by Margaret Rand

The Weight Of Wine

What constitutes high alcohol now? In table wines, I mean; fortifieds haven’t changed. But I recall the horror when reds started hitting 14%. Then 14.5%. And now? 14% seems quite ordinary – well, it is ordinary. When you see 14.5% – which is also quite ordinary – you start to wonder what it is really, and how close to 15% it might really be. An when it says 15% on the label, you can be pretty sure it’s nearer to 15.5%.

Is 15% anything more than an imaginary barrier? Symbolically, it’s a fulcrum – like Wednesday. Before Wednesday it’s the beginning of the week. After Wednesday it’s nearly the weekend. What lies the other side of 15%? A headache? Inevitable low acidity?

It’s quite easy to find out. The southern Rhône, even Grenache from new-wave spots like McLaren Vale and Gredos, hits 15% and probably more without too much trouble. Grenache is like that. Does it matter? I’ve always thought that it does. But when pushed, I can’t really say why.

This is what winemakers – from Spain, from Italy, from the south of France, from California, from Chile ete etc etc, used to say: just get out your Typical Hot-Climate Winemaker Home-Assembly Kit, and wind it up to speak.

‘Alcohol is immaterial: it’s the balance of the wine that counts. And my vineyards are high up – have you seen them? It’s incredible terroir, and it gets so cold as soon as the sun goes down, you need a pullover, really you do. And what do you want? Green tannins? Tannins like Bordeaux used to have, when they had 12.5% alcohol and had to wait 20 years before drinking the wine? Bordeaux now gets 14% regularly now. You know that, don’t you? I want really soft, ripe tannins.

‘I want people to be able to drink the wine young – and people like that. If you look at people drinking in a restaurant, with a meal, you’ll see that the wines they drink most of are ones with ripe tannins. If it’s that or 12.5% and green tannins, honestly, people don’t like that any more.’

Interestingly, this is not what they say now. Well, a few do, but Assembly Kit Winemakers have been reprogrammed. Now, instead of extolling the virtues of ‘really soft, ripe tannins’ they talk about freshness, and precision, and picking earlier – which of course they couldn’t possibly have done before because if they’d picked one second earlier the tannins would have been green, just like a 1975 Médoc. Sometimes you need to take winemakers with a pinch of salt.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the desire to control alcohol levels (which is not universal) comes at a time when it is genuinely more difficult to do so. But not impossible: most viticultural changes in the 20th century were aimed at increasing ripeness. It should not be impossible to wind some of those back. Of course it’s not a question of looking at what increased ripeness, and doing the opposite: the climate isn’t just warmer, it’s wackier. There are things that can be adjusted: ploughing at different times, not cutting growing shoots, increased shade, permanent ground cover. As ever, it depends on particular circumstances: Lisa Togni says that the only reason that firefighters were able to save her vineyard, winery and the house up on Spring Mountain in 2020 was that there was bare earth between the vines. Had there been permanent ground cover that would have been that.

This is to suppose that high alcohol – whatever that is, now – is undesirable. Togni says that over 14% her wines are unbalanced. Ramón Bilbao’s 1982 Gran Reserva, undoubtedly made from higher yields than nowadays and less concentrated, has 12% alcohol, and is ageing beautifully. But consumers don’t particularly seem to care about alcohol: it’s the gatekeepers – buyers and sommeliers – who care. And if the balance is there, then arguably the alcohol doesn’t matter. At a lunch for Torbreck recently the wines were all 15 or 15.5%, and no, you didn’t notice the alcohol on the palate. I have just returned from Toro, where 14.5% counts as normal, and some winemakers seem to regard even 15% as low. Yes, they’re picking earlier for more freshness, and yes, the alcohol is mostly well tucked-in, provided you drink the wines at cellar temperature, but they seem to regard a fixation on alcohol levels as a quaint northern habit, like wondering if it might rain, and dining at 8.00pm.

But one of the things that makes wine so pleasurable is that you can drink quite a lot of it. It can go on throughout dinner, a paced accompaniment to good food and good company. Whisky is delicious, and goes with food, but you can’t drink much of it unless you dilute it, and if you dilute it to wine strength it tastes dilute. You can drink much less of a 15% wine than you can of an 8% German Kabinett, or even of Wynns Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, which still comes in at 13.5%. The 15.3% Châteauneuf I tasted last year, with four grams of residual sugar, was heading to Amarone country. And not good Amarone, either.

The options are: change the viticulture, change the grape varieties or change the vineyard. Or accept ever-higher alcohol. All are being tried, across the globe. But if you look at Champagne you get a slightly different picture. Different vineyards, yes – Pinot Noir from north-facing sites is increasingly useful for its bitter edge. But there’s also the ‘C’ word – chaptalisation. They don’t still, do they? Could they?

The answer is that yes they could, and they do. Less, though. Dominique Demarville of Lallier says that chaptalisation in Champagne has halved over the last 30 years, and in the future they won’t need it at all, if they can reach 11% naturally. They managed that in 2020 and 2022. But in 2023 the Pinots needed a bit of help. ‘If you don’t have 11% you don’t have balance,’ he says. Without 11% (before the prise de mousse) the wine won’t age well; and in the future he expects acid to play a lesser role in preserving the wine while it ages. Alcohol will have to do that instead.

Not that it’s a zero-sum game of acid and sugar in Champagne: acid drops with ripeness according to the year, not as a function of rising sugar. ‘We still have a lot to learn about levels of acid and levels of sugar,’ he says. And Didier Mariotti of Veuve Clicquot points out that what balances sugar in wine in bitterness, not acidity.

I leave you with a most mischievous suggestion made some years ago by the late Mike Roberts of Ridgeview in England: the Champenois will never give up chaptalisation, he said. Sugar is so much cheaper than grapes.

Pinch of salt? Or pinch of sugar?

Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

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