With high alcohol levels increasingly frowned upon by consumers, JOANNA SIMON investigates how producers are looking to lighten up.
When I wrote an article in early 1997 in The Sunday Times about how wine was becoming increasingly alcoholic, I had reservations about the trend, but had no idea that alcohol levels would climb as they have or that it would be such a hot topic that I would still be revisiting it 11 years later.
So, yet another article? Yes, but again it is timely, and for three reasons. The first, simply, is that enough is enough. The world doesn’t need any more wines with 14.5% or more alcoholby volume (abv). It’s not that they don’t have a place – who would want to drink an 11% Zinfandel, Viognier or McLaren Vale Shiraz? – but the range and diversity of styles has become unbalanced. Much of the middle ground has been lost to high alcohol and the riper, fuller flavours and denser textures that generally go with it. The danger is that wine drinkers will soon tire of this particular diet – which is exactly what is happening.
Point number two: attitudes are changing, particularly in Britain. You may not like being told by the government, medical profession oranyone else how much you should drink, but the fact is that wine drinkers – not just the authorities – are increasingly paying attention to alcohol and are looking for lower levels. And it’s not just white wines and female drinkers. When I led a discussion with leading London sommeliers at a food and wine matching event a few months ago, they all said that their restaurant customers were asking for lighter red wines – not feeble and under-flavoured, but more food-friendly wines that would enhance sophisticated food, rather than drown it. Hot under the collar The third, and arguably most interesting and significant reason (and the rationale for this piece) is that there is a groundswell among producers.
In all sorts of places and in all sorts of ways, they are trying to rein in alcohol – just as some have already done with oak. Listen to Philip Laffer, group chief winemaker for Jacob’s Creek (try the Steingarten Riesling or the Johann Shiraz-Cabernet if you think JC is only about the mass market): ‘Yes, we do believe we should be trying to reduce the alcohol levels in our high-alcohol wines.’ This is not just talk: the level across the entire Orlando portfolio (of which JC is a part) was reduced by 0.7% in 2007. When I spoke to Laffer during this year’s heatwave harvest, he was expecting at least to maintain that reduction, and was hoping to achieve a further 0.3% drop. ‘1% overall is about what we want,’ he said. Smaller producers are also acting. David Gleave MW of importer Liberty Wines in London, and a partner in Greenstone Vineyards in Heathcote, Australia, says that from the outset, they wanted to get away from high alcohol.
I’m a great lover of some wines that are 14 or 14.5%, but we want natural balance; wines that can be drunk. Lower alcohol helps the fruit come through in the areas we’re working in.’ Above, from left, three ways of lowering alcohol: drip irrigation; night harvesting; and efficient canopy management. Not all are legal. There is, of course, a balance to be struck between aiming for a certain alcohol level, and being true to the vintage and the terroir. If nature gives you 15% alcohol, are you betraying your roots –and diluting your terroir – by manipulating this down to 13%? And by doing so, are you altering the character of the wine?
Sam Weaver of Churton Vineyards in Marlborough aims for 12.5% abv for his Pinot Noir. In 2005, he was delighted with the flavours, silky texture and fine-grained tannin he achieved at 12.4%. In 2006, an early, warm year, the Pinot hit 13.3%. The 2007 (not bottled at the time of writing) will be about 12.8%, despite a very warm, sunny vintage. ‘We overshot a little,’ he says, ‘but ripening was better and we had very good intensity and complexity.’ In South Africa, with its history of green flavours in red wines, you might expect deliberately dropping alcohol to be off the radar.
Not so. Having tasted his excellent Syrah-based reds, I can safely say that Callie Louw, the new winemaker at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, is among those proving it can be done. He worked with Gérard Gauby at Le Soula in Roussillon in 2005 and ‘had a big mindshift away from Pamela Anderson wines – big, obvious wines that all taste the same; just fruit and alcohol.’ Similarly, Schalk-Willem Joubert, Rupert & Rothschild cellarmaster, has been ‘trying to get alcohol levels lower while still getting phenolic ripeness’. White winemakers are also on the alert. Adam Mason of Klein Constantia says of his 2007 Sauvignon Blanc: ‘I would prefer 13.5%. I’m conscious of 14%. We pick mainly for flavour, but my view is that high alcohol is not a feature of elegant, balanced wines.’ The Sauvignon in question is actually 13.9%, so could have been labelled 13.5%, but the Danes – good customers – wanted it labelled 14%. Some still like it high.
Even in Bordeaux, where the effect of global warming (part of the reason forhigher alcohol) is largely viewed positively, lower levels are on the agenda.
Wine back at 13%
Alain Raynaud of Château Quinault L’Enclos in Saint-Emilion says he is happy to have alcohol back at 13% in 2007. ‘We had been going above 13%, even in 2006. For 10 years in Bordeaux, we were too influenced by the New World, but now we’re going back to the old style.’ The Bordelais, though, it should be said, have never underplayed the characteristics of a vintage they are trying to sell. There are also plenty in Bordeaux who are happy with higher figures. Christian Seely says that while Pichon- Longueville 2005 is 13.6% and the 2002 and 2003 are 13.4%, these were achieved without chaptalisation (adding sugar during fermentation) or must concentration, both of which were used in the past (the former routinely until the 1990s; the latter in the 1990s). Even in the very ripe 1989 vintage, Pichon was chaptalised by 2˚, but that was when yields were 60hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare), compared with today’s 40hl/ha average. Stephan von Niepperg, owner of Château d’Aiguilhe in Côtes de Castillon, says his wines ‘need outstanding ripeness’ because of the cold earth and tannin structure. ‘I never do a wine here less than 13.5%. The 2005 is 14.3–14.4%, but you don’t notice because the acid is so high.’ I don’t want to exaggerate the trend in the New World, either.
Eduardo Chadwick’s overriding concerns at Errazuriz and Viñedo Chadwick in Chile are balanced wines with fully ripe tannins. ‘We don’t like green tannins, and with Cabernet Sauvignon, you’re faced with quite a narrow band. We have wines of 14.5% and, for our style, I’m quite happy with Cabernet at 14%. It’s right for our fruit; right for Chile.’ In South Africa, Cloof ’s Oscar Foulkes, ‘hacked off by the large amountsof negative press regarding high alcohol wines’, makes the same point. In some parts of the world, he says, alcohol levels around 14% are ‘the natural level… there is enough fruit, acid and tannin to balance the elevated alcohol’. Few people would disagree, but some of us think there are too many wines above these levels. So, how do you reduce alcohol? There are various options (see box), but they divide into two distinct philosophies: preventive action in the vineyard and corrective action in the winery. The winery solutions are generally banned in Europe, so prevention appears to have more support, but many producers, not least in the New World, also express reservations about the connotations of‘industrial winemaking’ associated with removing alcohol from finished wine. One prominent producer not afraid to support correction in the winery is Bruno Prats – ex-Cos d’Estournel and now involved in Chile, South Africa and the Douro Valley. ‘I would prefer really ripe grapes and then to remove sugar. Sugar isn’t essential; ripeness of polyphenols and intensity of aromatics are’.
My own inclination is to look to the vineyard for solutions, but after going on about alcohol levels for so long, maybe I should be grateful for reductions full stop, however they are achieved.