No one can deny that Italian wine has benefited from a string of great vintages over the last 15 years. Hot, dry summers that extend into September and shorten the growing cycle have, with few exceptions, like 2013 and 2014, replaced the cooler, wetter harvests that plagued much of the country until the late 1990s.
For decades, reaching ideal grape ripening was a major concern for growers, particularly in northern and central Italy. But this once all-consuming challenge has almost become passé.
While quality across Italy is generally higher than ever before, there’s a caveat: rising alcohol levels. And climate change isn’t the only culprit.
In the early 1990s, in a reaction to a string of disastrous vintages, producers began overhauling vineyard practices to combat the cold, humid temperatures and increase overall quality.
Common techniques aimed to encourage ripening include planting at higher densities with low-yielding clones, short pruning, (cutting off excess canes in winter to control the number of buds), green harvesting (eliminating bunches that aren’t perfectly ripe about a month before harvest), completely defoliating the leaf canopy and longer hang times.
But the combination of these practices and climate change is increasing sugar levels in the grapes, which in turn yields wines with the high alcohol levels that used to be seen only in bottlings from the New World and in Amarone, a wine made with withered grapes.
My collection of empty bottles of wines that I’ve particularly enjoyed shows many Barolos, Barbarescos and Brunellos from the 1980s and ‘90s with 13.5% alcohol by volume. A number of labels from the 1960s and ’70s stated between 12.5%–13.5% abv. These days, it’s rare to find Italy’s top reds under 14%, with 14.5% being more common.
“If 20 years ago, Montalcino’s producers had difficulty reaching 12% alcohol, now we can almost never keep the alcohol under 14%,” said Donatella Cinelli Colombini, a leading producer in Montalcino, during the 2013 Brunello press tastings.
Although 14% and 14.5% abvs were the norm just a few short years ago, more Brunellos now claim 15% (a few even 15.5%) on their labels. While still a minority, it’s a growing phenomenon, and one that isn’t isolated to Montalcino or Tuscany.
In Barolo, particularly hot vintages like 2007 and 2009 are having the same effects, and it’s no longer uncommon to see whites with 14% abv. Italian regulations allow a half-point of flexibility, so wines labeled 15% abv are often closer to 15.5%, while those declaring 15.5% are likely near 16%.
In the rare case that a wine has enough fruit richness and fresh acidity to support such high levels of alcohol, I don’t take issue. But when the alcohol is evident, it gives the wine a “hot” character at the expense of vibrancy and freshness. It also masks aromatics and flavor profiles, resulting in a wine with a one-dimensional, homogenous character.
Wines marred by noticeable alcohol lack balance. And balance between fruit richness, tannic structure and fresh acidity is a benchmark for quality wines. When the heat of alcohol overwhelms a wine, it loses this equilibrium.
“Our customers are definitely aware of higher alcohol levels in Italian wines, and will very frequently request and select lower-alcohol wines,” said Jamie Wolff, a partner at Chambers Street Wines in New York City, which has an outstanding selection of classic offerings from Italy.
Italian authorities have taken notice. In 2013, Italy’s Minister of Agriculture began allowing emergency irrigation to combat heat waves and drought, even in denominations like Brunello and Barolo that are, by law, dry-farmed.
According to Fabrizio Bindocci, president of the Brunello consorzio, growers there have petitioned for a decree allowing emergency irrigation for their Brunello and Rosso vines.
Growers have other options to cap alcohol levels, including managing the leaf canopy to protect grapes from the sun, reducing the green harvest and decreasing hang time. Others say that eliminating harsh chemicals helps plants find the right balance.
But some Italian producers seem happy to watch the alcohol levels rise. Perhaps they believe robust offerings with evident alcohol will garner higher review scores. But these are the same wines that in real life are often left unfinished on the table. They are a chore to drink and impossible to pair with food.
I don’t reward wines with searing alcohol sensations. It’s a fault that skillful winemakers avoid by using the appropriate methods in the vineyards and cellars.
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