In an earlier blog I discussed the relationship between sugar and alcohol in making a wine. The higher the sugar levels in the grapes at harvest (Brix), the higher resulting alcohol in the wine. And the warmer the climate and the longer the hang time, the higher the sugar levels. I did not discuss whether there was a “right” level of alcohol for a given wine, except that a wine should try to achieve some balance between its alcohol and its other component parts. There is now a movement in California, made up of some vintners and sommeliers, called “In Pursuit of Balance” (IPOB), which believes that wines have become so ripe and alcoholic that they have lost their varietal identity. Their goal is to have American wines take a step in the direction of cooler climate European wines, meaning less alcohol and more acidity, where most of the local varietals originated.
James Laube wrote an editorial in the current edition of the Wine Spectator (Dim Somms 9/30/14) that was relatively critical of this movement and its fixation on one number – the alcohol level. He and many prestigious winemakers complain that the sommeliers are acting as gatekeepers and excluding any wines from restaurant wine lists that have an alcohol level above 14%. To quote Laube: “To be denied a place on a list based on alcohol level doesn’t sit well with many who make wine in warmer climates.”
Here is my take on the issue. For years I have been trying to decrease my alcohol consumption without decreasing my wine consumption. This is not an easy task with California wines. I also drink wine with a meal, not as a cocktail. As a result, I prefer the traditional wines of France and Italy, which are lower in alcohol, and where the higher acidity makes them pair better with food. Many of my friends in the wine industry are doing the same. Alcohol is just too hard on the body. I was recently with a winemaker in Napa who, although he makes a well know rich Chardonnay, said he personally only drinks White Burgundy from France. And he was not alone.
As a retail wine merchant, I try to find the best wines that mesh well with a given customer’s tastes. If this customer usually drinks wine before dinner or during a party or reception, a rich and fruit forward California wine may be just perfect. I do understand, however, how sommeliers in a restaurant setting feel a wine recommendation should make the meal taste better. And this is difficult with a port-like Zinfandel. Food craves acidity, not alcohol. So I can relate to their insistence on keeping the alcohol lower. I would respect my restaurant wine server more if she proposed a wine “in pursuit of balance.”
So what should we say to the people who make wines in warmer climates? I believe there are some winemaking practices that can give a slightly lower level of alcohol, like picking the grapes when they are less ripe. But the winemakers might say that these grapes are not yet ready from the point of view of extraction, phenolics, tannin, or color. I would then have to ask if they were possibly not growing the right grapes for that terroir or location. Much research in the wine world goes into finding the right grapes for the right place. And there has been a lot of success in pairing up these optimal combinations. But unfortunately, global warming, whatever the cause, is changing the attributes of traditional sites, making it something of a moving target. If I remember correctly Napa Cabernet was dryer and lower in alcohol in the 1980’s than it is today. Is that because of climate change, different winemaking priorities, or both? And if climate change is the culprit, what do you do about it? Can new winemaking techniques compensate for changing terroir?
I’ll finish this piece by saying I applaud the efforts to lower alcohol levels in wine, and the “in pursuit of balance” champions are at least bringing much needed attention to this issue.