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Wine alcohol levels out of control?

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At lunch the other day with a wine broker, he was bemoaning the proliferation of high-alcohol wines. “They’re being made with raisins these days,” he complained. He’s not alone in bitching about boozy vino. There are even sommeliers, restaurateurs and retailers who won’t serve or sell wines beyond a certain alcohol percentage—usually 14 percent.

What’s the problem? Doesn’t all wine contain alcohol? Well, of course it does. Alcohol occurs naturally in wine: Grapes ripen and accumulate sugar. That sugar is converted into alcohol during the fermentation process. It’s been that way since Day 1 of winemaking. And yet, the hot-button issue in the wine world these days is alcohol levels in wine.

According to a study led by University of California Davis researcher Julian Alston, sugar levels in grapes grown in California have jumped significantly over the past 10 to 20 years—approximately 9 percent. And, in tandem with those higher sugar levels, alcohol in wine has increased accordingly. Quite simply, the higher the sugar, the higher the potential alcohol of the wine.

Many scientists attribute the increase in grape sugar levels to climate change. But others place the blame directly on winemakers. They are making what one wine-expert colleague of mine calls “big tit” wines. They are big fruit bombs, highly extracted, with monstrous alcohol levels. In other words, the type of wine that powerful wine writer Robert Parker raves about.

Parker’s opinions are so significant that he has influenced the way some wine is made. In order to score high points in Parker’s Wine Advocate, it’s nearly mandatory to create wines that he himself has called “hedonistic fruit bombs.” These wines are usually made with uber-ripe grapes (what my friend called raisins)—they are lush and push or top 15 percent alcohol.

And so, there is little doubt that some winemakers—especially in California—are selecting riper fruit for their wines than previously, as a way of crafting big, bruising, highly extracted wines that appeal to Parker. Initially, the higher alcohol levels were limited to wines like Zinfandel and Syrah, made with varietals such as Grenache that naturally yield higher-alcohol wines. Increasingly, however, high alcohol levels are showing up in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and even Chardonnay.

But “the Parker effect” in the wine world may be waning. As Parker heads toward retirement, other wine experts at Wine Advocate have been given the task of reviewing and rating wines, and not all of them are in love with the ultra-ripe, high-alcohol fruit bombs that Parker adores. And, there’s been a backlash in California and elsewhere, as some winemakers have decided to give the finger to Parker and create modestly fruity wines that emphasize elegance and restraint over power and punch.

Personally, I don’t automatically dismiss high-alcohol wines. There is a place for alcohol in wine, even in the 15-percent-plus range. What’s important is balance. Many high-alcohol wines taste hot because the alcohol is out of balance with the fruit, acidity and tannins. But that’s not always the case. There are winemakers who are able to produce big, bombastic, high-alcohol wines that are well-balanced, if not exactly refined.

I’m not a fan of high-alcohol Pinot Noir from California. I’m more of a French Burgundy guy, looking for grace and elegance. But I’ve tasted high-octane Zins that were terrific. Ultimately, it’s up to the wine buyer to decide. If you enjoy a big, buxom wine, that’s fine, although they rarely pair well with food. I suggest trying something like Heron Pinot Noir at 13.5 percent alcohol next to Kosta Browne Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir at 14.8 percent to see which you prefer.

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