Alcohol levels: the balancing act

  • Monday 22 March 2010

Can fine wine be made at 14% alcohol? And 15%? Or do such levels affect the intrinsic quality? With levels continuing to rise, not least in Bordeaux’s heralded 2009s, andrew jefford hears both sides

Wine, like a human baby, is a chemically complex, emotionally engaging bundle of compounds and molecules. Much of the emotion – though, in a good wine, by no means all of it – can be attributed to its alcohol content. Chemically speaking, alcohol is ethanol: C2H6O. Its levels in wine vary from about 4.5%abv (alcohol by volume, see box, right, for explanation) in a Moscato d’Asti, to 20% in fortified wines such as Port. But is there an ideal?

Few questions are more hotly debated in winemaking circles at present than this one. Let’s set aside fortified wines at the start, on the basis that their alcohol levels are artificially adjusted – though not without noting that experienced Port tasters would invariably regard ‘spiritiness’ (palpable alcohol) in any Port as a failing. Great Port, therefore, is indeed a seamless and harmonious whole in which alcohol, while present, is unobtrusive – despite being a full 6% over our putative fine-wine maximum of 14%. Port, though, is sweet, and often either highly extractive or oxidative. There’s a lot, in other words, for the alcohol to lock on to.

Table wines prior to the 1980s varied between 11% and 12.5%; few crested 13%. (The 1959 vintage in Bordeaux, for example, was a dry and hot one, yet the Château Latour of that vintage measures just 11.6%, according to Latour’s president, Frédéric Engerer.) Nowadays, any table wine less than 13% is a rarity.

Warm, sunny regions routinely deliver wines of more than 14%, and some table wines made from dimpled or desiccated fruit in hot locations can reach 17% or more. Why the change? Lower yields, later and more selective harvesting and more efficient yeasts are three major factors, with climate change the wild card (the 10 warmest years globally since 1860 have all been recorded since 1980).

Why, though, might winemakers wish to take lower yields and harvest later? The great vintages in Europe’s classic regions have always delivered ripe, concentrated wines; poor vintages brought lighter, sharper ones.

If you want ripeness and concentration in every vintage and not just a few great ones, then the surest way to do so is by asking your vines to yield less, and harvesting their fruit in late rather than early maturity. Ripe, rich wines of this sort, moreover, are said to merit a warmer critical reception and higher scores from wine writers and critics, notably in the US, than lighter, fresher ones.

Setting our bar at 14% is a way of asking two questions. The first is whether, in a world whose climate is warming and in which an increasing percentage of wines come from warm, sunny locations, it is time for wine growers to cap rising alcohol levels before the objective sense of refreshment in wine is lost. But this does beg the second, overarching question. What tastes best: a richer, concentrated wine or a lighter, refreshing wine? And what’s

wrong with both?

Low profile

Surprisingly, many of the most ardent voices calling for a lower-alcohol approach are found in Australia, despite the fact that some of the country’s most successful export wines surge past 14%. (I tasted a 2006 Greenock Creek Apricot Block Shiraz a few months ago which measured 18.5%.) ‘Fine wine has detail, sense of place, nuance of variety and balance,’ says Steve Webber of De Bortoli in Victoria’s Yarra Valley.

‘Wines above 14% alcohol generally lack these pleasures. In the Yarra, and I suspect most regions, we lose a sense of detail and place with overripe characters. The grapes we think are in balance are fully ripe between 12% and 13.5% potential alcohol. We still make some Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon that gets to 14%, but these vineyards are clearly not yet in balance.’

‘I don’t believe there is any dry white wine in the world that benefits from an alcohol level over 14%,’ suggests Tom Carson of Victoria’s Yabby Lake, though he feels that ‘reds are a different story’. Vanya Cullen from Margaret River in Western Australia claims that biodynamic practices enable her to harvest fruit that is phenolically ripe (ripe in terms of its tannins, pigments and flavour compounds) at lower sugar levels than were possible when she was farming conventionally, particularly with the whites.

‘Final alcohol used to be 13% to 14% for Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon; now phenolic ripeness comes as early as 10% or 11% potential alcohol,’ she says. ‘Cabernet, too, is at its best a medium-bodied wine with elegance and perfume; high alcohol doesn’t support this. With blends, you lose varietal character above 14%.’

