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Wines are getting stronger

Warming climate and changed growing techniques are combining to raise the alcohol level in wines

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Photograph: Katherine Rose for Observer Food Monthly

Two wines made in the same region, from the same grape variety, in the same vintage, at the same price. The only difference, as far as you can tell from the label, is the alcohol. One is 13.5%, the other 14.5%. Which do you choose? If, like me, you’ve learned that a single percentage point can make the difference between a bright new morning after and a sluggish one, you’re going to go for the lower alcohol option.

In the wine world a wine’s alcohol by volume (ABV) is more than a shorthand guide to how it will make you feel: it’s become a touchstone for a fractious debate about how it should taste. Lurking in the background of the dispute is the creeping rise in wine’s alcohol level: a 2% average global increase in the last two decades. The reason is that there is more sugar in the world’s wine grapes when they’re harvested – sugar which is then converted into alcohol during fermentation. The controversy surrounds how that sugar got there, and whether the effects it creates in finished wines are desirable.

Global warming has played its part: the warmer the climate – or vintage – the more sugar there will be in the grape. But wines have been made in hot regions for years, and yet you never used to find bottles with ABVs of 16% or 17% as sometimes come out of California and Australia. Similarly, there have always been warm vintages in temperate regions such as Bordeaux, but alcohol levels rarely broached 13%.

What has changed is the way grapes, particularly red grapes, are grown, and it’s here the controversy begins. At its heart is the concept of phenolic ripeness: the moment when the pips and stalks lose any trace of green. Over the last two decades winemakers became obsessed with techniques such as cutting back yields early in the year to concentrate on fewer bunches or waiting as long as possible to harvest. But the longer you wait for phenolic ripeness, the higher the sugar climbs, and the more acidity you lose. And so, the smooth tannins, and lack of green flavours tend to come with a side order of high alcohol, frequently at the expense of freshness and, some would argue, complexity.

The backlash against high alcohol wines has a militant, ideological edge. Many winemakers tell me they’ve drawn an imaginary line over which no wine should cross. Get much above 14%, they say, and a wine can never be truly fine. Some put the level even lower: I know of several independent retailers and sommeliers that avoid anything over 13.5%.

I can’t say I’m disappointed at this turn back towards elegance. But the move brings problems of its own. I wouldn’t go as far as Robert Parker, the powerful American critic famed for his enthusiasm for big reds, who dismisses the rush to lower alcohol styles as “essentially a phony, anti-California, anti-New World movement by Eurocentric self-proclaimed purists”. But I do think he has the ghost of a point.

Like Parker, I’m concerned that the obsession with an arbitrary acceptable alcohol level rules out some of the great warm climate wines, from Barolo to the Douro, from Roussillon to Napa, all of which tend to be around 14% or higher. The best producers in these regions don’t try to push ripeness to its outer limits. And tasting them you realise that what matters isn’t the number on the label, but a concept as elusive and subjective in wine as it is in life: balance.

Sourece: TheGuardian Read more

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