Wine on Steroids

Wine on Steroids

Wine is hot these days, no doubt about it. Sales are up, interest is high, and the number of wineries in the U.S. continues to climb. Unfortunately, so do the numbers that measure alcohol levels. And as a result, more and more of the wines we drink are hot (“too darn hot,” as the show tune goes), with palate-fatiguing levels of alcohol that regularly top 15, sometimes 16 and occasionally 17 percent.

Why should we care, you ask? Aren’t these high-octane, ripe and jammy wines hedonistic and powerful—in short, very appealing? Yes, they certainly can be. But they are also expensive to produce, and are getting more so. Prices for consumers inevitably rise as a result. Such wines pack palate-fatiguing levels of alcohol and tannins. The fruit is often beyond plummy; it’s into the prune/raisin range. The “balance” they achieve is precarious at best—massive fruit set against thick tannins and slathered in toasty oak. It’s better to drink them right away, because once the fruit ages (usually very quickly since it’s so ripe to begin with) and the tannins soften, what’s left is—you guessed it—alcoholic heat.

Even when young, these wines often lack subtle scents and mineral/herbal nuances, the kinds of details that make wine and food go so well together. Food-friendly these wines are not; they dominate the palate completely. Drinking more than a glass, even with dinner, is dangerous if you intend to drive afterward. These huge wines often lack acid and must be manipulated with acid additions. If not done properly they can have a residual chalky, artificial tartness. For anyone interested in training their palate, a steady diet of these bruisers is like listening to nothing but heavy metal rock ‘n’ roll. It makes you tone deaf (in this case flavor deaf) to anything other than loud.

A European perspective on big wines

European wine has not been immune to the lures of high alcohol. Motivated by many American critics’ praise and high scores, and by competition from Australia and California, European producers have pushed alcohol levels up through a combination of new clones and better vineyard management.

In the cellar, those wanting to make more concentrated, higher-alcohol wines drain off some juice during fermentation. This yields wines with lower acidity and higher pH, making them softer and more accessible when younger.

The trend toward higher alcohol has been helped along by two generally hot vintages: 2003 and 2005. Both years saw record temperature peaks. Vintage 2003 throughout much of Europe—especially the northern vineyards—had hot daytime temperatures, and nights that remained tropical as well. In 2005, which looks to be a more balanced vintage, at least the nights were cool.

Certain regions already known for their powerful, alcoholic wines naturally produced the most alcoholic wines in 2003. Southern Portugal’s 2003 vintage wines were more alcoholic than usual. In France’s Rhône Valley, Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers pushed their alcohol levels up to 15 percent without any problem. The figure might even be higher than that, although European wine law prohibits table wine from exceeding 15 percent alcohol (over 15 percent, the wines fall into another tax category). Bordeaux’s reds from the same vintage are denser and riper than usual, although alcohol levels for the most part crept from the typical 12.5 percent, up to a still-reasonable 13.5 percent alcohol.

Winemaker intervention plays a role, too, in the production of Europe’s biggest wines. Big-name consultants such as Michel Rolland and Riccardo Cotarella have become closely associated with a new breed of superripe, high-alcohol wines. Rolland is often accused of deliberately making high-alcohol wines, but denies it: “I am looking for balance, not high alcohol. You need good terroir, and you need ripe grapes, not overripe [ones]. When you have the right conditions, you can make good wine.”

What these two consultants have in common is the Merlot grape. Rolland’s home is in Pomerol, Merlot’s Bordeaux heartland. Cotarella has made a name for himself with Merlot-based wines such as Cantina Falesco’s Merlot Pisano and the cult Lamborghini Campoleone, a Merlot blend.

The Merlot in Bordeaux lends itself to higher-alcohol wines because it is able to ripen much more easily and earlier than Cabernet, which, in some years, doesn’t completely ripen at all. The 2003 vintage of Saint-Emilion’s Château Pavie came under fire a couple of years ago; its detractors accused the chateau of making Port, not Bordeaux. The scenario repeated itself again in the 2005 vintage, when Jean-Claude Berrouet, veteran winemaker of Chateau Pétrus in Pomerol, accused Pavie and other great estates of letting perfectly ripe grapes hang just to push sugar (and thus, alcohol) levels higher. Pavie owner Gerard Perse denied the accusation. Pavie’s Merlot, which stayed on the vines three weeks later than the Pétrus Merlot, came in at 14.2 percent alcohol, while Pétrus levels were nearer 13.5 percent.

