Ripe for the waiting
Big fruit puts big alcohol in your glass
Suddenly, winemakers, writers, and chefs are talking about the elephant in the room: the amount of alcohol in our wine. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the average percentage of alcohol in a West Coast bottle has ticked up dramatically, from between 12 and 13 percent to 14, 15, and even higher. A couple of weeks ago, I had an Oregon Pinot Noir ― a wine usually praised for nuance and subtlety ― that was listed at 16 percent. Nothing subtle there. But winemakers aren’t bent on causing rampant drunkenness. They’re after something else ― and we’re partly to blame.
In this country, the first thing most of us look for in a wine are fruit flavors. Wine critics are doing the same thing: analyzing all the elements, but especially picking up on big, ripe fruit because that’s what stands out in a lineup. But the longer the grapes hang, getting riper, the sweeter they get. And that sugar turns into alcohol. So it’s those big, high-alcohol wines that win the high scores ― most famously from Robert Parker Jr. of The Wine Advocate ― and, more to the point, fly off shop shelves. It’s safe to say that Parker’s opinions have affected winemaking worldwide.
“Ready to pick” ripeness used to be determined mainly by the sugar level in the grapes. The chemistry generally worked out right ― in good years, when the yeast finished eating up all the sugar during fermentation, the resulting alcohol level was in balance with healthy tannins and acid, creating a lively wine that’s great with food. Now, in pursuit of those 90-plus scores, winemakers are letting grapes hang, sometimes to the shrivel stage.