The myths of high-alcohol wine
High scoring of high-alcohol wines is waning.
The recent trend of higher alcohol wines is related to winemakers wanting riper fruit so they can produce super-ripe, intense wines to meet market demands, concluded wine industry experts during a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. But it’s a waning trend, considering today’s wine market that is more complex and segmented than ever.
Steve Heimoff, wine critic, blogger (www.steve heimoff.com) and California editor of Wine Enthusiast, led the panel assembled to bust the myth that high-alcohol wines (14 percent or higher) taste and score better. Heimoff, with more than 20 years of experience covering California’s wine industry, recalled that in the 1970s, wine quality was the issue in California’s wine circles, not alcohol levels. “Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the push was to boost quality and match French wine quality,” he said, adding that ripeness; the absence of harsh, green tannins in the fruit; and balance were the goals.
High-alcohol wines gained traction in the late 1990s at the same time that wine critic Robert Parker, Jr., and others began giving high scores to super-ripe wines, according to Heimoff.
“Conventional wisdom was that Robert Parker, Jr., was the cause of high alcohol. Everybody said that he preferred super ripe wines from the Rhone Valley and California, and because he was the dominant force in world wine reviewing, the theory was that a winemaker who dared not march to his preference was in danger,” he said. “Was it true? Yes.”
While some point to climate change as a primary reason that Brix levels in harvested fruit are higher now than years ago, Heimoff suggested otherwise. He believes that higher Brix levels in California grapes in recent years are due to the quest for high scores. Data of the California Department of Agriculture show that the statewide average Brix level for Cabernet Sauvignon wine grapes in 2010 was 24.1°, up from 23.2° in 1994.
In the Napa Valley, the average in 2010 was 24.5°.
The Brix range (24–27°) at which winemakers typically harvest grapes now would shock winemakers of 30 years ago, he said. “What was different back then? No Parker. No [Wine] Spectator.”
Do high-alcohol wines taste better?
They can be richer, more full-bodied and intense, but they can also be hot, overextracted, and unbalanced, just as low-alcohol wines can be, Heimoff said. “Fifteen percent alcohol is a guarantee of nothing.”
High-alcohol wine producers risk turning off a growing cadre of consumers who are complaining on social media about the health aspects of high-alcohol wines, he said. Some claim that food-friendly wines are those lower in alcohol, not the high alcohol “fruit bombs.”
Juan Muñoz Oca, head of winemaking at Columbia Crest Winery in Paterson, Washington, said that as Brix goes up, alcohol levels go up. Winemakers want grapes with ripe flavors and phenolics, which is one reason they aim for higher sugar levels. Alcohol adds weight to the wine and helps cope with tannins and fruitiness.
Glycerol is a key element to high-alcohol wine, he said, because it helps coat the palate, balance tannins, add fatness and roundness in the mouth, and minimize the heat from higher alcohol levels. “We do a lot of things to maximize glycerol in the wine.”
Do high-alcohol wines score higher? Not necessarily, but Heimoff conceded that the A-list of wine reviewers like high alcohol wines.
Josh Maloney, director of winemaking at Milbrandt Vineyards in Mattawa, Washington, and former red winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, said that high-alcohol wines tend to stand out in a blind tasting. “When I do a blind tasting with a flight of five or six wines, four or five will be very similar, and a couple will be very different. The wines that stick out are the wines that get the most attention.” High-alcohol wines tend to stand out from lower alcohol wines, he said, adding that if the wine has good attributes, it might be perceived to be better in that instance.
“But is that the wine you want to bring home and drink?” he mused. “If the goal was a big wine score, I would absolutely look at the alcohol level to influence the score.”
Do wine scores really matter? Not to Christophe Hedges, director of sales and marketing for Hedges Family Estate, Benton City. Hedges Estate doesn’t submit wines for review, he said, adding that he also doesn’t believe in blind tastings, as wines should be tasted in context.
“We try to create wines with a sense of geography because geography is the one authentic component in wine.” If certain regions tend to produce wines that historically have higher alcohol levels that show the geography of the wine better, then “go for it,” he said.
While wine critics have influenced wine styles and alcohol levels, California wine critic Heimoff believes the trend of high-alcohol wine is shifting rapidly.
For one, the top wine critics, such as Parker of the Wine Advocate and James Laube, Wine Spectator, are baby boomers and will soon be retiring, he noted. The aging generation is being replaced by a new generation of wine drinkers and critics that uses blogs, Twitter, and Facebook to share their message.
Moreover, established wine marketing rules are being thrown out the window, and the wine market world is chaos, Heimoff said.
Sweet Muscat wines called Moscato have taken the wine world by surprise, becoming popular with urban hip-hop and rap performers and millennial-generation drinkers. More than 2.8 million cases were sold last year, according to the Nielsen Group. Sweet red wines are now a market category, and red wine blends have been one of the fastest-growing segments in the past year.
“The tastes and values of the young generation may be so diffuse and catholic as to make the winemaker’s job even more maddening.”
He pointed out there is no longer “the” wine consumer but ten million of them, all drinking different varieties, price points, and styles of wine. “It’s a baffling, complex market.”
His advice to winemakers: make the wines you love, and put your heart and soul into it.