The rise and rise of alcohol

Sebastian Payne, MW

Paul Draper was on form at the Ridge tasting in November last year. A man of great charm, integrity and influence for good in the world of wine, he was uncharacteristically damning about California wine producers. Too many producers, particularly in the Napa Valley, seek super-ripe fruit at the cost of high alcohol.

American consumers (and indeed the international wine world) are greatly influenced by the scores of two publications – The Wine Spectator and Parker’s Wine Advocate. Both appear to be seduced by high alcohol, superripe fruit and ‘gobs of new oak’. Paul had heard that The Wine Spectator would award high marks only to wines over 15% alcohol by volume. A roll call of Napa producers revealed only two, Christian Moueix at Dominus and Stag’s Leap, who make wines below 14%.

The American palate has traditionally preferred stronger, more assertive tastes than we are used to in Europe. Sweeter, saltier, spicier, bigger can be seen to be better. In large ‘blind’ tastings high alcohol wines make their presence felt while a subtler flavour may go unnoticed.

Wine producers know that most people prefer wines not to have unripe acidity or mouth puckering tannins, so they pick grapes later, riper and sweeter and try to eliminate poor quality grapes from the vats. As a result alcohol levels in wines worldwide have risen by a degree on average in the last 30 years. The famous 1948 Mouton-Rothschild was 10.5%. The 2008 will be 12.5% or 13%.

The key, of course, is balance. 14% works for Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Napa red. 12.5-13% for a Claret. My grandfather quoted the motto written in the temple at Delphi – ‘Nothing in excess’ – an unexciting reminder to a teenager. Now I am nearer his age, I have learned that he and the Greeks had a good point.

Sebastian Payne MW
Chief Wine Buyer

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