Too Much Alcohol in Wine or Too Many Wines with Imperfect Balance ?
8 JUILLET 2011
(An editorial by Guillaume Jourdan)
Fine wine and High-alcohol. Wine journalists consider it is time to write about this subject. Jon Bonne from San Francisco Chronicle decided to print the listed alcohol levels of each wine he recommends in the Food & Wine section. Britain's Decanter magazine also started to publish alcohol levels beginning in May. Why did they decide to do so ? SF Chronicle explains this move by suggesting "Our decision comes at a time when it is harder than ever to understand the implications of alcohol in wine."
This move confirms a general concern from consumers who ask for more information on the wines they drink. Giving more information about what's in the wine is very useful. Starting next year, some wines in Canada will carry a warning label with the words “Contains Eggs, Fish, or Dairy". In fact, some customers would like full nutritional information on the bottles - calories, sodium, carbohydrate, protein, fat and alcohol. Why not? It is on practically every other food and beverage. So, in that sense, knowing about alcohol content is a good information regarding wine. But does it say much about the wine itself ?
Sometimes I taste wines that contain 13.5 % alcohol and I find them burning. Then I taste a wine with 15% and alcohol is perfectly integrated in a fresh wine. Finding the balance of a wine, that is the key role of a successful winemaker. Without artifice. Take the example of the 2010 vintage in Bordeaux, a year that the world celebrated as one of the greatest vintages. This special year brought concentrated grapes, with full flavors and degrees that exceeded 15% for some vineyards. After tasting en Primeurs, the world realized that the greatest wines, even if they had a high alcohol content, had succeeded in keeping a perfect balance. The best successes in 2010 showed that alcohol was beautifully integrated even if its presence was important. However, some chateaux have found the balance of their 2010 wines at a lower level of alcohol. It was the case, for example, of Chateau Margaux with a surprising 13.5%. The choice of the winemakers was paramount.
Each year and everywhere in the world, the greatest winemakers have the extraordinary ability to find the ideal balance for their wines. In California, a Ridge Montebello Cabernet from Paul Draper or a Pinot Noir from Ted Lemon's Littorai are delicious wines. Their owners have found the perfect balance with alcohol and those wines often reach 13.5% - 14%. It's a fact! For a consumer, choosing a wine based on its alcohol level would be too simplistic. Especially since the wine is not made for tasting immediately. Each wine has its own life that sometimes gives an extra chance to alcohol for a better expression. Consider two examples. For some wine lovers, alcohol can interfere with Port. I feel so when I taste unbalanced Ports, with the unpleasant feeling that this alcohol burns my palate. But a great Port, such as a perfectly balanced Quinta do Noval Nacional 1994, delivers a silky feeling on the palate, even at an early stage. And, after tasting old vintages, we understand this alcohol gives a great pleasure after a few decades. Second example: Let's consider Chateauneuf du Pape, some of which are unbalanced and reveal a particularly disturbing alcohol. But others (with the same level of alcohol as the former ones) reveal great balance and get an extra dimension which could have never been revealed without the presence of this alcohol. Moreover, that alcohol becomes of a rare subtlety when those balanced wines have the chance to spend some 10-15 years in a cellar. In fact alcohol, balance and aging make up a whole.
Gone are the days for strong in alcohol, intense jammy, fruit forward wines. Very seductive in the beginning with overripe flavors, these wines are now boring for most wine drinkers. In fact, this trend is international and does not only concern mature markets. So, will it be helpful to print in magazines the listed alcohol levels of each wine recommended? Certainly, but not only for consumers. I am convinced that this will also result to raise awareness to the whole wine industry that we enter a new era in wine consumption. The message is clear: consumers want better food pairing wines and not those old fashioned, over-concentrated, over-oaked, burning wines strong in alcohol.