new 12.5 as the alcohol is not accompanied by an impression that dry extract had to be increased to balance it. I don’t know whether the alcohol is all natural or there has been some chaptalization.

These wines are good value, mostly around the $25 mark, and an interesting contrast with, say, New World Cabernet at that price level, where the wines usually seem to me to be trying too hard to imitate more expensive varietal wines. Here the pattern is more bimodal: I see the Cru Bourgeois as striking a different balance, and having a different objective, rather than running as a continuum into the grand crus.

Three wines that particularly stood out for me were Château Labardi (Haut Médoc), for its delicacy and silkiness, Château Peyrabon (Haut Médoc) for a smooth, spicy balance, and Château Rollan de By (Médoc) for its full, generous black fruit impression.

Alcohol and Tannins in St. Emilion: Cheshire Cat Years?

Austerity is not a word that often comes to mind in the context of St. Emilion, but it did at this year’s New York tasting of Grand Cru Classés, which compared the 2010 and 2012 vintages. This gave me much pause for thought by comparison with the tasting two years ago of the 2009 and 2010 vintages (Oenologues Triumph in St. Emilion). Last time round, the main impression (driven by 2009 but not that much different in 2010) was the softness of the palate, with fruits supported by furry tannins. This time the impression was of much tighter wines; the 2010s have tightened up, and the 2012s can verge on tough. These were not the lush, approachable wines for which St. Emilion is reputed; words like fleshy or opulent never appeared in my tasting notes.

Alcohol levels were punishing, often around 15% for 2010, and a half percent or percent lower in 2012. Now that the fruits of 2010 have lost their initial youthful enthusiasm, alcohol and tannin are driving the palate. What showed as a structural backbone to the fruits two years ago now seems more skeletal. It’s fair to say that alcohol is not directly obtrusive in many wines, but it has an indirect effect in enhancing the bitterness of tannins on the finish. Some wines have an almost tart quality at the end, which clashes with the fruits rather than refreshing. The traditional generosity of Merlot in St. Emilion is largely missing, and I often get an impression biased more towards Cabernet Franc than the dominant Merlot.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the 2012s are starting out where the 2010s leave off, with an almost sharp tannic finish often dominating the fruits. This makes me quite concerned as to how they will show in another two years’ time. I don’t often get the impression that the fruits will really emerge when the tannins resolve. Most chateaux have managed to achieve decent ripeness in the tannins, but occasionally you get suspicions of green. The 2012 wines have less alcohol than the 2010s, but they also have less fruit concentration, so the problem of maintaining balance as the fruits thin out is more or less equivalent. The fruits make them seem like wines for the mid-term, but I’m not sure the tannins will resolve in time; and they don’t have the stuffing for the long term. You might expect the greater fruit concentration to let the 2010s resist better, and I’m not so much worried about whether the fruits will outlast the tannins, which are mostly quite fine, but I have a concern that 2010 may be the year of the Cheshire Cat: what will dominate when the tannins resolve is the grin of the alcohol.

Very few of these wines, from either 2010 or 2012, are ready to drink: most need from two to four years more. Of course, this situation would scarcely be a surprise to any survivors who remember Bordeaux of the pre-1982 era. I will say that I saw more evidence of character in these wines than in the 2009s (and the 2010s two years ago) when there seemed to be a sort of interdenominational quality to them: the present question is whether you can handle the character of a bitter tang at the end. There’s evidently quite a lot of extract in today’s wines, and it’s hard to say whether that will give them the stuffing to develop well as tannins resolve, or whether it will remain awkward. In most cases, I preferred the 2010 to the 2012, but in those instances where I preferred the 2012, it was usually due to lower alcohol letting the fruits speak more freely.

My favorite wines were Chateau Fombrauge and Grand Corbin-Despagne in 2010 and Chateau Yon Figeac in 2012.

Chateau Fombrauge, 2010

Slightly nutty, soft impression from nose. Palate well balanced between black fruits and refreshing acidity; still something of a tannic bite at the end. The structure is there but not obtrusive, and the overall impression is refined, showing precision in the fruits. 91 points, drink 2016-2027.

Chateau Grand Corbin-Despagne, 2010

Some black fruits poking through restrained nose, leading into good balance on palate between refined black fruits and tannins with chocolaty overtones. A little tight at the end but should soften in next year or so. Refined impression avoids the bitter tang at the end of many wines. 90 points, drink 2016-2027.

Chateau Yon Figeac, 2012

More sense of black fruits and spices than in the 2010. Refined palate makes an elegant impression, with a touch of tannin at the end. I like the sense of precision in the fruits and the balance. Fine structure should offer some support for aging. 90 points, drink 2017-2026.

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Balance and Pornography

Balance is perhaps the most sought after quality in a wine. When you ask winemakers what they are trying to do, the common answer might best be paraphrased as “to express the vineyard in a balanced wine.” But what is balance? Somewhat like pornography, you know it when you see it, but it’s awfully hard to define.

