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Feature Article

Some Like it Hot

Okay, so wine is not exactly cooked but rising alcohol levels definitely make it hot and many U.S. consumers like it that way.

America (Country Appellation)

Some Like It Hot

Technology Columnist Clark Smith weighs in on the evolution of high alcohol -‘hot’ - wines and why they are the rule, not the exception in the U.S.

by Clark Smith
September 10, 2007

Wine alcohol levels certainly are climbing. Elin McCoy reported in her Bloomberg column, “High-Octane Wine Fashion Craze Provokes Dumping, Rebellion,” that her survey of California wine labels indicates a rise from 12.5 percent in 1971 to a 14.8 percent average in 2001. Mind you, back then, common practice was to print multiple vintages of labels (with the vintage on a neck label) and to show the alcohol as 12.5 percent, taking advantage of the 1.5 percent federal leeway below 14 percent. But Australian Wine Research Institute figures show the same trend for their wines based on actual analysis: from 12.8 in 1975 to 14.5 percent today.

New Tariff in Town

Drinking stronger doesn’t mean drinking more. According to the World Health Organization, Americans decreased their overall per capita alcohol consumption by over 20 percent from 1980 to 2000. We’re drinking less and enjoying it more, but maybe compensating a bit by shifting buying preferences to stronger stuff. Without a doubt, there was a shift in the ‘80’s from light wines – mostly white and rosé and usually a little sweet - to bigger, drier styles like Chardonnay and the big reds as wineries lured hard liquor drinkers away from spirits. And when the federal tax on a gallon of wine soared in 1984 from 17¢ to $1.07, gallon jug prices tripled overnight from $2 to $6 and former jug drinkers shifted to 750 ml, while wine consumption plunged from 12 liters per capita to 8 liters the following year.

I should point out that, in terms of ripeness, the trend is much more drastic than the numbers indicate because of the new alcohol adjustment technologies which Conetech and my own company Vinovation have popularized in the last decade. Together we take an average of over 1 percent alcohol from 45 percent of the California wines you buy. So in terms of actual alcohol at the end of fermentation, the average in 2001 was well over 15 percent.

Where is this alcohol coming from? Countless articles have recently emerged on this topic, each with its own novel slant. Let’s look over some reasons offered up in the popular press for this trend, and then I’ll take us behind the scenes into the minds of today’s winemakers.

Are we seeing another artifact of climate change, somehow raising the sugar in our fruit? In its December 2006 issue article about the rise of the emerging
What’s next for wine as alcohol levels rise? Chardonnay Vodka?
Tulucay appellation Cabernet, Wine and Spirits Magazine implicates global warming in the rise of Howell Mountain alcohols and the rush to the cool end of Napa. At $100, my own WineSmith Crucible Cabernet Sauvignon certainly benefits from dialing in its source vineyards in the region to maximize tannin density and deep ripe flavors. But with due respect to Al Gore’s consciousness promoting efforts, Napa town is still quite chilly. Experimental plantings at Napa Valley College reveal that the secret to the region is clonal. Clone 337 Cabernet comes in there at 25 Brix with huge dimensions and great color, three weeks before up-valley champion Clone 7, planted right beside it, reports in as a wimpy, weedy Beaujolais at 21.5 Brix. In fact, the rising heat of the Central Valley is pulling in more ocean air, rendering the South Valley cooler, not warmer.

Are the new super yeasts to blame? Yes and no. Yeast strains can’t change the conversion ratio of sugar to alcohol, at least not very much. The six carbon atoms in a sugar molecule have to go somewhere. Two atoms end up as carbon dioxide. The other four go to ethyl alcohol plus miniscule amounts of other flavors like glycerol and to the growth of the yeasts themselves. To change alcohol by 1 percent would mean 17 grams per liter of sugar came from somewhere else – an enormous amount. And super yeasts make more cell mass, not less, thus lowering alcohol.

However, these ultra-vigorous yeasts do permit us to ferment grapes to dryness which in the old days would have stuck sweet. So they do indeed open up the door for harvesting grapes with very high sugar content. But why would we wish to do that?

Some say today’s vines are grown so artificially that they fail to achieve the natural balance required to get ripe flavors at normal alcohols, and that our wines won’t reflect balance until we embrace organics. In his article entitled The Science of Sustainable Viticulture, John Williams of Frog’s Leap indicts excessive inorganic fertilizer and over irrigation in a host of wine quality issues and reports that balancing soil fertility and abandoning sterol inhibitors and dimethoate now gives him flavors at 23.5 Brix he didn’t used to see until 28 Brix.

