High Levels of Alcohol In Wine Are Not Cool Anymore

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Spinning Cone Technology
This relative new technology reduces alcohol in wine and not impact aromas and flavors. Spinning Cone by name.

The trend for less alcohol in wine should not be a surprise to anyone. Four years ago I was writing about the coming negative impact of high alcohol in wines, with consumers. At the time I wrote an article about a company in Sonoma County California that has a successful business removing alcohol from some wines without impacting the aromas or taste of the wine. That patented technology was developed in Australia.

Today it is not uncommon to find wines with alcohol levels above 16%. Actually, the advertised alcohol levels on the label, by law, can vary by 1.5% above or below the amount noted on the label. That fact can allow some wines to be 17% alcohol. As reported by Daefalus Howell, the University of California, Davis, “found that the alcohol content in the majority of wines, both white and red, sold in the world over the last decade is, on average, was 0.42% higher than claimed on the label.” But this phenomenon has been going on for at least 20 years. I can remember when I started drinking bottled wine, the alcohol level was 11% and that alone made beer a beverage of preference, at 6% or 3.2% in Kansas.

James T. Lapsely, a professor of Viticulture at the University of California, Davis, wrote a paper on the subject of alcohol levels in wine and attributed it to increased sugar levels in grapes at crush. He claimed the increase in alcohol has been a result of an increase in sugar levels of grapes because of vineyard management and other reasons. This can be a function of temperatures and leaving grapes on the vine longer. Dr. Lapsely says, a 10% increase in sugar concentration would result in 10% for alcohol.

So who cares? Well, it seems that a lot of people care about the alcohol creep in their wine. A few years ago I had a conversation with a cardiologist about the negative aspects of high triglycerides. He said; you need some triglycerides for good health. But high triglycerides might raise your risk of heart disease. Elaborating, he said a primary cause of high triglycerides is believed to be drinking a lot of alcoholic beverages. Based upon that we know some wine is good for your health and too much alcohol in a wine can be bad. But, even the Bible says a little wine is good for your stomach. However, let’s not get tied up in a definition of “a little”.

Moving on from the issue of health as a reason not to want a high alcoholic wine, we can get into some esoteric reasons. Personally, I do not like what I call vapor shock of a wine; technically called a “hot wine”. The vapor from alcohol seems to shock my olfactory senses to a point that it is almost like the effects of too much horseradish. Vapor effect destroys one of the fun part of drinking wine-the aroma’s and trying to capture all of the complexities of the wine.

Lastly, there may be a case made that high alcohol in wines at the winery can cover a multitude of sins; using poor quality grapes to keep costs down and higher sugar content grapes can also mask some issues of poor acidity and tannins in cheaper wine. A few years ago a winemaker said he was increasing alcohol because the marketing group at the winery wanted more “robust” wines. He said it improved taste profiles which younger wine drinkers wanted. So much for research.

As wine demand increases we are also seeing more vines planted in hotter areas and growing wine grapes in hotter areas, like the central valley of California, this fruit comes with more sugars. It is also a fact that a lot of the wine media carry reviews of wine and if a high alcohol wine gets a good review you can bet other wineries will start producing higher alcohol wines and thus the vicious cycle starts; the consumer becomes influenced and so goes the cycle.

Howell extrapolates that the state of alcohol in wines is changing, “Some industry veterans predict a sea change in upcoming vintages, with a general trending-down of alcohol percentages. A gradual shift in consumer taste, or at least in markets whose palates have developed toward more nuanced wine.”

A week ago I attended a large wine tasting and at each winery booth I heard a disproportionate number of people wine tasting asking about the alcohol levels in the wine, even before it was poured. Never before have I experienced such concern about alcohol levels in wine. No one expressed pleasure when alcohol levels were stated to be at 15.5% levels.

Exactly 3 years ago today I wrote the above article and today a new article appeared in “Wine Industry Network” from Europe that addresses this same issue.

Demand rising for low-to-no-alcohol wines

Wednesday, 13. February 2019 – 10:30