I’m listening to some of the reports coming out of Bordeaux with alarm. The 2009 vintage has a dark side: high alcohol. The wine of one famous chateau weighs in at a heady 15.6% alcohol. In Bordeaux? This is a region that used to make great wines at around 12% alcohol. Not any more.
There are some misconceptions about why high alcohol can be problematic. It’s not the fact that the wine is more intoxicating – after all, you can simply drink less of it. Nor is it impossible to find delicious wines at high alcohol levels (for example, I’m a fan of Port, Sherry and Madeira, which have considerably higher alcohols than most table wines).
I think there are two (related) problems with high alcohol.
The first is that alcohol affects the perception of other components of the wine. I’m not talking here about the effects of alcohol on the taster, but rather that as the alcohol level rises, it changes the way that the fruit, body, sweetness and structure of the wine is perceived, as well as altering the aromas.
This is demonstrated clearly in sweet spot tastings, where the same wine has its alcohol levels adjusted by reverse osmosis or spinning cone. There are dramatic differences between the same wine at, say, 14.5% alcohol and 12% alcohol. These sorts of experiments show that alcohol is having a considerable effect on the way the other components of the wine are perceived. At lower alcohol levels the wine tastes much more savoury, with better definition of fruit and clearer aromatics.
The other problem with high alcohol levels is that these are usually achieved by picking the grapes late. In some cases, too late. This is a stylistic choice.
In the past Bordeaux wines frequently used to have a little greenness to them in their youth. There’s good greenness and bad greenness, and sometimes good greenness sets the wine up for long, elegant ageing. The desire to eliminate greenness and concentrate on ripe, sweet fruit flavours has led to picking later and taking smaller yields. Sometimes in Bordeaux a little more ripeness is welcome. But it is possible to go too far. Ripe, sweet wines bolstered by spicy new oak may be seductive, but this isn’t what made Bordeaux a great wine region. Add in high alcohol, and you haven’t got wines that will age 30 or 40 years like the classics of old.
Bordeaux (or, at least, a good portion of it) has changed. For the better? Well, that’s up to you to decide.