Thursday, February 10, 2011

Feel the Burn

It’s one of the hottest (if you’ll forgive a wine industry pun) topics in California today. Alcohol. “The cause of and solution to all of life’s problems”, according to philosopher Homer Simpson. Well, it does create something of a problem on the winemaking side of the ledger as anyone working in warmer climates will tell you. While generally not a huge issue in marginal regions like the Mosel in Germany or the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, there’s no doubting the potential for a runaway train where the sun shines brightly.

The last few decades in particular have seen a noticeable uptick in alcohol levels. Numerous fingers have been pointed. Everything from warming climates to attempts to appease critics partial to a full-blown style has been blamed. And while the root causes can be debated, the reality cannot. Wines from 25-30 years ago across regions and varietals simply had less alcohol – often a lot less alcohol - than they do today. So what’s the issue?

The most contentious debate exists among two more-or-less competing camps. The first is fairly dogmatic about lowering alcohols either by picking their fruit earlier or “spinning out” through reverse osmosis from a finished wine. This often dovetails with a stylistic philosophy that celebrates higher acidity in whites and reds, more ageworthy tannin structures and less oak treatment (especially new) in the cellar. Contrast this with the full-throttle crowd that celebrates often opulent ripeness and lavish new oak. More ripeness means higher sugars. Higher sugars mean higher alcohol after fermentation is complete. One can see how a lot of decisions about where to take a wine’s octane level take place before the grapes ever hit the cellar. And not for nothing, but, and I’m painting with a broad brush here, the flashier wines are usually the ones consumers want. So a winemaker philosophically opposed to high alcohol may not have a choice if he or she wants to remain employed.

The heart of the matter is the question of how the wine tastes. I have sampled Cabernets pushing 16% that don’t have the slightest perception of ‘heat” or out-of-balance alcohol. Conversely, there are wines floating around out there in the 13%-13.5% range that taste like the barrels were topped off with moonshine. My personal rule of thumb is that if it tastes hot, it is hot. Alcohol, like fruit, tannin, color, etc. is part an overall impression that needs balance and cohesion to succeed. So I think that like the brave souls who put down their refractometers to measure grape sugars in the vineyard and started picking on flavor, maybe a similar approach should be undertaken in the cellar. Drop the paint-by-numbers approach that sets either a minimum or maximum alcohol content and start focusing in on what ends up in the glass. Then I think we’re all winners.

--Rhett Gadke, Wine Director

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