How well will wines made in Pavie’s style age? The question is an important one in Bordeaux, whose wines are typically lauded for their aging potential. Because wines made in this superripe style have been made for less than a decade, pronouncing on the wines’ ageworthiness is perhaps premature. But that it is already possible to enjoy wines now from properties whose wines usually demand 10 or 15 years’ aging surely says something.

If high alcohol is a question of fashion, it is a fashion that has benefited more than one group of producers. In Southern Italy, the Primitivo grape has attracted much attention, not just because of a possible (although disputed) connection with Zinfandel, but because it produces high-alcohol, soft wines that are often blended into inexpensive wines for export.

And Spain’s Priorat region would certainly never had achieved the fame it has without producing high-alcohol wines, thanks its the dry, almost desert climate and the Garnacha grape that is planted there. The Priorat wines are, in fact, a development from the rough, high-alcohol, sacramental wines that were the traditional products of the region.

— Roger Voss


Though no comprehensive studies have been made, all you need to do to confirm this ongoing rise is to pull a few old bottles of California Cabernet out of your cellar and check the labels. Then compare them with today’s wines. According to bottlings I’ve found, Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignons made in the early 1970s, for example, contained about 12 percent alcohol. Alcohol levels for recent vintages hover in the 14 percent range. Fourteen percent may not sound like much compared to some of the levels that I mentioned earlier, but Mondavi makes one of the most restrained, European styles of Cabernet in Napa Valley. It’s fair to say that, on average, alcohol levels have bumped up about a percentage point a decade since the mid-1970s—from the low 12 percent range to 15 percent plus.

Howard Rossbach, who owns Oregon’s Firesteed winery, puts these potables in perspective. “If wine is something that goes with food,” he explains, “then 12.5 to 13 percent alcohol is great. If you go up to 14.5 or 15, that’s a 20 to 25 percent increase in alcohol. That’s a bit of a wallop! We don’t like foods that are unbalanced; why would we want wines that are unbalanced?”

Striking a balance
Talk to winemakers about the alcohol “problem,” as it has become known, and you will find that most of them are looking for ways to retain the ripe fruit and smooth tannins that consumers love, while reducing the alcohol to a more food-friendly level of 14 percent (or lower).

Larry Levin, who oversees the winemaking operations for Constellation Brands’ Icon Estates portfolio, defends the current rage for ripeness by explaining that “we are looking for flavor richness, roundness, body, good-quality tannins, length and balance. A wine needs to be delicious—soft and rich, not painful and astringent.” Levin is particularly adamant about achieving these “quality” tannins. “They should be ripe tannins,” he insists, “rich with a soft, silky, elegant texture that adds length. We don’t want tannins that are green, dry, coarse or astringent.”

Rob Newsom of Boudreaux Cellars, a 2,000-case boutique winery in Washington State, makes rich, powerful Cabernets and Merlots from top vineyards. He says that “winemakers don’t want to make high-alcohol wines, because we drink more of the wine than anyone else in the world, when we make it. And we mostly drink our wine when we’re eating. The cause [of high alcohol] is [that] people are going for more intense flavors, and they think they’ll reach them with hang time. But one has to remember that it’s the balance of the fruit flavors and the acid and the pH that makes a wine taste good. Alcohol doesn’t make it taste good.”

Hang time
Eventually, all discussions about how to create wines in this mode lead to the notion of hang time. In pursuit of riper fruit, smoother tannins and richer wines, winemakers have become proactive and demanding in the vineyard. “Physiological ripeness” is their mantra, and in order to achieve it they have been leaning on growers to drop crop (green harvest) and leave the remaining fruit hanging longer. This has led to open warfare in some instances, with growers alleging that they are being asked to do more work and take more risk for less money.

