The SOMM Journal

August/September 2014

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86 { THE SOMM JOURNAL } AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2014 { wine science } IN THE LATEST PIECE IN THIS SERIES ON WINE FAULTS we're going to be looking at a topic that's rarely thought of as a "fault," but which may be more of a problem for wine quality than all the other "faults" added together. It's the thorny subject of high alcohol levels. Like some other "faults," it's difficult to be proscriptive and say that high alcohol is always a flaw. You can't say that a wine with 14.5% or even 16% alcohol is faulty. It depends on the context and—to a degree—the opinion of a taster. But just as with such as Brettanomyces or reduction, you have to pose the question a bit more subtly. It's best to ask not "Is this wine faulty?" but rather "Would this wine be better with less alcohol?" In this article I'll try to explain why I think high alcohol levels are such a problem, and what can be done about them. Alcohol Levels Have Risen Although it is hard to come up with clear data points on this, aver- age alcohol levels in wine have been rising in recent years. When I began drinking wine in earnest some 15 years ago, it was quite com- mon to find table wines at 12%, and 13% seemed high. Now, levels of 14% are common, and 14.5% isn't seen as particularly unusual. Wines at 15% alcohol aren't rare, even though many people are still a little surprised when they see this figure on the label. Anecdotal observations such as this seem to be backed up by data where they are available. The Australian Wine Research Institute published data on alcohol levels in a large sample of Australian wines. For whites the average rose from 12.2% in 1984 to 13.2% in 2000 before falling back to 12.5% in 2004. In reds, over this period the level has risen steadily from 12.4% to 14%. For California, a comparable data set showed a rise from 12.5% in 1978 to 14.8% in 2001. Why is this? There are several contributory fac - tors, but the primary driver seems to be stylistic. Winemakers have realized that consumers tend to prefer the easy, ripe fruit flavors that come from pick- ing later. If you pick later, sugar levels in grapes are higher, which, all other things being equal, translates to more alcohol, high low and HIGH ALCOHOL IN WINES IS AN ENGAGING ISSUE, BOTH STYLISTIC AND SCIENTIFIC Open-top fermenters have been cited by some as being useful in the fight against alcohol. I have heard figures quoted suggesting that as much as 1% alcohol reduction is possible through alcohol being blown off during the fermentation process. by Jamie Goode, Ph.D. A cause of rising alcohol levels could be the increased efficiency of yeast strains in converting sugar into alcohol.

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