I have no doubt that John is exactly right. But these practices were even more rampant in the ‘70’s than they are today. And they don’t account for the catastrophes which befell long-established Barolo producers in 1997, who deliberately chose to let the fruit on their beautifully balanced vineyards hang until the resulting wines lasted less than a decade. I’m afraid that, at its root, ripeness craziness is more a mental disease than a reaction to some physical disorder. Like alcohol dependency itself, a good thing pushed too far.

We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us

Bestselling Wines of the 1970’s

1970 Lancer’s Rosé

1971 Mateus Rosé

1972 Blue Nun

1973 Wente Grey Riesling

1974 Reunite Lambrusco

1975 Bolla Soave

1976 Fontana Candida Frascati

So what caused the shift in California’s alcohols? An obvious first answer is that the kind of wine the New World has come to specialize in isn’t the Rhinewine, Chablis and rosé that California wineries were dishing up in the 1970’s, when the principal wine grape was Thompson Seedless. The largest selling table wines in the U.S. during that period are shown in the chart on the right: All low alcohol European or Euro-style quaffables.

Over the next thirty years, the wine Americans drank shifted toward California while simultaneously the State’s production has been boosting the wallop it packs. But to chalk up the change in table wine alcohol content to shifts in stylistic preference is almost a circular argument. Wines got bigger because they got bigger?

High alcohols from New World producers aren’t a new thing. In fact, if you go back to 1951, you’d find the average in both California and Australia would be over 18 percent! That’s because at that time, wine consumers, when they drank domestic wine at all, drank almost entirely port, sherry and muscatel. A miniscule group at the upper end who drank French and a few German table wines didn’t believe domestic stuff was worth considering. So California wine at that time was over 90 percent fortified, and Chardonnay was almost unplanted. Our few wine lovers went through maybe a bottle a year of port and sherry, and the rest was light European wines. So what brought about the shift to more potent table wines as standard California fare?

Let’s examine the story of that wonderful period during which the fledgling California Serious Wine Industry created itself. Winemaking style evolution

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [12]

Mike Lamborn
Lamborn Family Vineyards, Howell Mountain, Napa, CA
A hardy welcome to Clark Smith! Right out of the gates with a Grand Slam article...spot on !
Many thanks,

redwinebuzz.com, CA
Very good piece! An informative and educational look at the shape of things. I find it a poignant observation that a country's wine reflects a nation's culture and values.

Jim Powlan
Maui, HI
Terrific article. I agree on almost all points but still feel Great Wines should neither be acidified, chapeltized nor de-alcoholized. At the same time I separate wines into ‘important wines’ and ‘wines for the backyard BBQ or everyday table’ and believe wine on the table should not over power the food.

Mike , Blogger
Ah yes, what is old is all of a sudden new again. Europeans were accusing Australia of making high alcohol (26% proof, around 15% by volume) wines 100 years ago. The reasons may be different (then it was an incomplete understanding of fermentation, now it’s more aimed at consumer demand for fruit and flavor in wine) but in the end they reconfirm that different climates are more suited to making different wine styles. Oh the terror of it, and yes I did spell terror correctly.

Greg Jones , Professor, Climatologist
Southern Oregon University, Ashland, OR
Great article! However, while there are clearly numerous influences contributing to the higher alcohol wines of today, one must recognize the effect of climate. Contrary to the statement "In fact, the rising heat of the Central Valley is pulling in more ocean air, rendering the South Valley cooler, not warmer." I have not seen any evidence of this happening. As a matter of fact, I did a study on the two longest climate stations in the Napa Valley -- St. Helena and the Napa St. Hospital -- and the results show that the entire valley has warmed with slight differences from the cooler southern end to the warmer northern end, but not significant enough to matter. The average warming from 1930-2004 has been over 600 degree-days with the average growing season warming 2.9 deg F with most of the warming coming at night (5.3 deg F). The result has been a much warmer and longer growing season, nearly 90 days longer from the median first and last frosts since 1930. You can't tell me that this has not had an impact on growing grapes in Napa. Also note that these trends are consistent across the west coast of the US and parallel those observed in Europe and Australia.

