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.

Alsace Diary part 2: Sweetness – the Big Mistake with Ambiguous Labels

I think Riesling is one of the most under rated white grape varieties. It is fantastically versatile with food, as any one who visits Alsace or Germany will discover. But I almost never order it in a restaurant, because I have no idea whether it will be dry (and no, after many surprising experiences, I don’t trust the sommelier to know whether it will taste sweet to me). And I absolutely never order any of the other grape varieties in Alsace, irrespective of whether they might match the food, because the probability is that they will have some residual sugar.

Sales of Alsace wine are in steady decline, and uncertainty as to whether any particular wine will be dry or sweet almost certainly play a large part. Until you get the categories of Vendange Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles, used for very sweet dessert wines, no distinction is made on the label about the degree of sweetness. A handful of producers are committed to dry styles, but for most producers, a particular cuvée may be dry one year and off-dry the next year, depending on vintage conditions. That uncertainty is a complete killer in a restaurant. (And I’ll look at what varying sweetness does to the reputation of grand crus in part 4 of the Alsace Diary.)

Conscious of the issue, many producers in Alsace have been moving to indicate the sweetness of each wine on the back label, most using a scale from 1 to 5, some a scale from 1 to 10. Would this solve the consumers’ problem, I asked Celine Josmeyer (who is committed to a dry style) on a recent visit. “It would if all producers used it,” she says. But I wonder if it is that simple.

One problem is not everyone is using the same scale. When Olivier Humbrecht first introduced a five point scale, some years ago, he excluded the dessert wines on the grounds that everyone knows they are sweet. I think he was right about this: once you are into overtly sweet wines, the exact level of sweetness is rarely an issue in making a decision. It’s down at the bottom where you really want to know whether a wine is bone dry, off-dry, or slightly sweet. A standard five point scale here would be adequate; but if the five points extend all the way to full sweetness, it really doesn’t discriminate enough, and if some people have five point scales and others have ten point scales, it’s just confusing.

Another problem is that the scales are subjective.”They are absolutely not objective. Perception of sweetness depends on alcohol, sugar, and acidity,” says Etienne Sipp, who uses a ten point scale at Domaine Louis Sipp.  It’s the old question of whether a wine tastes dry when it has high enough acidity to disguise the sugar. Perception of sweetness doesn’t vary so much among people as perception of some other flavors, but at the level of balancing sweetness and acidity, not everyone is the same. Most producers tell me their dividing line between category 1 (dry) and category 2 (off-dry) is around 6 g/l residual sugar, but that’s precisely the point that is most subjective. Even worse, the number depends on who does the classification. Tasting at Kientzler, I queried the classification of a wine in category 1; if I had been doing the classification, I might have given it a different number, says Eric Kientzler. “The problem is that everyone has their own system, when I see what’s on the label, sometimes I’m astonished,” says Marc Hugel.

I just can’t bang on about this enough. There is an international standard for dry wine and it is less than 4 g/l sugar. Above that you may or may not be able to taste sweetness, but below it virtually no one tastes sweetness. So category 1 should be defined as unambiguously dry with less than 4 g/l; category 2 could be defined as ambiguously dry (meaning that opinions could differ) with more than 4 g/l sugar and very high acidity; and category 3 could be defined as showing at least some sweetness to most tasters. That would be useful; the present scale is simply too unpredictable.

But in any case, the whole thing is irrelevant, because the scale is put on the back label. Okay, in a wine shop you can turn the bottle over and have a look. But in a restaurant? I’m not going to ask the sommelier to bring out a series of wines from Alsace so I can check the back labels. The sweetness needs to be part of the official description. There should be a category of Alsace Sec which is defined as less than 4 g/l sugar: no give and take. There could be another category, or peferably categories, for wines that (might) taste dry but aren’t technically dry.

I have the same problem with the trocken classification in Germany, which is meant to avoid these problems, because trocken has been misdefined as either less than 4 g/l sugar or less than 9 g/l if acidity is high enough. That latter class puts us back into the ambiguously dry category, which is why I almost never order trocken Riesling in a restaurant, although I love the wines when they are really bone dry.

And as for Brut Champagne, it is completely ridiculous to have one description for anything up to 12 g/l dosage. Now that many Brut Champagnes are in fact below 6 g/l dosage, they could be labeled as Extra Brut (but often aren’t because producers fear this will put off consumers). Sugar isn’t so critical when you are drinking the wine as an aperitif, but Champagne will never make inroads as a food companion unless and until the categories for sweetness are better defined.

But here’s another idea. Instead of messing around with subjective scales, why not just put the level of residual sugar (or for Champagne the dosage) on the label. That would be technically simple and much more informative. I know, I know, the objection will be that this may confuse the consumer, but that’s a really weary excuse these days used to hide anything from high alcohol to residual sugar, and I’m not so sure consumers are as easily confused as producers like to pretend.

The crucial thing is that the label has to give completely predictability: can I taste sugar or not? In regions where sugar levels vary, there is one way, and only one way to do this: to have a category defined strictly as less than 4 g/l sugar. That’s the standard everywhere that wine is only dry (white Burgundy must be less than 4 g/l, for example), so why is it so difficult to get people to see this in other regions?