The most common occurrence in which you hear balance evoked as a descriptor is in the context of alcohol. Complaints about high alcohol are usually met with the rejoinder, “but the wine is balanced, so why is it a problem?” This is and isn’t true.

I would say that alcohol was balanced in a wine when it is not noticeable. Lack of balance most often takes the form of a perceptible feeling of heat on the finish. While this occurs most often in wines with high alcohol, I’ve had wines with alcohol over 14% where it was not evident and I’ve had wines at 12.5% where alcohol was obtrusive. I have been puzzling over what it is that confers balance.

I think the most common mistake that producers make is to believe that because a wine is balanced with regards to alcohol, acidity, tannins, all the obvious factors, that’s the end of the argument. But isn’t it true that a wine with 12.5% alcohol needs a different balance overall than a wine with 14% alcohol? If you added 1.5% alcohol to a 12.5% alcohol wine, the effect would be pretty noticeable. The limit of chaptalization to 2% potential alcohol (now reduced to 1.5%) in the northern areas of Europe was intended to stop the wines coming out of balance.

Different grape varieties accumulate sugar at different rates, and certainly the varieties grown in warm climates have always reached high sugar levels at ripeness. High alcohol has always been part of the character of wines such as Chateauneuf du Pape or Barolo or Rioja. But with varieties originating in cooler climates, take for example Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux or even Napa, or Pinot Noir from Burgundy, the alcohol has shot up in the past two decades. The reason is that the grapes have been picked at much higher levels of ripeness. Yes, the wines are balanced, but the balance is different: overall it is richer, more extracted, there is more (but riper) tannin; you need all this to balance the alcohol. (Of course, I’m referring specifically to dry table wines here: fortified wines such as Sherry or Port are another kettle of fish, to mix a metaphor.)

The change in extraction is surely just as responsible as alcohol for the change in the character of Bordeaux and Burgundy over the past two decades: people talk about the alcohol levels, which have increased about 1.0-1.5%, but the richness has increased more than that because some of the alcohol in the older wines came from addition of sugar before fermentation. The change in style over the past three decades is equivalent roughly to a 3% increase in potential alcohol. In North America, as typified by Napa, the increase as been around 2% in potential alcohol (here sometimes hidden by the use of alcohol reduction techniques).

Come to think of it, perhaps there are more similarities than just the difficulty of description between questions of balance and pornography. Wines that have high alcohol, even when balanced, tend to have a titillating effect on the palate: after a small taste that fills the senses, you try for more. But the wine rapidly becomes fatiguing. I suspect that the issue may be the level of dry extract. A wine with 14% alcohol is more powerful not just because of the alcohol but because of the total level of extraction, and I think this is what makes the wines so attractive at first blush, but fatiguing afterwards. They show well at tastings, but I like to perform a reality check by having a bottle for dinner: my measure of a great bottle is that when it’s finished I would in principle like to have another; but when it’s delicious to begin with but I tire of it half way through, I have to concede I was fooled at the tasting. That’s my real measure of balance.

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.

Designer Oak Labels

It used to be so simple. Wine would complete its alcoholic fermentation and be transferred into barrels, more or less new according to the strength of the year. The source of the oak would most likely be the nearest forest; you might worry a little bit about how much the oak had been toasted.

Today the degree of toast is tightly controlled, sometimes using infrared rather than mere simple fire, and is reproducible. “We at Taransaud know what medium toast is, we measure it by time and temperature, but some people still use color, which is very variable,” says Jean-Pierre Giraud. Toast was the elephant in the room at the afternoon session of Taransaud’s seminar for the Institute of Masters of Wine: it was rarely mentioned directly, but I suspect that it was the main determinative factor in barrels that had been designed for very specific purposes.

I was fascinated by the concept that a barrel could be designed directly to handle higher alcohol wines. I’ve had the view for some time that the problem with high alcohol wines is not just the higher alcohol, but a generally higher level of extraction, which makes them fatiguing to drink (although sometimes apparently performing better at tastings). I hadn’t followed through to ask the corollary question: when and where does the higher extraction take place and could it be changed?

Alcohol is a solvent, and perhaps its most obvious effect is on maceration: different tannins are extracted by pre-fermentation maceration (when there is no alcohol) from post-fermentation maceration (when alcohol is present). But the question implicit in Taransaud’s design of a barrel for higher alcohol wines is whether there will be differences in extraction during élevage of a 15% alcohol wine from a 13% alcohol wine, and whether the barrel can be adjusted to equalize the effects.

The starting point is that alcohol affects the perception of other components in the wine, reports Dominique de Beauregard of Taransaud. It masks some components, especially fruit aromas, and exacerbates others, in particular herbaceous elements. Higher alcohol extracts more toast aromas, making the wine seem heavier and more tannic. (From this I would guess that some of the adjustment to higher alcohol involves reducing the toast.) So Taransaud have developed a barrel – the working name is the A+ – which is intended to enhance fruit to compensate for the effect of higher alcohol.