So while we have a very complex system that is ultimately driven by the pocket books of wine consumers, I seriously doubt that the wines of today could have been made in the climates of the middle of the last century. I for one do not buy wines over 14% alcohol and I do not know anyone who purposely goes out and drinks them. Maybe there will be enough of us to allow winemakers to continue making interesting, balanced wines and still make money.

Wine For All, Katonah, NY
Excellent overview, Clark, with plenty of science and history. But have you let the wine media off the hook? After years of Robert Parker's avowed preference for "hedonistic" wines, and James Laube's penchant for giving higher scores to big Cabs over more elegant reds, surely wineries themselves are leaning toward more ripeness and alcohol at least in part to garner higher ratings. Granted, I have not done a statistical analysis, but just scan the ranks of the Wine Spectator's and Wine Advocate's highest-scored wines and you will find a heap of alcohol too. Tyranny of numbers has to be considered in this discussion.

Alan Wastell
Sonoma, CA
Another party heard from in the high(er) alcohol wine debate. Clark Smith gives a fairly complete overview of the rise of alcohol levels in our table wines and offers something of a defense of his de-alc solution. This probably won't appease the detractors such as Mr. Corti and Mr. Dunn who seem to feel that they are on a moral (and morally superior) crusade against the evils of ripeness rather than simply arguing for a style of wine that they personally prefer. I enjoy wines of many styles; when I put down bottles of 1981 Cabernet Sauvignon for my daughter's birth year, I chose Dunn's Howell Mountain Cabernet. It tasted pretty darn good on my daughters 21st birthday... I enthusiastically enjoy Alsace (or Mendocino or Russian River) whites and Spanish and Italian reds at moderate alcohol levels. But when it's insinuated that people who drink a California wine that is over 14.5% alcohol are somehow unsophisticated (or stupid), I really have to object. Wonderful wines come in all colors (white, red , pink), from all parts of the globe and from both sides of that arbitrary alcohol figure. I also drink and enjoy Zinfandels (and, yes, Chardonnays) that clock in north of 14.5%. From good vineyard sources and good producers they are neither undrinkable nor hot, I do drink them with food and yes Mr. Corti, we do finish a bottle and wish there was a little bit more...There are always people willing to tell you what you should like in this world, from music to literature to food and wine; let's all just pay attention to what we personally enjoy and spend less time worrying that the rest of the world isn't smart enough to agree with us...

Arthur , Founder
redwinebuzz.com, California
Greg [comment #5], I am curious if there is a difference in temperatures in the 1970s and in the current decade. I am curious if you saw any effect of the pollution laws that came into effect in the 1970s.While I am not disputing climate change, I see hot, over-extracted wines being made from adjacent blocks of the same vineyard in the same years as much more composed, higher acid wines. This is absolutely a result of the differences in growing and picking. Thus, I am not inclined to chalk this style of wine to climate change. A number of things have changed in the way vineyards and vines are farmed since the mid-1900. This contributes to the style of wines as well.

Tom Casagrande , wine lover/blogger
www.bighousewine.blogspot.com, Houston, TX
The article, which was interesting, stated this in passing: "Together [Conetech and Vinovation] take an average of over 1 percent alcohol from 45 percent of the California wines you buy." That is staggering. But what is worse is that no winery I know of will disclose on its label whether the wine in the bottle was subjected to post-fermentation de-alcoholizing. If the wineries don't want to do it, there's a reason. Lots of wine drinkers (like me) would shun such wines if they knew. There's also a fix. If the wineries won't tell the truth, then either the federal or California government should require them to. I don't normally advocate more government intervention, but if the industry won't disclose this voluntarily -- which to me is barely one step removed from false advertising -- what choice do concerned consumers have but to ask the government to force them to do so? I seek out naturally made, unmanipulated wine, but that's become almost impossible to do in California. And it's darn frustrating.

Doug Nalle , Owner and winmaker
Nalle Winery, Healdsburg, CA
Nice going, Clark. A great synopsis with hope to boot. My wife and I enjoyed a bottle of 1996 Nalle Zinfandel tonight. In its prime and 13.5% alcohol. Reminded us of a classy Barolo. A little nasty on release, and pretty much panned by the press sandwiched between the lush '95 and '97 vintages, I begged people to hang on. Tonight I feel VIN-dicated.
~ Doug

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