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

Wine additives and manipulation

“Chaptalization” and “watering back” come close to words that cannot speak their name: at the very least, they are extremely sensitive subjects that you bring up at your peril with producers in France on the one hand, and in California on the other. Each is a miracle of transmogrification. Chaptalization consists of turning sugar into wine; well, technically the sugar is converted into alcohol, but the bulk of the sugar increases the bulk of the wine – in fact you can calculate that it’s a lot cheaper to increase the volume of your wine by chaptalization than by growing more grapes. Watering back is the practice of diluting the must before fermentation; this is pretty much a direct conversion of water into wine. Attitudes to the processes are mirror images: chaptalization is illegal in California, and watering back is regarded as a fraud in Europe. In the course of thinking about what determines the typicity (or typicities) of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux and Napa, I have been trying to get some information about the extent of the two processes. As I am off to Bordeaux for my first research visit, I’ve been concentrating on chaptalization for now, but I’ll return to watering back later when I go to Napa.

Chaptalization is legal in the northern parts of Europe, and consists of adding sugar, up to a limit that is usually below 2%, to the must, either before or during fermentation. Introduced as the result of Chaptal’s advocacy in the early nineteenth century, it compensates for lack of sugar when the grapes don’t reach sufficient  ripeness to have an adequate level of alcohol. Some producers believe that best results are obtained by adding sugar before fermentation, effectively creating the level that would have been reached if the grapes had been riper. Others believe that gradually timed additions are better, or a small addition at the very end, which stresses the yeast – DRC are great believers in this last option, and no one could quarrel with the quality of their wines!

It seems to me that it’s a reasonable question of public interest as to how much chaptalization is used, but whenever I’ve attempted to find out, I’ve been given a royal runaround. Producers who use chaptalization in France have to make a declaration to the tax authorities in order to pay tax on their usage. When I wrote my first book on Bordeaux, I asked the Customs authorities in Bordeaux for information, but they said the local office of INAO would have it. So I enquired in Bordeaux, but was told INAO in Paris would have it. Of course, INAO in Paris then told me that the Customs in Bordeaux would have it!

Spurred by the fact that the famous ampelographer Pierre Galet quotes the Service de Douanes as his source for figures on the use of sugar in Bordeaux between 1996 and 2000, I made a renewed effort last month. “Producers who wish to enrich their wines by sucrage, by adding concentrated must, or by concentration by cold treatment (congélation) must deposit a declaration of enrichment at the local office of the Customs,” Patrick Leduc of the Douanes informed me. “But the service cannot divulge any statistics on the use of sugar,” he added. So I asked him how M. Galet had obtained the figures that feature in his book (Cépages et vignobles de France : Tome 3, Les vignobles de France), which show that Bordeaux was the second highest user of sugar after Champagne (which of course uses it for dosage). Why cannot I have similar information for the years from 2001-2010, I asked. “Because our service does not possess the requested information,” M. Leduc replied.  When I pointed out that there’s a small inconsistency here, that first it’s claimed Customs can’t divulge the information, then when it’s demonstrated they have in fact previously divulged the number, they claim they don’t have the information, I received no reply. (You have to wonder what’s the point of paying taxes if the authorities don’t even know they’ve got the money.)

I do not think this obsession for secrecy serves the interests of the producers well. When I’ve asked in Bordeaux about the use of chaptalization, the usual answer is that it’s been much rarer since 1997. That’s pretty much what you would expect from the run of warmer vintages. The fact alone that alcohol levels are now pushing 14% in Bordeaux, whereas previously it was a struggle to get to 12.5%, suggests that chaptalization often may be unnecessary. What I expected the figures to do was to confirm the anecdotal impression that chaptalization is less frequent (although I don’t expect it to have disappeared completely, and it might well have needed to come back for the 2011 vintage). But before I conclude that Bordeaux is generally free of added sugar, I’d like to see some confirmation in the form of real numbers. Producers are fairly transparent about which varieties go into the assemblage each year, what proportion of production is diverted to a second wine, how much new oak they use – so if chaptalization is a respectable process, why should there be such secrecy about it, especially if it’s in decline?

I still have not succeeded in obtaining any information about the extent of chaptalization in Bordeaux since 2000, but the sugar manufacturers are quite proud of the varied usages of sugar in France. Their annual report gives the tonnage used for the 15 most important sectors. Chaptalization just creeps into the bottom of this list (just below Glaces, sorbets et crèmes glacées). Assuming that wine is treated at 1.75 kg/hl (just below the limit), it’s possible to calculate what volume of wine has been chaptalized, and what proportion this is of the total harvest in France. It comes to between a quarter and a third in cool years (such as 2007) but drops to around 17% in warmer years (such as 2005). The rock bottom level was 13% in the record hot year of 2003. (The percentages would be higher if the average level of chaptalization was lower.)

We are pitifully under informed about wine compared to the information that is mandatory for foods. I’m not advocating that the label should have a detailed list of every ingredient that was used to treat a wine, but I do wonder whether it’s naive simply to assume that wine is a natural product made from grapes, and to allow labels to state features such as the percentage of each variety but not other ingredients. Of course, it would be a lot less glamorous to say “this wine was made from 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, and 2% sugar.”