I have been railing against the rising alcohol levels in all new world wines, over the last fifteen some odd years, for some time now. After reading an interesting post on "the gray market report", about Siduri Pinot Noirs and the perceived high alcohol levels, I felt moved to post a comment on that site. This post also has moved me to make the argument for lower alcohol levels on my own blog. So here goes!
I have been either a wine consumer or retailer for almost twenty years and have noticed alcohol levels climb from a high of 13 to 14 percent at the high end for Zinfandel to those percentages serving as the floor for most all new world wines, including whites. Some on the production end of the wine business have plead that this because the grapes must be ripe to make good wine. This may be true, although we are most likely in line for climate change from global warming, I do not think that the effect can be cited for the dramatic change over the past dozen years or so. These increases largely parallel the growing strength of the wine writer to move the market through their ratings. How does this effect alcohol in wine? Well one way of creating a high scoring wine and thus more sales is to make a big ie: high alcohol wine.
I have had some high alcohol wines which I considered to be exceptionally good, so what is my beef with high alcohol wines? Well simply put, in this day and age of greater attention to drunk driving and drinking during pregnancy, these elevated alcohol levels have reduced the enjoyment of a night out or a simple glass of wine after a hard day. I have repeatedly seen couples come to our wine tasting and one will restrict their consumption to remain sober enough to drive home. I am not saying they should drive drunk, but that an increase of 2 to 3 percent reduces the amount of wine a small person can consume without fear. The simple fact that a wine may not taste "hot", as is the argument made in the post cited above, does not let these well made wines off the hook. In many ways this is even worse because most people do not check alcohol levels on the wine they consume, so if it tastes good it becomes much easier to finish that bottle and in the process become legally impaired. If the wine tastes "hot" at least the consumer is forewarned.
What is the answer to this? I am not a wine maker and I realize that there will be years when grapes will be exceptionally ripe, whether the wine maker wants them that way or not. I recently had the opportunity to meet Dan Phillips, owner of importer Grateful Palate, and I asked him about high alcohol levels in the bulk of their wines. His response was in part surprising. He said that the grapes dictated the high alcohol levels in order to ripen. This argument is certainly more understandable than his follow up reason. To my surprise, he said somewhat defensively that people drink wine for the alcohol. I find this to be largely absurd. I have run into a few people who do drink wine for the alcohol, but by and large these people have not been wine drinkers, but were alcoholics. I have recounted this conversation with a number of my wine drinking friends and all have shared my incredulity.
I do not see anything changing anytime soon and perhaps the winemakers are correct and the grapes require the high alcohol levels. It would be interesting though, if the bulk of the wine writers started to call for lower levels of alcohol and if they started rating those few wines higher, would we then see levels decrease? Until then I will continue to advocate for more reasonable alcohol levels.