John JuergensBoozy wines

Are you in the habit of checking the alcohol content on the wines you buy? If not, you might consider getting into the habit, because the alcohol levels in many wines from all over the world have been increasing steadily.

A friend who runs a mail-order wine club confided that he is getting very concerned about the trend of many California wine makers to produce wines with high alcohol and low acidity. It is very common now to find all kinds of wines, red and white, with alcohol levels up in the 14 percent range and higher, and some red Zinfandels occasionally stray above 16 percent. Not that long ago, 13.5 percent was considered high. According to my friend, wine makers say this is what the public is demanding, so that is what they are producing.

You might say, "Hey, what's the problem? More bang for the buck, right?"

Before I answer that, a little refresher on wine production:

Before ripening, grapes begin with just about all acid and no sugars, as do all fruits. As the fruit matures, it develops sugars while the acids tend to recede. Just as with any fruit, a great part of the artistry in wine making is to knowing just the right time to harvest the fruit to get the right balance between sugars and acidity. It is sort of a teeter-totter relationship: high acid with low sugars and fruit flavors vs. low acid with high sugars and fruit flavors.

But unlike other fruits, which are typically ready to consume at harvest, wine grapes go through another highly complex developmental process that turns them into a completely different food product. The timing of the harvest, then, is one of the primary ways a wine maker can adjust the starting materials to arrive at a certain style of the finished product.

It appears that many modern wine makers are leaving the grapes on the vine longer to achieve higher sugar levels, which translates into higher alcohol content ... with a commensurate reduction in the acid content. But acidity gives wine a lively taste and feeling on the palate, and it also helps preserve the wine as it ages. Low-acid wines have a flat or flabby feel in the mouth, not unlike a flat soft drink or beer, and they tend to deteriorate quickly.

I know this is an oversimplification of a very complex process, but the point is that there are some serious trade-offs associated with making high-alcohol wines.

Acid-sugar balance is the basis of the primary difference between wines in the "old world" and "new world" styles. Most northern European wine growing regions have a shorter growing season than New World wine regions. Therefore, northern European wines generally have less time to generate high sugar levels, and they retain fairly high acid levels. There also is less time to develop the big, rich tropical fruit flavors that are so characteristic of new world wines. Consequently, old world wines traditionally have a lower alcohol content, so they may require time in the bottle to soften the acids and other chemicals such as tannins, as well as to develop their usually more delicate fruit flavors.

The bottom line is that new and old world countries tend to have similar but opposite challenges in striving to make balanced wines. That is, in particularly cool years, many wine makers in Europe (where the law allows) will have to add a touch of sugar to their grape juice, called chaptalization or sugaring, to achieve an acceptable alcohol level in the final product. New world wine makers, on the other hand, frequently will have an excess of sugar but too little acid, so they have to add acid ("acidification") to keep their wines from being flabby and unstable.

An interesting sidelight to this fundamental production issue is that while the addition of sugar is a time-honored tradition in most of Europe, some European countries are trying to bar new world wines that have adjusted acid levels, calling them adulterated or manufactured wines. Something tells me this is more about turf protection than concern for legitimate wine making techniques.

Complicating this picture, marketing trends suggest that the younger European generations are not as wed to traditional regional wine making techniques, and they are embracing in a big way the more powerful and fruit-forward style of new world wines. So what appears to be happening in some parts of Europe is a dual wine making philosophy comprising both an "if-you-can't-fight-them strategy" and a "damn-the-torpedoes" attitude. In other words, mnay countries are making some of their wines in a more new world style for the upcoming generations, while continuing to make traditional styles for the old homeys.

So back to my friend's concerns. What difference does it make? Basically, it means wines with a high alcohol - low acid structure are out of whack. They tend to be hot going down and will seem sweet because alcohol contributes to the perception of sweetness. Low acid means the wines just lay there on your palate with little signs of life, kind of like a large proportion of the U.S. male population on Sundays during football season.

The other night I had a California Barbera with 15.1 percent alcohol, and as a friend described it, it felt like acid reflux in reverse. It burned all the way down, and when it hit my stomach I got an intense burning sensation as if I had taken a shot of straight whiskey. In fact, the wine sort of had a whiskey aroma to it, and the alcohol was about all we could taste in the wine.

As far as I'm concerned, I don't think wine drinking should be a painful experience, unless, of course, you overdo it and end up with a deserved headache. My wine club friend is worried because he says he can't get away from these big, boozy wines because that is all his suppliers will sell him.

So I'm here to tell the wine industry, I don't know who is doing your market research, but the people I drink wine with do not want these massive, homogenized alcoholic fruit bombs with little sense of location. Let's get back to some sense of balance and an expression of terroir so we can enjoy several wines with different courses at our dinner parties instead of being blown away by our 15 or 16 percent cocktail wines. If we want a stiff jolt, we'll have a martini, Scotch and soda, vodka and tonic, or a straight-up Bourbon.

August 2005

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