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