The risk is clear. The longer you let grapes hang, the greater the chance of bad weather or bird damage before harvest. Furthermore, as sugars rise, grapes begin to shrivel, and since most grapes are still purchased by the ton, not the acre, that loss of water equals less income. The final blow is that yields are trending down as well.

In a presentation to the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers at their annual meeting last February, David Michul, who manages Napa’s 5,000-acre Beckstoffer Farms, rolled out some eye-opening statistics that had growers gnashing their teeth.

From 2000 to 2004, said Michul, the average yield for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon sank from 4.24 tons per acre to 2.80 tons per acre, a 34 percent decline. Meanwhile, the average price paid per ton increased only 18 percent — from $3,123 to $3,820. Cost of production continued to climb. Calculating gross profits as a percentage of the asset value ($150,000 an acre for Napa vineyard), Michul arrived at an annual return on investment of just four percent.

It was an unacceptable and unsustainable payoff, he concluded, for such a high-risk investment.

For cooler sites, the extra hang time can bring some real benefits. Sugars accumulate, grapes concentrate flavors and skins and seeds ripen. As a result, vegetal flavors, bitter flavors and rough, astringent tannins are reduced. Whether you are making Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel or even Pinot Noir, the urge to “push” the grapes a bit farther is almost irresistible when the payoff is smoother, sweeter, fruit-driven, more concentrated wines.

Dick Boushey, who grows 70 acres of wine grapes (mostly Merlot and Syrah) in the Yakima Valley, works to delay harvest by well-timed pruning, suckering and thinning. “I don’t like to be early ripening,” he explains. “In the Yakima Valley I want to push it into late September and October, so you have the cool nights and the acids stay there. You get softer tannins [and] darker fruit but still retain some acid for balance.”
On the other hand, Philip Shaw, whose wines come from Australia’s Orange wine region, is an adamant proponent of early picking. Though Orange is one of the coolest wine regions in Australia, it is very high in altitude—2,000 to 3,500 feet—and the intense sunlight has a huge impact on the ripening of the grapes.

“The UV [ultra-violet] at higher altitudes is quite significant,” Shaw explains. “An example would be to look at roses grown in high mountain regions; they are brighter in color. UV is the driving force behind the production of the color and flavor.”

Shaw made wines for Rosemount for some 20 years. With his new venture, Philip Shaw Wines, he makes strikingly elegant, intense, low-alcohol wines from his own Koomooloo vineyard.

“Our aim is to get bright, concentrated fruit flavors,” says Shaw, “and that’s achieved by having low crops. We do everything to have the reverse effects of hang time. I strongly believe that if you have a balanced vine your fruit ripens early.” A lot of winemakers, he believes, worry needlessly about green tannins. “The only way to get tannins that green,” says Shaw, “is to have too much crop, or the pH has gone up too high. The only way to get a really late crop in a warm area is to put a lot of water on it. We don’t believe in that. We pick at relatively low sugar; that’s why we have low alcohol.”

Clearly there are as many ways to manage a vineyard for optimum balance as there are vineyard sites. There is no single formula that can be applied. But this ongoing trend to greater ripeness, in both red and white wines, must certainly be managed, or wines may some day become undrinkable.

The alcohol in a finished wine is usually directly proportional to the measure of grapes’ sugar at harvest (a number on the brix scale). Average brix levels have steadily climbed over the past few decades. For example, white wine grapes in Napa were picked at around 21 brix in the 1970s; today the average is more than three degrees higher. For red grapes, the brix numbers that most growers are comfortable with are in the mid-20s, but some wineries want 26, 27, 28 brix, and even higher.

“We know that more hang time can reduce yields and can improve quality,” notes Milbrandt. “But there is a lot we do not know. What are the effects on plant physiology? How does it affect the longevity of the plant, or its winter hardiness?”