I thought the blind tasting of Izquierdo 2010 from Ribera del Duero, matured in either a regular barrel or an A+ barrel, was inconclusive. In the regular barrel, the wine was tinged with savage, even animal, notes, and the finish seemed harsh and bitter. These problems were ameliorated by an impression of more fruit and a softer palate with the A+ barrel, but the wine was still pretty biting with a burning finish. I am sorry, but once you have reached 15.5% alcohol, I’m not convinced that any change in the élevage is going to bring the wine back to a reasonable balance.

The next special effect was a barrel intended to “reveal Chardonnay’s typicity and quality.” I think an issue’s going begging here, however. What is the typicity of Chardonnay? I think of it as the chameleon grape, capable of flinty minerality in Chablis, nutty overtones in Meursault, steeliness in Puligny, butter and vanillin in Napa, tropical fruits in South America. If ever there was a grape that responds to the winemaker, this is it!

Be that as it may, it seems that Taransaud, firmly centered in France, sees minerality and tension as the objective for Chardonnay. (So do I.) They wouldn’t say what is special or different about the PFC barrel that is their prototype for Chardonnay, except that the wood was carefully selected for grain, seasoning, and toasting. (This is somewhat along the lines of a phrase often found in scientific papers to which I take strong exception. “We performed the experiment carefully.” Well, yes, how else would you perform it?) Anyway, I certainly see the merit of the notion that perhaps oak should be different for Chardonnay from Pinot Noir or from Cabernet Sauvignon. However, I wasn’t persuaded by the results of this particular experiment. A Domaine François Lumpp 2011 Givry in a traditional barrel had a nose and palate showing a nice combination of citrus fruits and oak overtones, smooth and well integrated. The PFC barrel seemed to give a more muted impression and I thought I got a fugitive touch of high toned aromatics on the nose, with the acidity standing out to make the palate seem a bit disjointed. This is clearly a work in progress.

Egg-shaped fermenters are all the rage at biodynamic producers, who feel that the shape encourages a natural fluid movement that reduces the need for intervention. This is something that could presumably be measured, although I haven’t yet seen any attempt at objective judgment. Egg-shaped fermenters come in cement and now Taransaud have introduced one in wood, called the Ovum. The blind tasting was a comparison of Domaine de Chevalier 2011, 100% Sauvignon Blanc, given six months in conventional 225 liter barrels, 400 liter barrels, or a 2000 liter Ovum.

Now the problem here from my point of view is that we are not comparing like with like. The main effect is surely going to be the different ratio of surface area to volume, which is greatest in the 225 liter barrel, about 20% less in the 400 liter barrel, and only about half in the 2000 liter container. (And a further complication is that in barrels the inside is usually toasted but the heads are not.) For this to be a significant test of shape, we would need to compare a barrel or a cylinder of 2000 liters with the Ovum.

Anyway, the blind tasting to my mind validated the idea that they have learned something in the past couple of hundred years about the best containers for maturing white wine. The traditional barrel gave a classic impression, with a typical citrus fruit spectrum tinged with oak, becoming soft and ripe in the glass. The 400 liter barrel gave a much less oaky impression, with the citrus fruits coming to the fore. The Ovum gave a grassier wine with more zest, fresher and purer, but less interesting. When the audience was asked to vote for their preference, the choice was interestingly for the 400 liter, but I think that did not make sufficient allowance for the fact that the wine is very young and normally would have many more months to mature before tasting. Allowing for that, my preference was for the traditional barrique.

The final tasting was a test of Taransaud’s T5 barrel. All we could learn about this was that the wood is seasoned for five years, it comes from French oak with a very tight grain, and there is a special toasting procedure on an open fire at low intensity. Oh, and a barrel costs about €1200 compared to the usual €700. It’s intended to bring refinement to the wine. The test tasting was of Château Beauregard (Pomerol) 2009 matured in either a standard barrel or a T5 barrel. There was definitely a difference. The classic barrel produced a wine that was rich and fruity with oak that was relatively subdued on the nose but more evident on the palate, in fact it was quite dominant. Slowly emerging fruit gave a youthful impression of needing quite a bit more time. The T5 sample was more subdued, almost closed on the nose, with the fruits initially seeming sweeter and riper, and better integrated, on the palate. It gave the impression that it will be ready to drink a year or two sooner than the wine from the classic barrique. All of the winemakers – some of whom are using T5 barrels – said they preferred it. But this tasting was not done blind. I hate to spoil the party, but I wonder whether this is like malolactic fermentation in barrel: the question is whether it is a short-term effect or will persist? Will the two wines be any different in five or ten years’ time?

I really admire the efforts to go behind simply turning out high quality barrels into examining all the factors that influence the effects of wood on the wine, and asking how and which changes should be made for different situations. Just as Riedel has created a perception that we should no longer use the same glasses to taste all wines, it makes me wonder whether in years to come, we will look back and wonder at the primitive nature of the idea that oak barrels might be generic for all wines.

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.