'Down with wine dogma' - a comment on the alcohol level debate

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A friend alerted me to this blog post by the excellent Ray Isle, which contains an open letter by Californian winemaker  Sean Thackrey on alcohol levels and wine. Thackrey is an eloquent and thoughtful voice in the wine world and his letter is worth a read.

While you are at it, you should probably also read Isle’s excellent article from last year – wine’s nastiest feud  – which is on the same topic.

Thackrey’s point? He thinks the move to picking earlier – thus producing wines with lower alcohol levels – is a fad. He thinks it is all a bit silly: wine is just a branch of the fashion world, and low alcohol happens to be in fashion at the moment. That’s all.

‘In fact, good wine is always made from ripe fruit, which means fruit ripe for the wine-maker’s particular purpose,’ says Thackrey. ‘So what’s the point of dogma in all this? Since no one disputes that excellent wine can be made from grapes comparatively lower in sugar, what is the point of arguing that this is so, when no one argues the contrary?’

He also suggests that those who claim that wine made with higher alcohol levels is undrinkable are merely making a noise for marketing reasons. I am not so sure.

I think Thackrey is railing against a straw man. Those of us who have a problem with overly alcoholic wines aren’t just being dogmatic or reactionary. Most 15.5% alcohol Cabernets taste disgusting, because they are picked too late. There may well be exceptions, but as a general rule of thumb, once you see a red table wine soar past 15% (and remember that label disclosure of alcohol can have quite a legal margin of error) it’s a good indicator – all other things being equal – that this wine won’t be very nice.

The problem isn’t the alcohol. It’s a style choice to pick late, and there are quite a few of us who don’t enjoy wines made from super-ripe fruit. I actually think that super-ripe fruit in red wines is a childish, beginners taste in wine. If you love those super-ripe red wines, that’s fine, but you will probably not like the sort of wines I recommend here. Besides, picking late results in wines that lose any sense of place. They also usually require interventionist winemaking to rescue them: addition of tartaric acid, addition of water, addition of yeast nutrients, and plenty of new oak to provide structure to bolster the soft tannins.

Thackrey may be right that the fashion is changing, moving away from these big, alcoholic wines. [In truth, they still have plenty of fans, although almost all my colleagues and most of the sommeliers and wine merchants I know don’t like them at all.] But he’s wrong to dismiss it as a fad.

Yes, we should avoid dogma, and despite what I have said here, I’m open minded and I hate dogma – and I’m well aware of the blinkering effect of confirmation bias. But I really think this shift to more appropriate ripeness that is taking place across the wine world is a significant and much needed change. And wine is getting better and more interesting because of it.

There’s a place for ripe wines. After all, I love Vintage Port, with 20% alcohol and intense, rich fruit. But what we are seeing now is a shift back to the norm from a temporary collective insanity in the world of wine, and there’s still some more shifting to be done.

9 comments to ‘Down with wine dogma’ – a comment on the alcohol level debate

  • Jamie, you say that “Most 15.5% alcohol Cabernets taste disgusting”. That’s a personal view (which I might, or might not share), but not one that would resonate with the people who buy them. It’s like saying that Coke or Big Macs are disgusting.

    You may not like 15.5% Californian reds; many, many consumers really don’t like weedy, 12% European efforts. Just look at the steady reduction in wine consumption in France to the point where over a third of the population never drinks it at all. While the biggest trend is to off-dry roses and fruit-flavoured reds.

    I’m old enough to remember when ‘ripe’ in Burgundy was often 9%. The only way to get to the 12.5% on the label was by adding more than the legally allowed amount of sugar to the vats. (There was little ‘natural’ wine being made in Burgundy in the 70s and 80s).

    Jamie, you and I would probably agree on many turbo-charged reds. I just wouldn’t call them disgusting.

  • I agree with your statement that it is the tendency to pick at super-ripeness and not the actual level of alcohol that turns people away from so-called ‘turbo-wines’. I think that a lot also depends on the variety. For instance,Nerello Mascalese as well as high-end Nebbiolo seem to have a tendency towards higher levels of alcohol, and yet these are not always as dominating on the palate as you would expect of say a Cabernet Sauvgignon at 15%. These varieties seem to be able to go beyond 15% (at one point I remember Frank Cornelissen’s Contadino being at 16% even) without really losing finesse. At a recent tasting of Barolo 2010 I was surprised that the lowest level of alcohol was 14.5%, yet none of the wines came across as heavy or tiresome.

    Don’t you think that it is also just a health or fitness concern amongst professionals to prefer lower levels of alcohol?

  • Thanks for the mention of Sean’s letter, Jamie (and for the nice comment on my article). My own tastes are probably more catholic than Sean’s, but I love his outspokenness, intelligence and willingness to be a provocateur. Couple of random thoughts:
    First, though I wouldn’t necessarily use the adjective childish, which seems just a tad bit judgmental about people just getting into wine, I’ve often thought that with people’s initial forays into things like wine they do tend towards “big” tastes—witness craft beer in the US & people initially heading towards super-hoppy IPAs and so on, and in single malts, where a lot of people just getting into them gravitate towards peatier/more intense versions. An untested theory, definitely, but just based on idle observation over time it seems possibly legit.
    Second, as you mention (and as I argued in my story) stylistic choices are key; talk these days tends to center on terroir/site expression/etc, but the winemaker’s esthetic agenda—whether for big-alcohol bruisers or lighter, more restrained wines or anything else—is a huge part of the wine as it is in the bottle.
    On the bright side, thank god wine allows for discussions like this. Imagine if we all had to write about milk instead.

  • I think his point is more subtle than you make out. It’s not that low alcohol wines are a fad per se but that there’s an element of fashion in claiming that lower alcohol means a wine is more sophisticated and French-tasting. His point, I think, is against dogma and that you should let the wine speak for itself. Don’t judge on the level of alcohol. What’s right for Amarone isn’t right for Champagne. From tasting his wines, I bet he dislikes unbalanced Napa Cabs as much as the next man. As an iconoclast, he’s warning against the next orthodoxy and trying to be a bit difficult. Low % is currently the big story in the wine world. I wonder how many people will jump on the bandwagon without thinking whether it’s right for their wine.

  • I agree: you can’t force a vineyard to produce a wine that isn’t its talent, without things going wrong

  • Nice one Jamie. I don’t quite get ST’s point about lower alcohol levels being a fad. Isn’t it more about the pendulum swinging? Completely agree with you re: 15.5% Cabernet’s. Might as well drink a Planter’s Punch.

  • Bob Parsons Alberta

    Mr Joseph states quote…”You may not like 15.5% Californian reds; many, many consumers really don’t like weedy, 12% European efforts. Just look at the steady reduction in wine consumption in France to the point where over a third of the population never drinks it at all”. Not at all sure which point the writer is referring to..weedy wines? Which French wines are you trounching here sir?

  • Brian M

    I’m sorry, Big Macs and Coke are objectively industrial “food products”. NOT good food in any sense of the word.

    Defending the Big Mac sorta negates any ability to comment on the taste of anything.

  • Mark B

    As a current winemaker of over 30 years, I can say that alcohol is not a good judge of how a wine will taste. With new yeasts that come out every year I am seeing a greater production of alcohol per percent of sugar consumed by the said yeast. 22% sugar used to give you 12.5% alcohol and now it goes up to 13% and higher, depending on the yeast stain used. A lot of grape varieties are perfectly ripe at 22% to 24% sugar levels. Which can give you alcohol levels of 15% and higher depending on the yeast used to ferment that sugar.

    Thank you.
    Mark

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