Pandora’s box of wine flaws
What is known is that grapes lose acid as sugars rise. As acids fall, pH rises. Adding acid at fermentation is the usual fix, but merely acidifying does not correct the problems inherent in high-pH wines. Grapes that are too ripe can suffer from fermentation problems that include high pH, which in turn encourages bacteriological growth and opens the door to a Pandora’s box of wine flaws and faults. You need a degree in biochemistry to chart them all. A brief list, as ETS Laboratories founder Gordon Burns pointed out in his talk to the Washington grape growers, would include acetaldehyde (smells of overripe apple, or fish in vinegar); volatile sulfur compounds (vegetal smells and worse); and brettanomyces (smells and flavors of sweaty leather, barnyard and Band-aid).

Winemakers have a bag of tricks for keeping the alcohol down, but they don’t like to discuss most of them. “There’s always those surprises at the crusher,” said one, “where we have to use ‘other technology’ to reduce the alcohol.” Meaning that when grapes come in at higher sugar levels than intended, water is added to the fermentation tanks to compensate—they’re so-called “Jesus units,” because they turn water into wine. (In some places adding water back is rather mockingly referred to as “adding condensate,” or simply “humidification.”)

And why not add water, winemakers argue. The French add sugar to chaptalize underripe grapes; why shouldn’t we add water to even out overripe ones? More complex technologies, such as the spinning cone and reverse osmosis, are also sometimes used to lower alcohol levels without making wines taste watery. But the real place to find a cure for the problem, most winemakers agree, is in the vineyard.

Grower Paul Champoux (in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills AVA) is working with winemaker Rick Small (of Woodward Canyon) on a multiyear experiment to prune vines late, thereby delaying budbreak and, hopefully, condensing the ripening cycle. The idea is that the vines will bloom a bit later but receive essentially the same amount of heat units during the growing season, so they will ripen with lower sugars. “The jury is still out” on the results, says Champoux.

Increase yields?
Beckstoffer’s Michul suggests that one way to address both the alcohol and the economic challenges is to increase yields, which he believes can be done without compromising quality. Tighter spacing, denser planting, or growing more bunches per shoot are all means to this end.
Firesteed’s Rossbach agrees. “People talk about hang time, but with tiny crops the sugars go haywire. Sometimes less [sugar] is better. I’d rather be seduced than bludgeoned.” His newest project, a red table wine called Cayalla, is a blend of Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah. Rossbach says he worked hard to keep it under 14 percent alcohol, telling the wineries whose surplus juice he purchases, “You can’t be making big monster wines; I won’t buy them.”

Is the consumer ready for lower alcohol, more food-friendly wines? Some recent trends suggest that yes, she is. Younger drinkers, especially women, are choosing lighter, aromatic white wines over monster reds. Pinot Grigio is the leading white import, and sales of Riesling are going through the roof. As more people look to wine as an everyday mealtime beverage, palates are adjusting. Perhaps people are now noticing some of the hidden costs of high-alcohol wines.

Nuance and terroir
The argument can be made, quite rightly so in this writer’s opinion, that high-alcohol fruit bombs obliterate the very qualities that characterize the world’s truly great wines: nuance and terroir. When fruit is ripened to extreme levels, the resulting wines may be sweet, smooth and concentrated, but gone are all traces of everything else: mineral, leaf, herb, spice and the razor sharpness that firm, natural acids bring. Delicate and complex aromas? Terroir? Not in these wines. How about some more new oak instead? The cult of ripeness knows no boundaries.

Except, perhaps, one: global warming. Dr. Greg Jones, who teaches geography at Southern Oregon University, has done extensive studies going back 50 years on global weather trends. In the western United States, he notes, there is a pattern of much greater heat accumulation. Statistics show that dates of the final spring frost keep getting earlier, while dates of the first fall frost keep getting later. “Spring frost on north coast,” says Jones, “has changed by as much as 52 days. It’s just not an issue anymore.”

The bottom line? For the most part, these longer, warmer growing seasons have been beneficial so far. But the next 50-100 years could bring alterations in all aspects. “Britain today is making sparkling wines that the French envy,” Jones says. “I think when you look at climate change across the whole wine world, we are not going to see a uniform response. But in general, cool-climate regions will adapt, while things will be much more challenging in warm-climate regions.”

Wines on steroids? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Published on May 1, 2006

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