This is a theory echoed thousands of kilometres north by Gérard Gauby in Roussillon who, post-biodynamics, now picks his Syrah and even his Mourvèdre at less than 12% potential alcohol. Gauby’s UK agent, the noted Burgundy expert Roy Richards, remembered Henri Jayer telling him that ‘an overripe raspberry was a tasteless raspberry’. He said Jayer ‘liked to pick his grapes when the fruit was still crunchy. Great wine does not need high alcohol.’ Richards says that ‘as a drinker, I derive greater enjoyment from supposedly off-vintages than from those more readily understood by the media.’

No limits

These views find other European echoes. The Douro is synonymous with rich wines, whether fortified or not, yet Dirk van der Niepoort radically suggests that alcohol levels are ideal at between 12% and 13%. ‘In fact, what is today considered enemy number one, a certain green character in young wine, is for me a very positive thing and very important in the longevity of any wine.’

Fiona Thienpont MW of Le Pin in Pomerol says, ‘Neither Jacques nor I think you can make balanced wines at over 14%, and we do everything we can to keep the levels down, including not cutting the yields back too much and picking earlier – sometimes two weeks earlier than the properties advised by Michel Rolland. The more you make the vines work, the more you turn them into Arnie Schwarzeneggers – blockbuster plants with highly concentrated grapes.’

Across on the Left Bank, though, Frédéric Engerer at Château Latour isn’t so sure. No Latour has crested 14% (though individual parcels have); even the unfinished 2009 blend measures just 13.9%. Yet, he says, ‘I don’t like 14% as a yellow line, and I wouldn’t want to suggest alcohol is the new enemy. The expression of the fruit is what counts. When you have balanced fruit expression, the alcohol almost seems to hide behind the fruit. Everything depends on the place and the variety.’

Engerer is well placed to comment on this, as he now makes Cabernet Sauvignon in Roussillon (Marius), as well as red Burgundy (Domaine de l’Eugénie) and red Rhône (Font Bonau). ‘To get phenolic ripeness in Cabernet in Roussillon, we have to pick [at a potential alcohol] between 14.5% and 15%.

I’d prefer that fruit expression at 13%, but I’d rather have it at 15% than not at all. And with Grenache in the Rhône, it’s often closer to 16%. What is the limit in absolute terms? I’m not sure. But what I can tell you is that if you taste the top 10 sample lots at Latour after the vintage, alcohol will have absolutely nothing to do with quality.’

Consultant winemaker Stéphane Derenoncourt goes further. ‘It’s ridiculous to say you can’t make fine wine over 14%. It’s like saying any man taller than 190cm can’t live normally. That’s the same idiocy. The alcohol is simply a link in the chain of balance. You can find ‘alcoholic’ wines at 12% if there isn’t enough matter to balance that alcohol, and you can find superbly balanced wines at 15%.’

When I put the question of a 14% ceiling to Wine Advocate critic David Schildknecht, he, too, reached exasperatedly for metaphor. ‘I find the topic fatuous. It’s like asking somebody whether a great piece of music can be scored for more than 70 instrumental parts, or a great architectural space be more than 75m high.

To choose 14% alcohol as a limit means that you call into question a fifth of what is produced by the most renowned growers of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Wachau or Kamptal, perhaps 40% of the Rhône, and 75% to 90% of what issues from the elite growers of the south of France, Spain, California or Australia. What is true is that it’s clearly harder to make fine wine as you move towards the extremes of alcohol, whether high or low.’

Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St John, who makes wine in four different California counties, echoed Engerer in suggesting that ‘certain varieties seem to produce wines exceeding 14% in which that alcohol level feels appropriate to the expressiveness of those varieties in those sites’. The question of the precise alcohol level being varietally dependent, indeed, was widely mentioned by all those I spoke to (see box on p41, which summarises some of their comments).

As always with wine, there are few absolutes. My own view is that alcohol is often unfairly demonised in wines of questionable harmony, and that if wine drinkers want to

enjoy terroir in warm-climate wines as well as cool-climate wines, then their palates must at least remain open to a wide range of alcohol levels.

The proof, though, lies in the second and third glass, and in digestive harmony after the wine is drunk. In wine aesthetics, nothing is more dangerous than wine tasting unsupported by corroborative drinking.

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