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.

In their defense, they’re after another kind of ripeness too, not just big fruit. The tannins in a wine come from skins, seeds, and stems, and when those parts are still green at picking time, the wine can be rough and astringent. Winemakers are monitoring that “phenolic ripeness” more than ever, and since it often lags behind sugar levels, they have an alcohol bomb on their hands by the time the seeds and stems are brown and mellow.

Seeking middle ground

Technology has kept up, though. If winegrowers have the wherewithal to coax both fruit and phenols to super ripeness, winemakers have their ways of getting rid of some of the resulting alcohol, including extracting it mechanically after fermentation.

It comes down to taste. What do we want our wines to be? Europeans never had to ask that question; with generally colder weather, they were barely able to eke out enough ripeness. So nuances of gravel and green olive took precedence over plums and berries.

There’s a paradox at work now: Many European vintners are adjusting their practices in pursuit of greater ripeness (and higher Parker scores); at the same time, winemakers here have been seeking more cool-region grapes for those complex elements that the French, for example, come by naturally. We have choices. And there’s middle ground, where the gamut of flavors in a variety can play with food through a long, lively meal ― without getting us drunk in the process.

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