Throughout most of wine history—certainly from the Middle Ages in Europe forward to our own times—the challenge to vintners in most regions and years was to increase wine’s alcoholic strength, and thus its body.
We had, for instance, Burgundians and the Bordelais blending into their own stuff, not just wines from the more southern regions of France (where warmer temperatures let the grapes get riper) but even from Northern Africa, particularly, following the phylloxera disaster, from Algeria, in order to—as the Globe and Mail says—“surreptitiously…pump up anemic bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy.” Bordeaux was called “claret” [“clear red” — my interpretation] by the Brits for a good reason: it often was “a dark rosé” rather than a true red wine.
Why “surreptitiously”? Because tinkering with wine has always been a no-no, and the notion of terroir, however it was thought of a thousand years ago, always has been integral to man’s appreciation of wine. I don’t know who first uttered the cliché, “Wine is made in the vineyard,” but something similar seems to have been understood, at least tacitly, long ago.
Well, the French don’t have to pump up their wines anymore, especially with global warming. Now, for the first time in human history, the problem is exactly the opposite: How to lower the alcohol in wine. As this scholarly article from South Africa confirms, the issue isn’t just limited to here in California (where some groups, such as In Pursuit of Balance, have made it controversial). The article, from the trade journal WineLand, assesses that, “Over the last few years, pressure is internationally applied to produce wines with lower alcohol,” stimulated in part by a U.K. study that found that “28% of the respondents were concerned about the alcohol content of the wines they buy.” The writer made the further distinction—vital, from a production point of view—that, while consumers want to drink lower alcohol wines, they want them made “without the addition of water or using alcohol reduction technology.”
Now, it is patently difficult to make low alcohol wines—let’s say, the “12.5 to 13.5% [that] have…become popular,” according to the WineLand article—in wine regions, like California, that are sunny and warm. You can do it—but then you run into the problem, as Esther Mobley, the wine columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote about last Sunday, of green, pyraziney wines. And whatever else consumers want, they don’t want to drink wine that smells and tastes like cat pee, asparagus, boiled broccoli, green bell peppers or any other of those veggie traits.
What then are these warm areas to do? The WineLand article suggests “certain policy decisions” that have to be made, beginning with a shift away from varieties, like Chardonnay, “which require high alcohol concentration,” to be “replaced by cultivars like Riesling and Malvasia Bianca.”
Beyond that, the article recommended fairly standard viticultural and enological practices, among them terminating the fermentation process “to leave sufficient residual sugar for better balance in the wine with a lower alcohol content.”
These would be pretty drastic steps for a winery to take, especially in America, where Chardonnay is and long has been the top-selling variety. Americans have voted with their dollars that they are not willing to substitute Riesling, much less Malvasia, for Chardonnay. They also don’t want (for the most part) residual sugar in their white wines, at least, any more R.S. than they’re already getting. As for reds, what varieties would compensate for Cabernet Sauvignon, the other top seller? We all know Cabernet needs a certain degree of ripeness to succeed—especially if the winemaker vows not to use intrusive alcohol reduction methods, such as the spinning cone. It’s all well and good to celebrate, say, Corison, but let’s face it, Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles or most other places is not going to be achieved lower than 14.5%–and in general, if that’s the number on the label, you can assume it’s higher. (I always make that assumption.) So I’m not sure how helpful it is for arguments like this to be put forward. It puts winemakers in an insanely impossible situation: literally between a rock and a hard place.
My hunch is that this “pressure internationally applied to produce wines with lower alcohol” is a temporary phenomenon. Consumers are rightfully concerned about the amount of alcohol they put into their bodies, but they also want (or say they want) fruity wines. And fruitiness comes, in California, at a cost. So, as sometimes happens when you poll consumers (or voters), you get mixed, contradictory and conflicting messages. Politicians can split the difference using rhetoric: winemakers, who must actually make wine and not just talk about it, can’t. Their wine either will be ripe, or it won’t: one taste (or sniff) will tell all.
I do think the moment of pushing the high alcohol envelope has been reached. Winemakers have gotten the message: This high and no higher. I also think vintners should be thinking of ways to get lower alcohol while still preserving ripeness. But I don’t think Malvasia or Riesling (or Beaujolais) are wave-of-the-future wines in America, good as they can be. The taste of consumers goes in cycles. Wineries that pander to the cycles usually don’t survive. Wineries that stay the course, do.