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Allen R. Balik — The Wine Exchange: Alcohol’s changing character
The Wine Exchange

Allen R. Balik — The Wine Exchange: Alcohol’s changing character

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: March 6, 2021 series
  • Updated

The first known winery, located in the Armenian Highlands near the village of Areni, was discovered in 2007 and dates back 6,100 years to 4,000 BC. The heritage of wine, however, actually predates that — rice wine made with honey and fruit — was detected on pottery shards in northern China.

No one really spoke about alcohol levels (abv) for it was simply assumed alcohol was the natural result of fermentation as a reflection of the variety, growing area and vintage. So its level did not necessitate further explanation. Everything changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Robert Parker introduced the 100-point grading scale that was quickly adopted by other critics and, today, remains a force.

The effect of this subjective 100-point scale on the market was quickly felt by producers. While Parker and others never directly advocated higher levels of alcohol as requisite (or in-fact desirable), the style they favored necessitated longer hang-times and extended ripeness (i.e. higher sugars) that led to elevated alcohols.

In short order, many producers realized specific stylistic changes were beneficial in appealing to Parker’s palate (and others following suit) in garnering 90-point plus scores for marketing purposes. Higher alcohol levels were just a peripheral consequence.

This stylistic “revolution” first presented itself in the New World showing obvious acceptance with Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and other popular varietal wines. It wasn’t long before established Old World producers in Bordeaux, Burgundy and other bastions of tradition also made the transition so their wines would not be left behind in the market.

Consequently, we’ve experienced several decades of wines picked later with higher sugar content leading to higher alcohols, lower acidity, softer tannins and more extracted flavors often coupled with a generous dose of oak. “Suddenly,” alcohol content became a point of conversation with supporters and opponents weighing-in on both sides.

Varietal character, sense of place (influence of terroir) and historical aromatic/flavor profiles began to change, leading the way for an entire generation of consumers to become entrenched in the new and bolder styles.

However, as the new century appeared on the horizon, the pendulum began swinging back to more traditional styles as new consumers (millennials and others) entered the market. They brought with them a disregard for the critics’ influence and a willingness to explore under-the-radar wines demonstrating freshness, bright flavors and lower alcohol.

Looking back on wines from the pre-100-point influence we can find abv traditionally at 12 to 13 or so percent. Over the last several decades, this has increased to a “reasonable” 14.5 percent with others considered acceptable at 15 plus percent and many even higher.

The Tax and Trade Bureau’s (TTB formally BATF) regulations permit a one percent labeling swing (up or down) with wines over 14 percent. This means that the wine you’re enjoying tonight with a stated abv on the label of 14.5 percent may legally be up to 15.5 percent.

Compared to the normal level of 12.5 percent so common before the late 1970s, many rationalize the increase to 14.5 is only 2 percent. However, this is not really the case. The 2 percent increase translates to an actual 16 percent increase in alcohol intake that begins to show with that second or third glass at the dinner table. And the numbers increase rapidly as our table wines start to reach 15 or 16 percent.

I have long been a fan of wines traditionally made with excessive alcohol such as Port, Madeira, Sherry and other fortified examples where levels approach and even exceed 20 percent. But that’s the traditional style of these wines and the fortification process is intended to halt fermentation and achieve these levels. Certainly not true for dry table wines meant to enhance the meal and complement the cuisine.

Some producers, and especially specific Old World growing areas, have resisted the move to over-ripeness and higher alcohol to garner higher scores. Instead, they have chosen to maintain their traditional stylistic profiles. The result is the evolution of two distinct groups: the “pick’em early” and the “let’em hang” devotees.

The latter group looks at higher alcohol levels as a byproduct of the need for intense flavor development while the former perceives lower alcohol as an added benefit of maintaining higher acids and traditional varietal character.

Both groups recognize the need for phenolic maturity (the development of intricate flavor components) that continues to advance as the grape ripens. Yet, they differ on when optimum levels are reached and whether continued ripening enhances or overpowers varietal characteristics.

Regardless of which group you fall into (I must admit, I gravitate heavily to the pick’em early folks) it’s important to understand the reality of high alcohol levels in wine. Alcohol itself adds sweetness to the palate that is often increased when fermentations become stuck and residual sugar remains. And, despite what many critics say in their reviews and opinion pieces, higher alcohol (especially when accompanied by lower natural acidity), does not bode for longer aging and is not the best compliment to food.

Having traveled this twisting road of stylistic turmoil for several decades, the wine industry now finds itself in the midst of the next “alcohol” challenge. Last year, for multiple reasons, was the first in 25 years where domestic wine consumption fell. Yet the popularity of low- and non-alcoholic beverages has been surging internationally from a fringe sector to one that has its place in all segments of the drinks business.

Beer producers are joining the low- to non-alcohol movement with brands such as “Heineken 0.0%” and others, including craft beers, with 0 to 0.5 percent entries. The hard seltzer category (essentially flavored alcoholic sparkling waters) has firmly established its base with brands like White Claw and Truly. Last week, the Wall Street Journal and SoFi Daily News talked about the commitment of prominent beer and wine producers entering the lucrative seltzer market with billion-dollar investments.

According to James Brumley in his The Motley Fool post last March, “Hard seltzers…tick a lot of boxes for many consumers, and for millennials in particular [and] have proven themselves more marketable to women than beer as an alternative to wine…” Brumley also noted that, “… a survey by Wine Intelligence indicates that seltzer is chipping away at wine’s popularity.”

To combat this trend, some wine producers are looking at the promise of sparkling wines (lower alcohol) in cans with Trinchero and Gallo (under their Barefoot brand) leading the way. Others are sure to follow.

Several Old World growing areas in cooler climates have also seen a rise in popularity with younger wine drinkers. Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Alsace and specific regions in Italy’s northeast mountains are leaders with varietal contributions that tantalize the taste-buds with lower alcohols and bright acidity.

An affirmation of the “less-is-more” concept with alcohol showed prominently in the December 2020 Decanter Magazines’ picks for “Weekend” and “Weekday” wines. Selections from around the world appeared on the lists and of the 40-plus choices (red, white, rosé and sparkling), two-thirds had abv from 11 to 13.5 percent. The balance was mostly 14 percent with a few at 14.5 percent. Only one wine was listed above 14.5 that was a fortified Sherry, which calls for significantly higher alcohol by tradition and winemaking protocol.

With a renewed focus on health and changing lifestyles so prominent today, it is clear that winemakers, vintners and producers (large and small) must adapt to the shifting character of alcohol in wine. The market is changing rapidly and a new focus is on the pragmatic Generation Z. The entire industry must be poised for continuing shifts in the popularity of lower alcohol in wine and other beverages.


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Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 30 years.

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